Periods are no walk in the park. If you’re not dealing with cramps, you’re trying to make sure you’re well protected during your heavier days.
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Some of us can wear just a tampon or a maxi pad. Others have to double up and wear both — and change them frequently. If you’re dealing with this month after month, you’re probably wondering if there’s a better, more convenient and eco-friendly way to go with your flow.
Enter menstrual cups.
Menstrual cups have become a popular alternative to tampons and pads. Some are long-lasting and reusable, while others are disposable. But should you make the switch just because everyone seems to be doing so right now?
Keep reading to learn more about how menstrual cups work and to get some helpful tips from gynecologist Erin Higgins, MD.
What is a menstrual cup?
A menstrual cup is a flexible cup that’s designed for use inside of your vagina during your period to collect blood. The cup doesn’t absorb your menstrual flow as tampons or pads do.
While it might seem like menstrual cups popped up overnight, they’ve actually been around in some form since the 1800s. The first patent for a menstrual cup design was awarded in 1867 and the prototype was pretty much a rubber sack that was attached to a ring.
This early version was meant to be inserted into the vagina to collect blood. The menstrual cup could then be pulled out by a cord that was attached to it.
Today, more and more of us are using menstrual cups. They’ve been proven to be safe and very effective. Another benefit of using them — they’re more eco-friendly than pads and tampons.
And while sales didn’t take off when they were first introduced commercially, the global market for menstrual cups is now expected to hit $1.89 billion by 2026.
How to use a menstrual cup
There are different brands available in most stores and online. And most come in small or large versions.
The smaller version is best for those with a light or medium flow or those younger than 30 years old. The larger version works for those with a medium or heavy flow, are older than 30 or have had a baby.
Most menstrual cups are made of silicone or rubber. If you’re sensitive to latex, you’ll want to buy silicone cups to avoid any issues.
How to insert a menstrual cup
Follow these steps to successfully insert a menstrual cup.
- Wash your hands.
- Apply a thin layer of a water-based lube or water to the rim of the cup. This will make it easier to insert.
- Fold the menstrual cup in half. “You want to place the folded cup in one hand and keep the rim face up,” explains Dr. Higgins.
- Insert the cup. While keeping it folded and rim up, place it into your vagina. “You want to think about inserting the cup like you would a tampon,” she notes.
- Rotate it. Once the cup is in — and a few inches below your cervix — you will want to turn it so it fully opens. “If it’s inserted properly, you shouldn’t be able to feel it.”
How to remove a menstrual cup
Ready to take out the cup? Here’s how to do it.
- Wash your hands.
- Pinch the base and remove the cup. Using your thumb and index finger, reach into your vagina and pinch the cup. “You’ll break the seal and make it easier to remove,” Dr. Higgins says. Pull down gently to remove.
- Empty cup. “Once the cup has been removed, you want to empty it into your toilet,” she continues.
- Rinse cup. Wash the cup with clean water and a mild, fragrance-free soap.
“You can use a cup all the way through your cycle, but you might need to change it more often on heavy flow days to guard against leaking. To do this, just remove and rinse your cup after 12 hours, or when leaking occurs,” advises Dr. Higgins.
Pros and cons of using a menstrual cup
So, are menstrual cups right for you? Here are the benefits and risks of using them.
- Lower costs and less landfill waste. Some cups are designed for long-term use, providing significant cost savings over tampons and pads. As you can reuse them, there’s less waste to clog up landfills and fewer trees sacrificed to make the paper-based alternatives.
- No embarrassing odor. With menstrual cups, you won’t have to worry about embarrassing odor wafting out at the most inopportune times, as the fluid doesn’t get exposed to air as it does with pads and tampons.
- Fewer visits to the drugstore. Even if you replace your cup once a year, you’ll still make 11 fewer trips to the store than you would if you used disposable, paper-based methods.
- More time between changes. You need to change tampons every four to eight hours, depending on flow. You can go up to 12 hours with a menstrual cup before having to empty it.
- Easy to use. Dr. Higgins says that anyone who has used tampons, especially the kind without applicators, should have little trouble learning how to insert a menstrual cup. If you’ve ever used a NuvaRing® for birth control, you’ll have even less trouble learning how to use your new cup.
- More mess. The main disadvantage that people mention is how messy emptying the cup is. With practice, most of us can work out a suitable technique and quickly get over the “ick factor.” Also, cleaning it in a public bathroom might present a challenge for some.
- They can be difficult to insert. People who are younger and/or who’ve never had intercourse may find it difficult to insert the cups. And if you have an IUD in place, using a menstrual cup could pull the IUD strings and dislodge them. If you have concerns about insertion, talk to your healthcare provider.
- Possible fit problems. Individual anatomy can make proper use of the cup difficult. For instance, if you have a dropped uterus or uterine prolapse, Dr. Higgins says that a menstrual cup may not fit in place properly. But to ensure that you feel more comfortable when it comes to insertion, she recommends talking to your provider and asking them to walk you through the process during an office visit.
- They can be hard to remove. Taking menstrual cups out requires a bit of a learning curve. You shouldn’t pull on the stem when you remove it. Instead, pinch the base and pull and allow the collected fluid to empty into the toilet. You can then rinse it with tap water and reinsert.
- Regular sterilization is required. After each cycle, sterilize the cup using boiling water or a sterilizing solution used for baby bottles.
Should you use a menstrual cup?
Menstrual cups have plenty of benefits, but how can you know if they’re best for you?
Dr. Higgins says the only way to know if a menstrual cup will work for you is to buy one and give it a try.
Remember, they come in various formations and sizes, so if the first one doesn’t suit you, the next size might do the trick.
“But it never hurts to do a little research,” encourages Dr. Higgins. “So, compare the options that are out there and read the reviews to see what others are saying.”