8 reasons why menstrual cups are actually life-changing
If you know me, then you’ve probably heard about my menstrual cup. I made the switch over a year ago and haven’t been able to shut up about it since. I love my menstrual cup so damn much I feel that it is my personal mission to let every person who menstruates know how much better their life could be. Menstrual cups are reusable, funnel-shaped devices made of flexible silicone that are inserted into the vagina to collect menstrual fluid. I hadn’t even heard of them until I was in my late teens, which isn’t surprising, considering that 98% of American women* use disposable tampons and pads instead of reusable products such as menstrual cups, fabric pads, and sponges.
Since menstrual cups are reusable, they are a cheaper, more convenient, and environmentally-friendly option. Additionally, a 2011 study showed that 91% of the subjects who tried them would recommend them to friends. Compared to tampons, that number seems shockingly high — if you’ve ever worn a tampon, you can agree that they aren’t exactly rave-worthy. So why do an overwhelming majority of people who menstruate still use tampons and pads? Besides the historical, business-related reasons behind tampons’ success (more on that later), menstrual cups have a lot of cultural baggage to overcome. In addition to taboos and myths surrounding virginity and cleanliness, lack of education regarding vaginal health paired with the social stigma of being intimate with your own vagina means that many people find menstrual cups intimidating to use, or are just plain grossed out by being up close and personal with menstruation.
Yes, menstrual cups come with a learning curve. My first time using one was not immediately intuitive, and there were some panicked texts to my friend following an oh-my-god-it’s-stuck moment when trying to remove it (hint: you need to pinch the cup to break the seal). But the benefits far outweigh any squeamishness you may have to overcome. Let’s learn about them.
1. They save money
Disposable menstrual products cost the average person who menstruates about $1,800 over their lifetime, while a menstrual cup costs an average of $30 and can last up to 10 years. The money that people who menstruate spend on necessary healthcare products every month is extra frustrating considering that most states in the U.S. still tax menstrual products as “non-essential items.”
2. They are more environmentally friendly
The average American woman uses between 11,000-16,000 tampons in her lifetime, according to CNN — that’s over 62,000 pounds of trash. Since most disposable menstrual products are made from synthetic material that does not biodegrade, they end up sitting in landfills, or in the sewer, where they turn up in the ocean, on beaches, and in the stomachs of dead wildlife. Again, since menstrual cups are reusable and longer lasting, switching products can drastically reduce the amount of trash each person who menstruates produces.
3. They are super convenient
Not only does their reusability make menstrual cups more affordable and eco-friendly, you also don’t have to go to the store to stock up on disposable menstrual products every month. Plus, depending on your flow, you can wear a menstrual cup for up to 12 hours without changing it. This long-lasting protection means you can just put it in and go about your day.
4. They are very comfortable
One of the main reasons I became a menstrual cup devotee is how much more comfortable they are than tampons or pads. Once it’s in, I barely notice it. They feel less obtrusive than diaper-esque padding or a soggy dangling string. Plus, I never again have to experience the horrible feeling of taking out a dry tampon.
5. They are safer for vaginal health
Unlike tampons, menstrual cups don’t dry out the vagina. Cotton in tampons can strip the vaginal walls of naturally occurring lining, creating micro-tears and making you more susceptible to disease. Menstrual cups, on the other hand, preserve the healthy bacteria that protect you from vaginal infections. In the U.S., tampon and pad manufacturers are not required to list ingredients. Almost all disposable menstrual products contain bleached rayon, a material that creates dioxin, which can cause cancer. Most reputable menstrual cups do not contain these chemicals or other possible irritants that can disrupt healthy pH levels, such as latex, plastic, BPA, dye, or fragrance. Menstrual cup users also have a much lower chance of contracting toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a life-threatening condition often linked to tampon use. While TSS is incredibly rare, affecting only 1 out of 100,000 Americans, there are only two reported cases of menstrual cup users contracting TSS. In both cases, the women wore their cups for days longer than the maximum 12 hours mandated by manufacturers.
6. They are great for a heavy flow
Menstrual cups are way more convenient for people with a heavy flow. Inserted correctly, they are virtually leak-free. Compared to disposable products, which need to be changed every few hours, menstrual cups provide up to 12 hours of protection. To put it in perspective, the average tampon holds between 6-9 grams of liquid, while a menstrual cup holds up to 28 grams, or 1 ounce — that’s 5 times the amount!
7. They are easy to care for
While you can simply rinse your cup when changing it, most manufacturers recommend soaking it in boiling water in between periods. If you have to change your cup in a public restroom stall, baby wipes are also okay to use. If you find using lube makes it easier to insert your cup, just make sure to avoid silicone-based lubricants so that your cup stays intact.
8. They are a great way to get to know your body
Since changing a menstrual cup is a much more hands-on experience, you will become more familiar with your vagina and your cycle, which will make it easier to tell when something is off.
Cups provide an easier way to see the amount, color, and consistency of your flow, all factors that indicate your overall vaginal health.
If menstrual cups are so amazing, why aren’t they more popular?
As previously mentioned, there are many cultural and corporate factors behind menstrual cups’ failure to go mainstream. For one, due to bad timing and a lack of funding, menstrual cups could not compete with the commercial success of tampons. Tampons and menstrual cups, both patented in the early 1930s, faced similar challenges in achieving mainstream acceptance in the era of pads. Insertion requires extensive contact with the genitals, which many feared would undermine a woman’s “purity” by rupturing the hymen, or could encourage “self-touching,” which was deemed immoral. Tampons solved this problem by introducing the applicator. Additionally, Tampax, the first commercial tampon and applicator, had more financial backing than Leona W. Chalmers’ one-woman menstrual cup operation, and they used that large marketing budget to make their product a household name. During World War II, tampons became a more popular choice for working women, while the war had the opposite effect on menstrual cups: the wartime rubber shortage actually closed production for years.
Menstrual cups continued to suffer bad timing. When Tassette, the first commercial menstrual cup, was re-born in the 1960s, their target demographic was already accustomed to tampons, and production dropped off. Then in the early 1980s, when tampons were linked to nearly 2,000 cases of TSS, there were no cups on the market for those looking for an alternative. The Keeper, the next major commercial cup, did not debut until 1987, when TSS panic had died down considerably. Ultimately, the capitalist motivation behind disposable menstrual products is a major reason for their continued ubiquity: why would a company want to sell a person one menstrual cup every ten years when they can instead sell them thousands of tampons for decades?
Another reason why menstrual cups have not been more successful could be due to the same stigma they are meant to help ease. Menstrual cups require people to have more contact with their vagina and menstrual blood than they are used to. Habits surrounding menstrual hygiene are often passed from parents to children; if parents are not familiar or comfortable with these products, they cannot introduce them at an early age. Therefore people grow up internalizing the less hands-on approach of tampons and pads as normal. This could be why the majority of tampons sold are those with applicators. It is not surprising that this distinctly American phenomenon (applicators are not widely used in Europe or Australia) fits with the puritanical motives behind the invention of the applicator.
Fortunately, menstrual cups have been experiencing a revival on social media, and recent research suggests that people are more likely to try them if they are introduced to the product by peers (hint hint: send your friends this article!).
How to choose a cup
If you want to try a menstrual cup, keep in mind that there are different sizes and firmness. However, the vagina is pretty elastic, and the differences between most models are pretty small, so it does not have to be a perfect fit, it just has to fit comfortably. Also, it is more important to find a cup that fits well than to use a cup that holds the most fluid. The size of your vagina and the heaviness of your flow are not correlated, so you may have a heavy flow and a small vagina; in which case, you should choose a smaller menstrual cup to fit your body rather than a larger cup to accommodate your flow. If you are disabled or have trouble removing menstrual cups, the Keela cup is a more accessible cup with a pullstring for easier removal.
So how do you figure out what size your vagina is? Cup size can be determined by your body size and stature, whether you have given birth, and the heaviness of your flow. You can also determine whether you have a high, medium, or low cervix by simply inserting a finger into your vagina (feel for a raised circle with a dimple in the middle). If your cervix is difficult to reach (i.e. you cannot feel it at the end of your finger), your cervix sits high. If you can touch your cervix by inserting some of your finger, you have a medium cervix, and if it only takes a tiny bit of your finger to reach your cervix, it is low. It is best to do this when you are menstruating, because your cervix changes positions during your period. Another way to figure out whether you have an unusually small or large vagina is to ask your gynecologist. For example, the speculum they use comes in different sizes. You can ask which size they use for you — if it is the biggest one, you probably want to opt for a larger cup, and if it is the smallest, you will need a smaller cup.
Aside from size, firmness is another factor to consider. Some cups are made of sturdier silicone than others. For people with really strong or tight vaginal walls, thinner, more flexible cups are not strong enough to pop open once inserted. For others, thicker, sturdier cups may be uncomfortable to insert and wear. If you are an athlete, especially if you practice sports that require a lot of core and pelvic muscle engagement (i.e Pilates, yoga, riding), you might want to try a firmer cup.
*Obviously not all people who menstruate are women, but any time statistics are cited in this piece, I am using the terms utilized by studies in order to accurately reflect their subjects.