History of the Menstrual Cup
Before there were tampons and pads, there were… papyrus pieces? That’s right, in Ancient Egypt, women used tampons fashioned out of softened papyrus. Some women used pads made from wool, animal skin, or leaves/grass. This tradition continued until the late 1800s when women started using solely pieces of cotton cloth pinned to a belt. As you can imagine, all those layers of cloth and belts and pins could get quite uncomfortable.
In the 1930s, Leona Chalmers created a patent for a reusable menstrual cup, and posted the designs in her book The Intimate Side of a Woman’s Life. Chalmers promised that her new latex rubber menstrual cup would not contribute to “uncomfortableness or consciousness of its presence.” A welcome alternative to layers upon layers of cloth and belts!
So why has it taken the menstrual cup so long to go mainstream? This article provides a fascinating look at the history of feminine care products, but the long and short of it is that there’s traditionally been a stigma against the natural process of menstruation. And this stigma has really slowed advances in feminine care. When the menstrual cup was invented, it was so novel—such a departure from other available options—that it wasn’t fully appreciated for years.
Why Use a Menstrual Cup?
The earliest women who adopted the menstrual cup did so because it freed them from wearing bulky layers and belts under their clothes. But, as it turns out, that’s just the beginning of the benefits.
1. Menstrual cups are more efficient
Menstrual cups can hold more fluid than tampons and pads, which helps to avoid embarrassing leaks.
- On average, a regular tampon can hold 5 ml of fluid
- Menstrual cups can hold around 30 ml (one full ounce), depending on the brand and size
For instance, according to the product literature, size 1 and size 2 of the Diva cup, the large Lena cup, and the large Eva cup all hold 30 ml. Even the smaller cups, hold more fluid than one tampon! The small Fleur cup and the small Eva cup both hold 25 ml each.
2. Menstrual cups are more convenient
Menstrual cups don’t need to be emptied frequently. According to the product literature of each brand of cup, it is safe to wear a cup for up to 12 hours. Tampons, on the other hand, must be changed every four hours, while pads should be changed every time you use the restroom, or about every four hours.
3. Menstrual cups are more affordable
Menstrual cups are cheaper than tampons and pads in the long run. We’ll dive into the math later!
4. Menstrual cups are more comfortable
Menstrual cups are designed to be more comfortable than a tampon. A cup encircles your cervix, without actually pressing on it. A tampon, on the other hand, presses right against your cervix, which can be uncomfortable if your cervix is already irritable during your period. If you are sensitive to cotton, this can make it even more irritating!
Anecdotally, women also say using a cup decreases cramps, and theres some evidence to back this up. According to a survey-based study, using a cup may reduce menstrual cramps by 36 percent! Menstrual cups also prevent tampon-induced vaginal dryness (source).
5. Menstrual cups have less odor
That same survey-based study found that women reported almost no odor when using a menstrual cup, especially when compared to a pad. As a result, it’s not too surprising that this leads to increased self-esteem during your period.
6. Menstrual cups are safer and more hygienic
Have you ever read the little paper that comes in the tampon box? Toxic shock syndrome, a rare, but serious infection caused by wearing a tampon for longer than the recommended amount of time, occurs when Staphylococcus aureus bacteria growth spreads to the bloodstream. (source) Menstrual cups have been touted as much more hygienic and safer than tampons for this reason.
A quick note: A recent study from France did find that menstrual cups could carry the same risk for infection. So what’s the deal? Are cups safer or not? It is important to note that the one TSS case from menstrual cups came from wearing the cup for seven straight days.
Bottom line: You must practice good hygiene, whether you use a cup or a tampon. (source)
Also, if you use conventional tampons or pads, you are exposing your lady parts to pesticides. In fact, cotton is one of the “dirtiest” crops out there.(Source) So, if you do chose to use cotton menstrual products, always get organic ones.
7. Menstrual cups are better for the environment
If one woman uses around 20 tampons or pads per menstrual cycle, that’s 240 tampons or pads per year, per woman. Of course, you need something to use during your period, but the menstrual cup definitely helps cut down on landfill waste! (BTW, washable pads like the Mama Cloth are also a nice option that reduces waste.)
Is it Safe to Use a Menstrual Cup?
Yes, menstrual cups are totally safe when used properly. In fact, they can be safer than tampons.
That said, there are some disadvantages to menstrual cups, including:
- The mess factor: Cleaning the cup can be messy, particularly if you are not home when you need to clean it. For this reason, using a cup does involve a few more steps than just swapping out pads.
- Inserting and removal: Especially when compared to pads, there is a slight learning curve with inserting and removing cups. It is important to get the insertion right to avoid leaks.
- Getting the right fit: There are many brands and sizes. Women find that certain brands/sizes fit their own body better, but it is a trial and error to find the right one for you. (See below for some tips!)
- Allergies: Like most things, there is a potential risk of allergic reaction (i.e. latex allergy). Luckily, menstrual cups come in a few different materials. (See below for more!)
- Unique anatomy challenges: Women with a tilted uterus, a prolapse, or pelvic floor issues may have difficulty getting their cup to fit and feel right. For instance, you might be prone to leaks if you have a tilted uterus.
- Cleaning maintenance: Menstrual cups aren’t maintenance free. You’ll want to boil in hot water each month after use and do quarterly deeper cleans for utmost safety.
How to Use a Menstrual Cup
Like tampons, menstrual cups are inserted into the vagina. Most brands offer two sizes of cups: one cup for women who have not had a vaginal birth and one for women who have had a vaginal birth.
Here are the basics of inserting your cup:
- Wash: Always wash your cup before using it. (More on this below!)
- Fold the cup: One of the most popular ways to fold your cup is in half, length-wise. This makes your cup look like a “U”-shape if you were to look at it from the top.
- Insert: Insert the cup into your vagina, like a tampon. Gently separate your labia and slowly insert the folded cup. (You may find it easier to squat or to stand with one foot up on the edge of the tub.)
- Create the seal: Once your cup is in, you still have to create the seal. Remember, you folded it to insert it. Now it’s time to unfold it and create the seal. Grab the bottom of the cup with your thumb and pointer. Spin the cup one full rotation (360-degrees). It should open, and it should spin easily. Push the cup up as much as you can.
- Wear: Feel free to swim in the cup, use the restroom while wearing the cup, or exercise while wearing the cup.
- Bonus Tip: Until you get the hang of it, consider wearing a menstrual pad, or better yet, a pair of absorbent “period” underwear like this, as a backup to catch any leaks.
How to Remove a Menstrual Cup
One of the best things about menstrual cups is how long you can wear a cup safely without needing to change it. This makes menstrual cups ideal for long day trips or hikes! Most brands suggest changing your cup every six to 12 hours, with a minimum of two changes per day. Ideally, you can change your cup in the morning before work and then not think about it again until the evening.
- Removal: To remove your cup, locate the stem of the cup. Pull the stem until you can grip the bottom of the cup. To break the seal, pinch the cup and (carefully) lower it straight down without tilting it. (Do this over the toilet to avoid any messes, especially as you get the hang of it.)
- Empty and reinsert: Empty the cup into the toilet and clean. If you are not home, you can empty your cup in the toilet and wipe it clean with toilet paper before re-inserting. (Or, you could have a clean, spare menstrual cup in your purse.) Be sure to wash it as soon as you return home though. Use the wash specified by your cup’s brand or use an oil-free, unscented soap wash.
- Store: At the end of your period, wash and store in a breathable cloth bag.
How to Clean a Menstrual Cup
It is extremely important to clean your cup well to prevent any bacteria from building up.
Clean your cup each time you empty it, before storing it, and before using it on the first day of your cycle.
So how do you clean your cup? Start by using the right cleaner. According to Diva Cup, you can use the Diva Wash or any mild, oil-free cleaner like this one.
During your cycle:
- Use warm/hot water
- Wash the inside of the cup, the exterior, and the stem
- Rinse well
- Use a Q-tip to clean the little holes in the cup (these holes are there to help create the right suction)
At the end of your cycle:
- Boil your cup on the stovetop in purified water for 20 minutes
- Remove from water using clean kitchen tongs
- Dry and store in breathable cloth bag
Some women like to do a deeper clean with rubbing alcohol every 3 months. This remove any film or build-up and neutralizes any smells. (source)
- Soak in rubbing alcohol for 1 hour
- Rinse, let air dry and store for future use
Replace your cup if it shows signs of wear, is discolored, or has been used for more than 12 months.
Tip: Avoid vinegar, Castile soap (and other oil-based soaps), essential oils, and baby wipe—these materials can cause the cup to develop a sticky residue.
Can You Sleep in a Menstrual Cup?
Yes! No more getting up in the middle of the night to change your tampon, and no more waking up to a saturated pad. Menstrual cups can be worn for up to 12 hours, which means you can get your beauty sleep without worrying about your pad leaking.
Tip: Consider wearing a menstrual pad, or better yet, a pair of absorbent “period” underwear like this, as a backup the first time you sleep in your cup to make sure you know how to make a good seal.
How Much Do Menstrual Cups Cost?
How much does your period cost each year?
- Cup: The average cost of a menstrual cup is $30, but they range from $20-$40. Since cups need to be replaced yearly, consider this your annual cost.
- Tampons: If a woman uses 1 tampon every 4 hours, a woman might use four tampons each day. That means she’d need 20 tampons for a 5-day long period. At $0.22 per tampon (assuming a box of 36 costs $8), that’s $4.40 per period, or $52.80 per year. That isn’t even counting the menstrual pads she’ll need to wear while sleeping!
Here are Some of the Most Popular Menstrual Cups