All Your Menstrual Cup Questions, Answered — & We Mean All Of Them
A bloody comprehensive guide to using, cleaning, and embracing the menstrual cup.
The first time I saw a menstrual cup, I thought it was an oddly shaped squishy wine glass missing a stem. That probably reveals more about myself and my affinity for rosé than I should admit, but my point is that I was a grown-ass woman when I first found out about a whole other option for period protection. My mother didn’t sit me down and give me an awkward talk on how to insert one. Being the classic immigrant mom that she is, her menstrual product of choice was strictly pads. Pads were what she grew up with in rural Jamaica, so they were what she thought was best. No discussion.
Menstrual cups are not new (they’ve been around since the 1930s), but it does feel like — aside from that one hippie friend has been using them religiously for years — it’s only now that they’re having a mainstream moment. According to the BBC, global Google searches for “menstrual cup” have increased by 800% in a year.
Research now shows how reliable they are, too. It turns out menstrual cups are as leakproof as tampons and pads, according to the first large scientific review of sanitary products published in the Lancet Public Health journal, which looked at 43 studies involving 3,300 women and girls around the world.
“We used to think that cups were this weird niche thing that you only use on certain occasions or you only used if you were super eco-friendly,” says Rebecca Stoebe-Latham, senior scientist at Tampax. “But between word of mouth and them showing up on store shelves...that was the trigger [for the increased interest].”
I’ll admit that when I discovered them, I was intimidated by menstrual cups. My first thought was wine, yes, but my second was, how am I going to get that thing up my vagina? With the help of experts and real people sharing their own experiences, let’s break down everything you need to know about menstrual cups.
Let’s start with the basics: What is a menstrual cup?
A menstrual cup is a small, malleable cup made of medical-grade silicone that acts as a mini funnel to be folded and gently pushed up the vaginal canal. Once it’s up there, it retains its shape and collects menstrual fluid. It can be worn for up to 12 hours, and when full, you simply flush the contents in the toilet. The cups need to be washed before being worn again.
Pulling a cup full of blood out of my vagina with my bare hands sounds disgusting, and I don’t want to do it. Please don’t make me.
Well, no one is making you but if you do want the benefits of using a menstrual cup — like longer hours of use and less waste — you are going to have to take it out at some point. Removal is similar to that of a tampon. You pinch the bottom part of the funnel and tug, slowly extracting the cup. Besides, there's nothing gross about periods — other than the stigma that people have faced because of them... but more on that later.
There's nothing gross about periods — other than the stigma that people have faced because of them.
Are menstrual cups cheaper than pads and tampons?
Menstrual cups will definitely cost less in the long run. The average cup runs between $30–$40 dollars, depending on size. Many cup users rotate between two so they can use one while the other gets cleaned. Cups last for years, but there is conflicting information out there on how long: The silicone material can last up to 10 years, but some suggest you replace it every two years. The average Australian woman spends about $60 - $120 a year on menstrual products. If you spent $80 on two cups and replaced them after two years, you’d save at least 40. That’s a significant savings considering that 1 in 5 people with periods have had to improvise on period products due to the cost.
Are cups the most environmental option?
Since they are reusable, yes, menstrual cups are more environmentally friendly.
How do I use a menstrual cup? They look way too big to fit up my vagina.
Patience! The first time I tried inserting a cup, I was met with my vagina’s version of Gandolf yelling, “You shall not pass!” Many other people have similar hard times on the first try. “You have to fold it in on itself in order to insert it and then it pops open,” says Amber, who tried the cup for one cycle and hated it. “It’s just supposed to sit there and collect everything but honestly it felt like I was just rifling around in my bloody vagina trying to get this thing situated, and it just wasn’t comfortable.” Inserting the menstrual cup does require you to get up close with your personal bits but like tampons, it’s supposed to get easier the more you try. Jennifer has been using menstrual cups since 1996. “The first time I put it in, I was like, ‘What the holy hell is this?' It felt crazy,” says Barnes. “But I continued and now I would hate to use tampons and pads.” Most people I talked to said they were pros at insertion by the third cycle they tried the cup.
What does a menstrual cup feel like once it’s in?
Barnes says she barely even feels her cup when it’s in. She tells me a story about panicking because she thought she left her cup at home on the way to a cottage weekend with girlfriends, but it turned out she was wearing it! That story is wild to me because the entire time the cup was in my body, I was hyper-aware of its presence. It felt like I let a jellyfish take a nap up my canal. So yeah, not the most comfortable but also not terrible — at least it’s squishy!
What size should I use?
Again, this is all trial and error. Most cups come in two sizes, based on your age and whether you've given birth vaginally, so it’s more about the size of your vagina. In Dr. Jen Gunter's book, The Vagina Bible, the gynaecologist says that it’s hard to make a specific recommendation on size since there are no studies on the fit of menstrual cups. “Some cup manufacturers refer to the age 30 in their size recommendations, but you don’t wake up on your 30th birthday with your vagina magically expanded,” she writes. “A cup should feel comfortable to insert, and when you are wearing it, you should not feel it and should be able to empty your bladder without difficulty.”
Is there spillage?
That depends on who you ask. Barnes says she has no problems even on her heaviest days. “I used to have bloodstains on my underwear all the time when I was using tampons — I never have that now,” she says. But there seems to be just as much risk for tampons and cups when it comes to leakage. Amanda Reimer won her first menstrual cup at a folk music festival in Guelph several years ago (let’s just take a sec to think about that), and has been using cups concurrently with other feminine hygiene products ever since. “It’s never reliable on my heaviest days so I have to use a pad,” says Reimer. “And I’m a swim coach so I do not use it in the pool. I do not feel confident — I think tampons are better.”
Speaking of mess, what happens when you have to take out your cup in a public restroom?
Ah, the biggest dilemma. One of the main things needed to effectively use menstrual cups is access to clean water. It is recommended that you rinse or soak your cup before reinserting. Since you can keep the cup in for up to 12 hours, the public bathroom issue is rarely a problem for Barnes. “Practically speaking, I’m never away from the house long enough,” she says. “Even if I was at work all day and went out after, I would be fine.” But Buchanan had a bad experience in a public bathroom: “You’re fumbling around in your bloody vagina to pull out this bloody funnel that you don’t want to fly all over the bathroom,” she says. “And then you’re like, ‘What do I do with it now?’ You’re like a one-arm bandit because you can only use one hand to leave the stall, empty it out, wash it, etc. Then, you’ve got bloody handprints all over everywhere.” Bottom line: Try to avoid public bathrooms at all costs. Plan your day accordingly.
It’s time to treat periods — and all the gunk that comes with them — like a normal bodily function, not like Voldemort.
Blood freaks me out — I just don’t want to deal with it.
Yes, the cup will be full of blood. Barnes and Reimer think that we need to get over that part. “Look at what pads are called: sanitary napkins,” Barnes says. “There’s a sanitisation of menstruation and we’re made to believe that it’s something dirty or to be embarrassed about.” She says that when you are bleeding into a tampon or bleeding into a pad, you don’t have the same kind of sense of how much blood you’re shedding in a day and that knowledge is power. Reimer adds: “I like that I started to feel very in tune with my body. I noticed that I had very heavy periods. I realized — this is kinda gross — but that I was having a lot of clots,” she continues. “I was able to go to my doctor and give specifics about my body that felt empowering.”
They’re both right. We’ve been conditioned since our very first period to hide our feminine care products like they’re contraband, and to be grossed out by a natural thing that happens to our bodies. When you really think about it, it’s messed up that we attach shame and disgust to this monthly rite of passage. There will be blood. It’s time to treat periods — and all the gunk that comes with them — like a normal bodily function, not like Voldemort.
Let’s talk cleaning. Is there specific soap I should use to wash my cup?
Stoebe-Latham from Tampax says that gentle unscented soap and water will do the trick. She also recommends sanitising the cup in boiling water after your cycle. You can do that in a pot of boiling water, or you can microwave it in a cup of water.
Is there a risk of Menstrual Toxic Shock Syndrome (MTSS) when you’re using a menstrual cup?
Menstrual cups are linked to MTSS, but the risk is low. In Dr. Gunter’s book, she outlines that 1/100,000 people a year are at risk of MTSS, and even though that is low, you can’t assume that menstrual cups are safer than tampons. Inserting anything into your vagina can put you at risk for MTSS. Her advice: Get the smallest cup that gets the job done and boil in between insertions.
So... should I switch to menstrual cups?
Maybe! In a study cited by Dr. Gunter, 91% of people who tried a menstrual cup said they would continue to use it. But like everything that has to do with your bodies, it’s your choice.