I’ve had a lot of conversations with my female friends lately about the benefits of using menstrual cups instead of ‘conventional’ products at that time of the month.
From the dozens of conversations I’ve had, I can tell you that the benefits of using a menstrual cup are pretty compelling, so I thought it was time I shared a little more information...
What is a menstrual cup?
If you aren’t already familiar with what a menstrual cup is, just take a look at the photos within this article.
Essentially, it’s a small cup-shaped product, made of flexible medical-grade silicone (or at least, a good one will be) that you would use instead of a tampon or a pad during your period.
To use, you insert it inside you. It can be a tricky at first, since it’s totally new process, but whichever brand you buy from will provide you with instructions on how to do this. Once you’ve nailed that, it’s time to reap the benefits...
The benefits of using a menstrual cup
Menstrual cups are sustainable
This one was a big deciding factor for me. I’ve been consciously trying to reduce my plastic consumption for years now, and yet each year I would buy and throw away literally hundreds of plastic applicators and plastic wrappers. Not to mention the tampons and plastic-based liners themselves. Not anymore.
A well-looked-after menstrual cup (i.e. properly cleaned, not chewed by a pet, not accidentally dropped in your vitamix) should last up to ten years. TEN YEARS. That’s a lot of waste that you’re eliminating.
According to menstrual cup brand OrganiCup, ‘an average woman uses 11,000 pads or tampons during a lifetime. OrganiCup means 30 grams of waste (eventually) instead of 30kgs’.
One of the reasons that I chose OrganiCup (more below!) is because their cotton storage bag is made from unbleached organic cotton, the packaging is made from recycled carton, and all instructions have been printed directly on the packaging to prevent additional waste. Even their shipping bags are made from 100% biodegradable plastic derived from corn. Impressive!
Although I care passionately about preserving our environment, I understand that decisions of what products work for your body come down to slightly more personal circumstances and preferences. So, besides a clearer conscience, how else can menstrual cups benefit you directly?
Menstrual cups reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals
Generally, tampons are made from blends of cotton and rayon, plus some synthetic compounds. It’s hard to say exactly what these are since each manufacturer's products are slightly different and considered ‘proprietary’. In other words, they won’t spill the beans. I know - I’ve tried asking. But there’s a worrying lack of ingredient disclosure.
One thing they do have in common, however, is that they contain potentially harmful chemicals.
Some chemicals may seem harmless, such as fragrances for ‘freshness’ or ink to ‘emphasise the product’s shape and function’. I don’t need my sanitary products to smell like pot-pourri and I don’t need them to look decorative. I think it’s pointless. But I’m far more concerned about whether these chemicals could be damaging my health, in any way at all, with long-term use.
There arguments around the different ingredients in sanitary products are too numerous to list here, but there are concerns ranging from pesticide residue on cottons to carcinogenic dioxins that are a byproduct of some bleaching processes.
And while big brands remind us that the chemical levels pass safety approval tests, we can never really know what the long term impact of exposure will be and what new research may emerge.
As an article I once read in the Guardian put it, ‘imagine if we only examined the health effects of smoking a single cigarette’.
Menstrual cups don’t cause dryness
So you were already aware of the concerns around pads and tampons containing chemicals and switched to organic? I did too.
But you know what? Not even organic tampons can avoid absorbing what they’re not meant to.
As well as menstrual blood, tampons soak up the other natural fluids in your vagina, causing dryness, irritation, risk of abrasions and disruptions of your healthy bacteria.
However, since menstrual cups only collect, rather than absorb, you’ll have no such worries.
Menstrual cups have not been as extensively linked to toxic shock syndrome
I always knew from the warnings on the Tampax packets that tampon use is associated with increased risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), but I never knew why. Turns out that the experts aren’t 100% sure either. But here's what they believe to be the case:
There are certain bacteria that live on and in our bodies all the time. In most cases, they’re harmless, but can cause infections if they over-grow. Staphylococcus aureus is one bacteria commonly associated with TSS, but its association is because of the toxin that the bacteria produces, which then enters the bloodstream, rather than the actual presence of the bacteria itself.
There are a couple of reasons that tampon use can increase risk:
- In tampons (especially super-absorbent varieties) left inserted for a long time, the accumulation of blood becomes an ideal environment for bacterial growth
- Tampons can cause abrasions to the wall of the vagina when being inserted or removed, allowing toxins to enter the bloodstream. This is more likely if the tampons are too absorbent for a light flow, and so are dry themselves, or have caused the vagina to become dry
A lot of articles and brands suggest that menstrual cups come without the risk of TSS. But, unfortunately, research doesn’t support this. There has been at least one documented case of TSS associated with use of a menstrual cup.
Although silicone itself doesn’t support microbiological growth, menstrual cups have the same property as super-absorbent or infrequently changed tampons in that they allow blood to sit within the vagina for an extended length of time. Long enough, potentially, to promote the growth of bacteria and the release of toxins.
However, if you keep your menstrual cup clean and empty it frequently, you should avoid any serious issues.
A menstrual cup will save you money
It’s true. After the initial outlay of around £20.00, you don’t need to factor monthly stock into your budget.
It’s also nice to not have to think about taking a trip to the pharmacy/supermarket simply because you’ve come on your period.
Menstrual cups may not need to be changed as often
Well, they do and they don’t.
Advice so far is that you only need to change them every 12-hours. Morning and night. Something that I found extremely convenient.
Plus, if you leave them a little longer, you’re not as at risk of an embarrassing and inconvenient leak as you would be with a tampon or a pad.
However, given the increasing understanding of the risk factors for TSS, emptying and rinsing your cup more often during your period may not be a bad thing.
It can be a little inconvenient when you’re out and about (especially using toilet cubicles without a sink in them, for rinsing), but a couple of OrganiWipes kept in your bag can be a workaround in this situation.
Menstrual cups reduce your decision-making
On a day-to-day basis, our brains are already overloaded. Any small decision that I no longer have to make is a win.
You just can’t know with complete certainty what your flow is going to be like on any given day of your period. So which tampon do you use? Super? Normal? Lite? Do you even need a tampon at all or can you get away with a liner and a reminder for hourly monitoring?
Menstrual cups remove the need for decision making. You can use the same menstrual cup no matter what your flow, no matter what day of your period you’re on, no matter what time of day.
Menstrual cups improve your awareness of your body
Anyone who knows me or has read previous articles that I’ve written will know that I’m a huge advocate of self-awareness.
Even the most seemingly basic of bodily functions are a window into your overall health and your period is no different.
With a menstrual cup, it’s really easy to see how much blood your body loses during a period. It’s almost impossible to visualise this with a tampon or pad (and ok, perhaps it’s not something that you want to be visualising) but the point I’m making is that with a menstrual cup, it’s easier to learn about your body.
In case you skimmed through that, I’ll recap the biggest benefits, one more time:
- Menstrual cups are sustainable and reduce waste
- Menstrual cups reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals
- Menstrual cups don’t cause dryness
- Menstrual cups may come with lower risk of TSS if kept clean
- Menstrual cups are money-savers
- Menstrual cups may not need to be changed as often
- Menstrual cups eliminate decision-making
- Menstrual cups improve your awareness of your body
If you’re convinced that it’s worth trying a menstrual cup, get your hands on one now, so that you have it ready for when your next period comes around.
There are aren’t an abundance well-known menstrual cup brands in the UK so I did some online research and settled on an OrganiCup.
OrganiCup are a Danish brand. I chose them because I just really loved their branding and, when I emailed their team for some extra info, they got back to me quickly and were so incredibly helpful. I was also swayed by the knowledge that they are extra environmentally conscious (as I mentioned earlier!).
Tips for using a menstrual cup
Once you’ve decided on a brand and you have the product in your hands, there are a few things that you should know before you use it:
Keep it clean
Before first use, and after every period, wash and sterilise your menstrual cup. I wash mine with soap or washing up liquid and then boil in a pan for ten minutes to sterilise.
Keep it low
I didn’t realise at first that the menstrual cup is not meant to sit as high up as a tampon. It should sit much lower - closer to the base of the vaginal canal.
Some guidelines suggest that the end of the stem should be sitting no more than a centimetre from your vaginal opening. But it may be much less for you. So if need be, you can trim the stem once you have got use to where it naturally sits. For this, you can use scissors or nail clippers, but cut it off a little at a time, to make sure that you don’t remove more than you intended.
Check for suction
You shouldn’t experience any leaks when using a menstrual cup since the rim should form a suction seal in contact with your vaginal wall.
You can run your finger around the circumference to check that it’s fully opened and in contact all the way round. If it feels too flat or like it may be folded, you can try twisting it or squeezing the end to encourage it to open correctly.
Partial insertion is ok
If you’re struggling to get the right angle or to ensure that the cup opens correctly, you might like to partially insert it, allow it to open, and then gently push or wiggle it into place. I found this to be a really useful technique.
Especially if it’s your first time using a menstrual cup, or if you suffer from dryness, try wetting the cup with water or a water-based lubricant to insert it. A good time to try is in the shower.
Don’t pull the stem
The stem of a menstrual cup can help you to determine the position that you insert it at (at a slight angle, towards the base of your spine, rather than straight up, FYI) and to help you locate the base of the cup when it comes to removing it, but it’s actually not that useful for pulling the cup out.
Instead, pinch the base of the cup to lower it. This also helps to ensure that it stays upright to avoid any unintentional spills.
I’ve had my OrganiCup for around 3 months now and I’m converted. I love not having to spend money on tampons, I love not throwing away more plastic than I need to, and I love having extra storage space in my drawers since the boxes disappeared. I’ve saved money and have had no annoying ‘emergency’ trips to a store when I realise I’ve run out of supplies at home or in my bag. My worries about coming into contact with dangerous chemicals have been alleviated, as have my concerns over dryness, and I’ve felt more at ease without the worry of leaks or impending trips to the bathroom with a tampon shoved up my sleeve.
If you haven’t already got a menstrual cup, just think about. If you’re trying to convert your friends, share this article with them.
As always, let me know your thoughts and any tips I may have missed!
Fancy some further reading?
After I contacted OrganiCup for more information, they kindly sponsored the creation of this article.