Menstrual cups are bell-shaped silicone or latex feminine hygiene products that are designed to be inserted into the vagina during menstruation to collect menstrual fluid. They are an over-the-counter alternative to pads and tampons. They can be emptied about every 4-12 hours, washed with soap and warm water, and then reinserted. The cups can be sterilized by boiling them in water at the end of every menstrual cycle. Although there is no general consensus about how often a menstrual cup should be replaced, they can be used for up to five years in some cases.
The Good: One menstrual cup costs around $25 USD and can be used for years, whereas a box of 32 tampons costs around $7 USD. In about 6 months to a year of using a menstrual cup, women start saving the money that would be spent on tampons or sanitary pads. In the longer term, using menstrual cups are more cost effective than using tampons or sanitary napkins. A menstrual cup can be changed every 12 hours and hold roughly 3 times the amount that a tampon can absorb, whereas tampons should be changed every 4 to 8 hours depending upon flow. In my experience, menstrual cups can be virtually leak proof if they’re placed correctly, whereas tampons have the tendency to leak more often.
Menstrual cups are most often made of medical grade silicone or latex, and they simply hold menstrual blood rather than absorb it like tampons do. Because of the absorbency of tampons, there is an association between tampon use and toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a bacterial illness caused by S. aureus which has the potential to be deadly if left untreated. The association between menstrual cup use and TSS has been found to be virtually nonexistent, however. As a bonus, menstrual cups have been found to have no impact on normal vaginal flora, whereas tampons can cause vaginal dryness and abrasions in some cases, which can disrupt the normal vaginal flora.
Sanitary napkins and tampon applicators can take up to 25 years to break down in the ocean, but menstrual cups are reusable and if used regularly can significantly reduce waste associated with that time of the month.
In many developing countries, access to affordable menstrual hygiene management solutions is often a barrier to education for many young girls. Many young girls skip school during their menses for shame associated their periods and period cramps. Often there are inadequate facilities for these women in which to wash themselves which leads to unhygienic solutions that can pose a health risk. Many families simply cannot afford the cost of menstrual hygiene products, but menstrual cups may offer a solution to affordability and access. They are more durable and do not need to be replaced every month which makes them a more reliable method of menstrual sanitation.
Menstrual cups come in many different styles, sizes, and even colors! Larger sizes are recommended for women who have previously given birth vaginally, are over 30, or have heavier flows, and smaller sizes are used more often in women who have not given birth vaginally.
Menstrual cups can be used with virtually any methods of birth control, but women with IUDs are advised to be careful not to pull on the IUD strings when inserting or removing the menstrual cup.
For some women who find themselves having to measure menstrual fluid output for any reason, some menstrual cups contain demarcations indicating the amount of fluid.
The Bad: Up front cost may be a bit steep for some low-income families. Some women may find the cup difficult to insert or remove, but these problems can be avoided by using a differently sized cup, using a water-based lubricant, and practicing insertion techniques. Women who have pelvic organ prolapse cannot use the menstrual cup because of discomfort and safety issues.
During removal women should be careful not to simply pull on the tail of the menstrual cup to remove it because this can create suction. There have been rare cases in women displacing their IUDs when removing their menstrual cups, but this can happen with tampon use as well. To avoid this, the seal on the menstrual cup must first be broken by pinching the sides of the cup and folding it into a C-shape during removal.
The Bloody: The menstrual cup cannot be comfortably and discretely emptied and washed in public restrooms for obvious reasons. When emptying the cup, users have to be aware of the potential for making a bloody mess and are advised to remove the cup over a toilet to avoid such mess.
There are some cultural myths that menstrual products inserted into the vagina can interfere with a woman’s reproductive organs or that a woman may lose her virginity if the hymen breaks. In some cultures an intact hymen is seen as proof of a woman’s virginity, and this may discourage some young women from using intravaginal menstrual products.