Menstrual Cups: You Should Be Using Them. Period.
First thing's first.
What the heck is a menstrual cup?
A menstrual cup is type of feminine hygiene product which is usually made of medical-grade silicone, shaped like a bell and is flexible. It is worn inside the vagina during menstruation to catch menstrual fluid (blood), and can be worn during the day and overnight.
So before we dive into the details, why use a menstrual cup in the first place? Why not just stick to pads or tampons?
I'm glad you asked. In order to answer those questions, let's look at four things:
1. Environmental impact.
2. Health impact.
3. Social impact.
4. Economic impact.
I care about the environment (which is why I'm vegan, and I compost, and recycle, and turn off lights and water when not in use, etc) so it's only natural that I try to reduce my waste, and pollutants. After all, this planet isn't mine. I'm only staying for a short while, and I'd like to leave it better off than when I arrived.
Because it’s virtually a one-time purchase, menstrual cups reduce the massive amounts of waste generated by pads and tampons. Each pad and tampon is individually wrapped and housed in a box or bag; many pads contain extra sheets or two of plastic to hold “wings” in place, and most tampons come with disposable plastic applicators. Not to mention the sheer number of tampons we use in a typical lifetime of menstruation. Say we menstruate for five days every month for forty years (this is likely an underestimate considering women enter menarche much earlier and go through menopause much later). On average, then, we use about 15 tampons per period if we are changing them based on the guidelines. That's 180 tampons per year, or about 7,200 tampons in a lifetime of menstruation. That's staggering. Imagine 7,200 tampons piled up in your front yard. In every menstruating woman's front yard. That's a lot of waste! By contrast, the cup requires throwing away only one cardboard box or no waste at all: Moon and Keeper cups are shipped in pouches instead of boxes, because latex and silicone cups are unlikely to be damaged in transit. Also, unlike pads and tampons, menstrual cups don’t contain dyes, odor neutralizers, scents, or other chemicals that can be harmful for the environment.
Silicone is not recyclable, but, since it starts out as sand, it degrades over time depending on the temperature, anaerobic activity and moisture in the landfill. This applies to all products made from silicone, like baby bottle nipples and toys. To dispose of your silicone menstrual cup, thoroughly wash the cup, cut it up into smaller pieces, and dispose in the trash.
Maybe you're concerned about your health more than anything? This is fair, considering our health is very important. The health aspects of things like tampons relates to their absorbency, bleaching agents, and ingredients, which can affect us through dioxin exposure and Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). TSS is a rare but potentially fatal condition caused by toxins produced by bacteria, linked to tampons in the 70s. It is characterized by nausea, vomiting, headaches, diarrhea, confusion, etc). In the 80s the CDC began testing, and forced these companies to pay damages to affected women. TSS risk tends to increase with absorbency of tampons, and when they're used improperly (taking them out too soon or too late). Not only this, cotton uses a large portion of the world's pesticides. And while pesticide residue will vary, there may be pesticides present on your tampons when in use. Cotton tampons also absorb natural fluids in your vagina, as well as your menstrual blood, which dries out the vagina and makes it more likely that the tampon will chafe at your vaginal walls, increasing risk for TSS. The cup just collects the blood, which results in less TSS-causing bacteria. And it is non-abrasive and won't chafe or tear the vaginal walls.
One of the first reactions that women have regarding the menstrual cup is "Ew, gross!". Somehow the thought of being even a little bit more intimate with our vaginas and our menstrual blood creeps people out. Personally, I don't get it, but I know where this stems from. From an early age, girls receive messages suggesting that their periods are shameful, embarrassing, and dirty. Girls tend to think of their period as unhygienic, something embarrassing to keep quiet about. Scholars have argued that the idea of vaginas and especially menstrual blood as unhygienic or shameful actually contributes to stigma against women.
"The word stigma refers to any stain or mark that renders the individual’s body or character defective. This stigma is transmitted through powerful socialization agents in popular culture such as advertisements and educational materials. We demonstrate, in our review of the psychological literature concerning attitudes and experiences of predominantly American girls and women, that the stigmatized status of menstruation has important consequences for their health, sexuality, and well-being. We argue that the stigma of menstruation both reflects and contributes to women’s lower social status and conclude with suggestions for ways to resist the stigma."
In some areas, there are even persistent myths that people who menstruate can taint food or defile idols with their touch. Have you ever read the Bible? A lot of it discusses how a woman is impure when she is on her period. This isn't doing wonders for our self-worth, and these messages and images are everywhere. They are embedded in our society.
By encouraging users to engage with their bodies during menses, the cup plays a subtle but pivotal role in normalizing periods and breaking this stigma. There's nothing wrong with your period blood, there's nothing dirty or gross or unsanitary about menstruation, and you shouldn't feel embarassed or ashamed. Just like you should feel able to openly discuss your bowel movements (as it is an important part of health) you should feel safe in discussing your gynecological health, too.
Say none of these reasons matters to you. Say you're a strictly numbers girl and you don't care about the environment, your health, or the social aspects (I hope that you care about all of these). Menstrual cups are extremely economical. Assuming you go through a small package of pads or tampons per period, you’re spending about $60 a year on menstrual products; in 2014, the feminine hygiene industry pulled in over $3 billion in profits. A menstrual cup, on the other hand, costs $30 to $40 and can last for up to a decade with proper care.
As you can see, menstrual cups are not only better for the environment, your health, and your wallet, they're also just plain logical. And I'm a logical gal.
To pre-empt other frequently asked questions: No, you can’t feel it once it’s in. Sometimes I actually forget that it's in because it is so much more comfortable than tampons. Tampons are very dry and scratchy, and I found I had to sit in awkward positions (on one hip, for example) to be comfortable, otherwise it would pinch or scratch. And unlike tampons, there's no risk for forgetting about it and leaving it in too long. The only risk you may run is some leakage if you have a heavy flow. However, it likely won’t overflow—for many women, one cup can fit an entire cycle’s worth of menstrual blood at once. In fact, one study found that the Mooncup leaked 0.5 times less frequently and required to be changed 2.8 times less frequently, on average, during one menstrual period than regular sanitary protection.
I was first introduced to menstrual cups a couple of years ago, when I stopped by my in-laws before I had to run to the store to grab some tampons. My sister-in-law then mentioned these menstrual cups, and how they're inserted in a similar way to tampons, but you only need to buy one and it can last you several years (depending on how well you take care of it). I was intrigued, because tampons are expensive and annoying, and I wanted to reduce my waste!
I'll admit, when I first saw it on the shelf I was a bit taken aback at how large it was compared to the tiny, finger-sized tampons I was accustomed to. But despite this, I bought a Diva Cup for about $34.99 from Target.
And I never looked back!
I went home, not yet on my period but eager to figure it out prior to this. I highly suggest trying it out before you actually need it; that way you can discover the best way to insert and take it out - without the mess. The menstrual cups usually come with instructions (so do tampons, in case you've forgotten how scary and confusing tampons were when you first started using them), and so if you read the instructions and follow them, insertion is a breeze, and so is taking it out. It's a bit of a learning curve, but once you get the hang of it after a couple of cycles, it will be like second nature to you.
So if you're thinking of buying a menstrual cup, but you want to know more, let me explain the process of insertion.
1. Always start with clean hands.
2. If you think it will help, you can also run the cup under water for more ease of insertion.
3. Holding the cup, push it together so the two sides come together, and then fold it in half.
4. Squatting is easiest, but find a positon that works for you. As with tampons, gently insert the folded cup into your vagina, tilting back to the base of your spine.
5. When the cup is inside, and open, it will create a light suction. Sometimes you can feel it opening and suctioning, don't be alarmed. The suction is how the cup prevents leaks, so use your finger to check that it is fully unfolded and there are no bends. Twist the cup if you need to, to ensure it is comfortable and well adjusted.
To remove it, with clean hands, gently pull the stem of the cup downwards until you can reach and grip the base of the cup. Pinch the base to release the suction and remove.You may need to use your pelvic muscles to push your cup lower in your vagina. These are the muscles that you use to stop and start peeing. Empty your cup into the toilet, and rinse your cup with warm water. Then simply re-insert and you're good to go.
What about cleaning and storing?
While you're on your period there's no reason to sterilize the menstrual cup in between insertions. Simply empty it, rinse it and re-insert.
Once your period is over, however, your cup should be sterilized before storing it for the next month. This is as easy as rinsing it and boiling it for five minutes in a pot of water. That, or you can purchase the cleaning products that the menstrual cup companies sell, but I never do. Then once it is clean and air-dried, simply store it in the pouch it came with. Easy!
It's also important to note that menstrual cups have small pin-hole sized holes around the brim. This is for proper suction, and when these become clogged, it can cause leakage. The best way to clean these holes is to use your fingers under running water to stretch the material and allow the water to flow through. In most cases this should clean them out. I always keep a needle handy just in case, to push through the little holes to remove anything that might be clogging them.
Be sure not to use any harsh products on them that may damage the cup, like tea tree oil, soaps, rubbing alcohol, etc.
What about in a public washroom? This is a question I get asked a lot, and I have to wonder how often these people are using public washrooms that they think they'll need to empty their cup in a twelve hour period. I have NEVER once had to empty my menstrual cup in a public washroom. Not once. Twelve hours is a very long time. Generally, I empty it at night before bed, in the morning so I start my day with an empty cup, and again when I get home. That's less than twelve hours apart, and I still manage to do it at home.
With that being said, I understand that there are extenuating circumstances. Sometimes we are working long shifts, we're traveling, or we forget. In that case, try to use a private washroom whenever possible, one with only one stall, and a door that locks. This will allow you some privacy and you'll be able to rinse your cup as usual. In the event that you're in a public washroom with stalls and you can't walk out with your diva cup to rinse in the sink, simply take it out, empty it and wipe it down with tissue before reinserting it. You may still be in the "squatting on the floor" stage, in which case you may want to stand and squat on the toilet seat. However, as you get more accustomed to removing and inserting, you won't need to squat anymore. The best method is to make sure your menstrual cup is empty before leaving the house, and that way you shouldn't need to empty it until you can find a private bathroom.
There are many brands to choose from; some come with wider, longer cups, others come with longer stems (although I prefer the short stem, this may be helpful for women concerned about removing it). If you can't get it out, don't panic - it isn't going to become lodged there to be stuck forever. You don't need to go to the emergency room, you just need to take a minute and breathe. The best way to remove it is to squat, and using your pelvic muscles, push the menstrual cup down. Using your fingers, find the stem and gently pull at an angle down, and forward. Using both your pelvic muscles and fingers, removing it should be a breeze. The first couple of times it may feel hard to remove, but it's important to rememeber that it won't get stuck, and you shouldn't panic.
If you haven't already, I highly encourage you to watch Emily from Bite Size Vegan's video about tampons not being vegan. Not only does she do some amazingly thorough research into the health and environmental impacts of tampons, she also explains how tampons and their ingredients have been tested on animals, which I hope will make you consider ditching the tampons.
If you already use a cup, or you try one and like it, tell a friend. I probably wouldn't have tried it had a friend not told me about it. A study of Nepalese girls found that the girls were more likely to try a menstrual cup if they knew someone who had used one. So spread the word, and don't be embarassed.