When it comes to period protection, it’s good to know you have options. And while the majority of people who have periods probably reach for tampons and pads to stop the flow, there’s a growing group of people who swear by menstrual cups.
Menstrual-cup devotees usually like these period catchers because of their friendliness to the environment (versus something like pads, which have wrappers that just wind up in the trash), says women’s-health expert Jennifer Wider, MD. They also tend to be more cost-effective over time, given that you can typically reuse a menstrual cup for years before having to buy a new one.
But while you may have heard of menstrual cups in passing, it’s understandable to have questions about what exactly these devices are and how they work. Here’s the deal.
What Is a Menstrual Cup?
A menstrual cup is a device typically made of medical-grade silicone, rubber, latex, or elastomer, according to a 2019 study in The Lancet. Some can last up to 10 years, but there are also disposable single-use menstrual cups on the market.
A menstrual cup looks and operates similarly to a diaphragm, which is a form of contraception that blocks the cervix, says Gloria A. Bachmann, MD, an ob-gyn and associate dean for women’s health at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. It just has a different purpose.
“With the menstrual cup, it is preventing menstrual blood from flowing out of the vagina, whereas the diaphragm is preventing sperm from reaching it,” Dr. Bachmann says.
Menstrual cups are also small and flexible and “designed to catch and collect menstrual blood, as opposed to absorb it like with pads and tampons,” Dr. Wider says. Plus, unlike pads and tampons that have to be changed every four to six hours or four to eight hours, respectively, some menstrual cups, depending on size, can last up to 12 hours before having to emptied, according to Cleveland Clinic.
How to Use a Menstrual Cup
Menstrual cups may take a little practice to get in place and remove. However, most manufacturers have detailed instructions and even videos online to help walk you through the process of using your cup. Here are the basics on how to insert and remove your menstrual cup.
How to Insert a Menstrual Cup
Insertion can be a little tricky to get the hang of, but menstrual-cup fans typically say it’s easy to figure out after a few tries. “You insert it very much like the old contraceptive diaphragms — pinching the edges and inserting it up to the top of the vagina,” says Mary Jane Minkin, MD, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology and reproductive sciences at Yale School of Medicine.
Each menstrual cup is slightly different (and you should follow your cup manufacturer’s instructions), but they generally follow the same insertion process, says Dr. Wider. That includes:
- Washing your hands
- Folding the cup in half like a taco
- Keeping the rim facing up and inserting the folded cup into your vagina
You can add a water-based lubricant to the rim if it makes insertion easier, Dr. Wider says. Once the cup is inside you, it should spring open in your vaginal canal. “The most important aspect of insertion is to be sure that the rim is totally covering the cervix, such that menstrual blood cannot leak around it to undergarments,” Dr. Bachmann says.
How to Remove a Menstrual Cup
Many menstrual cups have a stem on the bottom, which can help with removal. To remove your cup, Dr. Bachmann recommends doing the following:
- Insert your thumb and index finger into your vagina until you feel the bottom of the cup
- Gently pull the stem (if it has one) and rotate the cup until it slides out
- Empty it into the toilet
If your cup doesn’t have a stem, pinch the bottom to break the seal and gently pull the cup out, Dr. Wider says. Keep in mind that you should wash your menstrual cup after use (more on that in a moment).
Some menstrual cups are one-size-fits-all, but many brands sell menstrual cups in different sizes depending on your body’s specifications, like your cervix size. If your cervix is low, you may need a shorter cup, whereas someone with a high cervix might need a longer cup to aid in insertion and removal.
What Are the Advantages and Disadvantage of Using a Menstrual Cup?
Former POPSUGAR staff writer Jenny Sugar put menstrual cups to the test, noting that she decided to give them a try after her second pregnancy. Sugar liked that they were affordable and good for the planet, along with a few more menstrual-cup pros:
- It’s easy to insert and remove once you have practice.
- It can be worn for up to 12 hours, and depending on the size can hold two to four tampons’ worth of fluid.
- It can be worn while woring out, swimming, pooping, and sleeping.
- It doesn’t leak.
- While it’s preferable to have access to a sink when removing the cup so you can clean it before reinserting, it’s not necessary as you can just dump it out and wipe it with some toilet paper.
- It’s great for camping.
Sugar also had a few cons to report:
- Sometimes you can feel it or it’s uncomfortable, especially if you’re cramping
- Removing it can create suction, which can be very uncomfortable.
Menstrual Disc vs. Menstrual Cup
The terms “menstrual disc” and “menstrual cup” tend to be used interchangeably, but they’re technically different. “The disc is shaped like a disc rather than a cup,” Dr. Wider says. “It gets inserted, too, but further back where the vaginal canal meets the cervical opening.”
Some discs can hold more period blood before they need to be changed, Dr. Bachmann says, but it ultimately depends on the type and size you choose.
Another difference: some menstrual discs aren’t reusable. “These get thrown out after each use and can be used up to 12 hours,” Dr. Wider says.
In comparing cups to discs, Sugar reported that the menstrual disc was more comfortable and was hardly felt once inserted. But the removal process was a bit messy, since the menstrual fluid pours out as you untuck it from behind your pubic bone.
How to Clean a Menstrual Cup
It’s important to clean your menstrual cup after every use. “Because it catches blood, if not cleaned properly it can be a source of bacteria buildup, leading to infection, odor, erosion from slight friction against the vagina, and of course, the cup itself getting stained,” Dr. Bachmann says.
After you remove your cup, you can rinse it with water and soap and reinsert it, Dr. Wider says. (Unscented soaps are best, to avoid irritating your vagina.) Between cycles, it’s a good idea to sterilize your cup by boiling it in water for two to three minutes, Dr. Bachmann says.
These are just general guidelines, though. Ultimately, you should follow the manufacturer’s instructions for your cup.
How Much Do Menstrual Cups Cost?
Prices tend to vary by brand. But the Mayo Clinic estimates menstrual cups cost between $20 to $40. This can be huge pro for many people with periods, considering the annual cost of pads and tampons is around $50 to $150 per year, per the Mayo Clinic.
Are Menstrual Cups Safe?
Yes. The Lancet’s study showed that not only are menstrual cups safe, but they can be just as effective as other menstrual products.
Still, Dr. Bachmann stresses the importance of both practicing removing the cup to get the hang of the process and remembering to remove your menstrual cup when your period wraps up to avoid the risk of infection.
Overall, though, “they are safe,” Dr. Minkin says. Dr. Wider agrees, noting that they’re safe, “as long as you use as directed.”
— Additional reporting by Alexis Jones
Image Source: TK