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Whether you’re fed up with the “pink tax” or interested in a more eco-friendly alternative to tampons, you may be intrigued by the idea of a menstrual cup. But how do period cups work, exactly?
Here’s everything you need to know about menstrual cups, including pros and cons and how to use them.
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What is a menstrual cup?
A menstrual or period cup is a small, funnel-shaped, flexible cup you place in your vagina that collects blood during your period.
Menstrual cups are typically made from medical-grade silicone, rubber, or latex, which makes them easy to maneuver and clean. Most period cups are reusable, although disposable options exist, as well. When inserted correctly, it’s an effective way to collect blood and prevent leaks on your period.
Where to get a menstrual cup
Just like vaginas, menstrual cups are not one-size-fits-all. It might take some trial and error to find the right size, fit, and brand for you.
Luckily, you have plenty of options to choose from including popular brands like the Diva Cup, Lena Cup, Lunette, Lily Cup, and Mooncup. The best menstrual cup size for you depends on a number of factors, such as whether or not you’ve delivered a baby vaginally, the heaviness of your flow, the size and length of your cervix, and the cup’s capacity.
If you’ve ever had a baby vaginally or if you have a heavy flow, you’ll likely need a larger size. If your periods are lighter, a smaller cup may work fine. For help finding a good fit, talk to a gynecologist or read the packaging on a menstrual cup.
How much do menstrual cups cost?
Reusable menstrual cups, which can last up to 10 years, cost between $30-40. Disposable ones that are designed for one-time use range from $5-15.
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How to use a menstrual cup: a step-by-step guide
The first time you use a period cup, it can feel a little bit weird. But they’re more user-friendly than you think. If you’ve used tampons or a NuvaRing before, you’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly.
How to insert a menstrual cup
- Wash your hands with soap and water.
- To make insertion more comfortable, lubricate the rim of the cup with water or a compatible lubricant (for example, don’t use silicone lubes with silicone cups).
- Hold the menstrual cup in one hand and fold it in half with the rim facing up.
- With the rim up, insert the cup into your vagina like you would a tampon.
- Once inside, rotate it until it springs open. This creates a seal that prevents leaks.
How to remove a menstrual cup
Depending on your flow, you can wear a menstrual cup for up to 12 hours (van Eijk, 2019). To avoid leakage, you should remove it when it’s full or after 12 hours — whichever comes first.
At a minimum, you should empty and clean it twice a day. Here’s what to do:
- Wash your hands with soap and water.
- With your thumb and index finger, reach into your vagina until you touch the stem of the cup.
- Pull it gently until you feel the base of the cup.
- Pinch the base with your fingers to unlock the seal.
- Still pinching the base, pull down to remove the cup from your vagina.
- Empty the blood into a sink or toilet.
- Wash your cup with soap and water before reinserting (unless you’re using a disposable cup, in which case you can just throw it out).
At the end of your period, sterilize the cup with boiling water or a solution recommended by the brand. Then, store it according to the instructions. Typically, brands recommend storing cups in a cool, dry location until your next period, using the included breathable pouch that comes with it.
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Benefits of menstrual cups
Frankly, menstrual cups are pretty neat. Here are some of the benefits of menstrual cups compared to other period products (van Eijk, 2019).
- Cups can hold more blood than tampons: A period cup can hold 2-8 teaspoons of blood. Compare that to the measly one teaspoon capacity of a regular-sized tampon (Prior, 2017). When you consider that you lose about 12 teaspoons of blood during an average period, menstrual cups may be a more practical option for some people (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, 2017).
- Menstrual cups produce less waste: Reusable period cups last up to 10 years, while disposable menstrual products are designed for one-time use. When you use a reusable menstrual cup, you’ll contribute a lot less to landfills.
- Menstrual cups last longer: You can wear menstrual cups for up to 12 hours, while tampons can only last a maximum of 8 hours (and often less, depending on your flow). That means you can keep your cup in overnight or during an entire work shift without needing to replace it.
- Menstrual cups are more affordable than other period products: You pay a one-time price of $30-40 for a period cup that can last you up to 10 years. Tampons and pads, on the other hand, cost anywhere from $70-120 per year (Weiss-Wolf, 2020).
- Menstrual cups may be safer than tampons: Using tampons for long periods of time, especially high-absorbency ones, increases your risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a rare but serious condition that leads to organ failure. While your risk of developing TSS when using a menstrual cup is not 0%, it is rare (Mitchell, 2015; van Eijk, 2019).
- You can wear them during sex (sometimes): Disposable menstrual cups have a soft, disc shape that resembles a diaphragm, as opposed to the bell shape of reusable cups. Thanks to their design, some people find that they can wear them during sex and your partner shouldn’t be able to feel them. You will want to remove reusable cups before you get intimate, though, as they are stiffer and may be uncomfortable to use during sex.
- Menstrual cups don’t smell: Because your menstrual blood isn’t exposed to air when you use a period cup, you’ll notice less of an odor during your period than when using a pad or tampon.
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Disadvantages of menstrual cups
While menstrual cups are fantastic in many ways, there are a few downsides worth mentioning. Here are some to be aware of:
- It might take time to find a good fit: With tampons and pads, all you have to think about is the heaviness of your flow and the amount of absorbency you need. With menstrual cups, there’s a lot more to factor in. To find the right fit, you need to consider your age, menstrual flow, if you have a low cervix, and whether you’ve had a baby. Depending on the brand, you may also have to do some trial and error to find the right fit.
- They can be messy to remove: It takes some finesse to remove a period cup. Until you master the learning curve, you’ll likely experience a few spills.
- There’s more cleanup required: When you’re done with a tampon or pad, all you need to do is throw it in the nearest trash bin. With a menstrual cup, there’s an entire cleanup procedure involved, both between uses and when your period is done. If you ever need to wash your cup in public, you might find cleanup to be even trickier. Bringing along a bottle of water can make things easier.
- Period cups may interfere with IUDs: Some studies show that using a menstrual cup with an intrauterine device (IUD), which is a small t-shaped device placed into the cervix to prevent pregnancy, increases the risk that the IUD will fall out (Long, 2020). There are certain IUDs that contain hormones and can stop your period altogether, meaning you won’t need to use a menstrual cup. Other studies have found that period cups don’t increase the risk if your IUD falling out when compared to tampon or pad use (van Eijk, 2019).
Menstrual cups are a reliable alternative to tampons that are friendly to the environment––and your wallet. If you think they’re right for you, give them a try. If you’re not sure, talk to a gynecologist first.
- Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. (2017, May 4). Heavy periods: Overview. InformedHealth.org. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279294/
- Long, J., Schreiber, C., Creinin, M. D., Kaneshiro, B., Nanda, K., & Blithe, D. (2020). Menstrual cup use and intrauterine device expulsion in a copper intrauterine device contraceptive efficacy trial [OP01-1B]. Obstetrics & Gynecology, 135, 1S. doi: 10.1097/01.aog.0000662872.89062.83. Retrieved from https://journals.lww.com/greenjournal/Abstract/2020/05001/Menstrual_Cup_Use_and_Intrauterine_Device.3.aspx
- Mitchell, M. A., Bisch, S., Arntfield, S., & Hosseini-Moghaddam, S. M. (2015). A confirmed case of toxic shock syndrome associated with the use of a menstrual cup. The Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases & Medical Microbiology, 26(4), 218–220. doi: 10.1155/2015/560959. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26361491/
- North, B. B., & Oldham, M. J. (2011). Preclinical, clinical, and over-the-counter postmarketing experience with a new vaginal cup: menstrual collection. Journal of Women’s Health, 20(2), 303–311. doi: 10.1089/jwh.2009.1929. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21194348/
- Prior, J. C. Very Heavy Menstrual Flow. (2017, October 4). The Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research. Retrieved August 18, 2021 from https://www.cemcor.ubc.ca/resources/very-heavy-menstrual-flow
- van Eijk, A. M., Zulaika, G., Lenchner, M., Mason, L., Sivakami, M., Nyothach, E., et al. (2019). Menstrual cup use, leakage, acceptability, safety, and availability: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Public Health, 4(8), e376–e393. doi: 10.1016/s2468-2667(19)30111-2. Retrieved from https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpub/article/PIIS2468-2667(19)30111-2/fulltext#seccestitle130
- Weiss-Wolf, J. (2020). U.S. policymaking to address menstruation: Advancing an equity agenda. The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies, 539–549. doi: 10.1007/978-981-15-0614-7_41. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33347179/
Dr. Chimene Richa is a board-certified Ophthalmologist and Senior Medical Writer/Reviewer at Ro.