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What is a menstrual cup? And is it right for you?

Whether you’ve heard about them from a friend or from the internet, menstrual cups are becoming increasingly popular in the period product world. In fact, the global menstrual cup market share is expected to rise significantly — around 5.5% between 2021 and 2026 — for economic, environmental, hygienic and lifestyle reasons.1 If your interest is piqued, here’s what to consider when deciding if a menstrual cup is right for you.

Menstrual cups: A brief history

While menstrual cups are only recently common on store shelves, people have been experimenting with period protection for decades. Actor, author and inventor Leona Chalmer was the first to patent a commercially available menstrual cup in 1937.2 Chalmer and her vision paused during World War II because of a rubber shortage, restarted again from the 1950s to 1970s, but then stopped production for good in 1973 because consumers weren’t fully comfortable with the concept of the product.

With progress in materials, production and conversations around reproductive health, menstrual cups made a comeback in the 2000s. Today, menstrual cups are flexible bell-shaped cups made from rubber or silicone with a stem for insertion and removal. They are designed to capture the menstrual flow instead of absorbing it like a tampon or pad.

How to use a menstrual cup

Many women find menstrual cups easy to use, but they do come with a learning curve. When your period arrives, you typically use a menstrual cup by folding it, then inserting it rim-up as you would a tampon without an applicator (of course, always read and follow the manufacturer’s directions!). Depending on your period flow, you can wear it for six to 12 hours before removing it by releasing the seal and pulling down on the stem. Perfecting a technique that works for your body can be tricky, so arrange your first few tries to be in the comfort of your own home. The extra effort is well worth it if menstrual cups are a good fit for your period.

Common questions about menstrual cups

Still skeptical? Here are a few common questions about menstrual cups, along with their answers:

Where should a menstrual cup sit?

The cup is designed to sit below your cervix, the lower end of the uterus that forms a canal between the uterus and vagina. For reference, that’s within approximately ½ inch of your vaginal opening (though this varies in different bodies). Your cup should sit slightly lower than a tampon would, but the stem should not be outside your vagina. It may take a few tries to get the placement right, but when inserted correctly, you shouldn’t be able to feel the cup.

How should I clean a menstrual cup?

Keeping your menstrual cup sanitary is a crucial step in correct usage:

  1. Before you insert or remove the cup, wash your hands thoroughly.
  2. If you just purchased your cup, give it an initial clean and let it sit in boiling water for about 10 minutes.
  3. Clean the cup after every use with gentle, unscented, oil-free soap. Avoid harsh cleaning products such as antibacterial soap, hydrogen peroxide or rubbing alcohol, which can cause irritation.

It's easy to keep to these standards at home, but what about when you’re in a public bathroom? Or when you’re traveling? In those situations, you can remove and empty the cup as usual and then use toilet paper to clean it out instead of washing and rinsing in a sink. Just be sure to clean it properly once you get home!

At the end of your period, put the cup in boiling water for a few minutes, allow it to fully dry and then store it in the bag or pouch it came with.

How do you remove a menstrual cup?

If you’ve properly inserted a cup for the first time, you’ll inevitably get to the “how the heck do I get this thing out?” stage. Aside from following the instructions that came with your cup, the best course of action is to not panic! To remove the cup, one method is to use a finger to break the seal and gently pull on the stem, instead of just tugging on the stem. You can also experiment with different positions, like squatting in the shower instead of over the toilet.

To know when to remove it, check the instructions on your brand of menstrual cup. The maximum time you should leave it in is 12 hours, but how frequently you empty it depends on your period flow. Removal can take some practice; try to relax and give yourself some time to perfect your technique.

Where do I buy a menstrual cup?

With their rise in popularity, menstrual cups are available at department stores and pharmacies. However, if you’re still researching, perusing different brands online may be a good place to start.

Regardless of where you shop, make sure you select the right size. Many brands come in two sizes: large or small. Smaller cups are typically recommended for those younger than 30 who haven’t given birth. Larger cups may better fit those who have given birth, are older than 30 or who have a heavier period. If your cup feels like it doesn’t fit, consider trying a different size. Many brands have sizing guidelines online, so be sure to reference them before choosing the right one for you.

How long do menstrual cups last?

This depends on the brand, but most cups should last for years — some can even last up to 10 if they are properly cared for and checked regularly for wear and tear. Most menstrual cups are $30-40 and can save you years of tampon or pad money, all while keeping more waste out of landfills.3

What are some benefits of menstrual cups?

On top of saving money, there are many other reasons people are making the switch to menstrual cups. Since they can hold more blood, menstrual cups often last longer than tampons, so you don’t need to change them as often. If they are cleaned properly, menstrual cups are considered safer than tampons with less risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a rare bacterial infection associated with tampon use. TSS caused by menstrual cups appears to be very rare.4 And of course, environmental impact is a big factor for many cup converts.

If you still have questions or concerns, your doctor can help you decide whether a menstrual cup is right for you. Whether you try menstrual cups or stick with your current period routine, the progress in reproductive health and period products has made choices more abundant and knowledge more readily available — and those are things certainly worth acknowledging and celebrating.

 

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Sources

  1. “Global Menstrual Cups Market Share is expected 5.5% CAGR Rise, Will Reach to USD 980.4 Million Globally by 2026 (with COVID-19 Analysis): Facts & Factors,” (January 2022), GlobeNewswire, https://www.globenewswire.com/newsrelease/2022/01/03/2360048/0/en/Global-Menstrual-Cups-Market-Share-is-expected-5-5- CAGR-Rise-Will-Reach-to-USD-980-4-Million-Globally-by-2026-with-COVID-19-Analysis-FactsFactors.html

  2. “Leona W. Chalmers,” (n.d.), Science Museum Group, https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/people/cp167799/leona-w-chalmers

  3. Marquez J. “What’s a Menstrual Cup?” (April 2021), WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/women/guide/menstrual-cup

  4. Howard C, Rose CL, Trouton K, et al., “FLOW (finding lasting options for women),” (June 2011), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3114692/