Understanding the Mystery of the Menstrual Cup

In her lifetime, the average woman will menstruate for approximately 40 years. If she uses an average of 20 tampons per cycle—or 240 tampons per year—they will add up to roughly 9,600 tampons over the span of a lifetime. What happens to all of these tampons and pads? They end up in garbage cans, flushed down toilets and rotting away in landfills. And if these tampons still stick around for years in a landfill, they can have a much harsher reaction to your body.

The majority of tampons and pads contain surfactants, adhesive and additives, including polyethylene plastic, dioxin and synthetic fiber rayon. Oftentimes, these ingredients can leave residue in the vaginal wall, resulting in possible infection and an overall feeling of ickiness. After disposal, many of these substances can then leach into the environment, polluting our groundwater, streams and lakes. That’s a pretty big personal and environmental cost, but tampons and pads can hurt your pocketbook, too. If the average woman uses approximately 300 tampons and pads per year, that can quickly add up to $100—$225 dollars each year.

So, if tampons and pads can lead to environmental harm, women’s health issues and an unnecessary cost, why do we still use them? All of these thoughts were going through my head after studying abroad my junior year of college. During my study abroad experience, I learned about different cultures and different ways of life, including how to properly treat the environment and your body. I was just dipping my toe into environmentalism and learning how to best take care of my body as a young woman. Using anything but tampons had never crossed my mind before, until a friend asked me if I had ever tried a menstrual cup.

“A menstrual cup?” I asked. “What the heck is that?” She responded, “It’s a little cup that you put into your vagina. It’s better for the environment, better for you and a whole lot cheaper.”

A cup. That I put into my vagina. I wasn’t sold. In fact, I kind of cringed. My vagina and I had a delicate relationship; I wasn’t about to ruin that by jamming a cup up there. Still, being the cheapskate environmentalist that I was, I decided to look into it further. According to WebMD, “The small, flexible cup is made of silicone or latex rubber. Instead of absorbing your flow, like a tampon or pad, it catches and collects it.” Okay, interesting enough. Seems pretty reasonable.

The first menstrual cup was patented in 1937, according to a report in the Journal of Women’s Health. However, it didn’t start growing in popularity until closer to the last decade. The beauty of the menstrual cup includes everything that the tampon doesn’t. It’s reusable, so a one-time purchase of approximately $40 can last you anywhere from one to ten years, saving you roughly $50—$150 each year. Since the menstrual cup doesn’t soak up the natural moisture of your body, it’s less likely to leave you dry and uncomfortable.

Additionally, because menstrual cups are made from silicone, they don’t contain latex, plastic, BPA or acyclic, and are free of colors, fragrances and dyes. Without all the toxins and vaginal cuts tampons can cause, menstrual cups also decrease your risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome. And, while normal tampons hold between six and nine grams of liquid, menstrual cups can hold up to one full ounce, or 28 grams. The best part? The cup only has to be changed twice a day, giving you 12 glorious hours of worry-free goodness, including sleeping.

So, I did all of this research, learned all of these things and decided: “Okay, I’m going to give it a try.” So I bought a DivaCup. (For other ideas, check out Lunette, Casco Cup, Softcup and Mooncup.) Here’s what I discovered.

First, it wasn’t a walk in the park my first time around. To insert the cup, you fold two of the sides together, forming a U shape. Then, you simply insert it like you would a regular tampon. The cup springs open inside of your vagina, then you gently rotate it to make sure it’s completely open and a seal is formed to prevent leaks. The cup has a little stem on the bottom of it, which allows you to tell where it sits at the bottom of your pelvic bone. I awkwardly tried to shove the cup up there, twist it around and get it to “lock in.” I had never been so intimate with my period before, and it felt… wrong.

Adjusting the cup your first couple of times can be a little tricky, too; too high up and blood can leak out, two low down and it feels uncomfortable. I adjusted and adjusted, after a few embarrassing leaks and one very painful afternoon. But, let’s think back to middle school: tampons weren’t really our best friends then, either. Everything takes practice, time and a little bit of patience to really learn how it fits. So, I tried again. After my first couple of tries, I finally started to get the hang of it.

And I loved it. Not only was it just as comfortable as a tampon, but I didn’t have to worry about changing it every 8 hours for fear of chemicals soaking into my body and possibly dying. I could insert and extract the cup whenever was most convenient for me, I could wear it overnight without having to worry about leaks and it definitely helped me save on money and environmental impact.

Most importantly, remember that weird feeling I had when getting up close and personal with my vagina? I realized how incredibly immature the whole thing was. For goodness’ sake, it was my vagina, my period, my body. I should probably be a little bit informed with the whole thing, not feel like it’s some horrifying visitor I have to deal with once a month. The menstrual cup gave me an indescribable feeling of confidence, knowing how in-tune I was with my body, my health and the environment.

Three years later, and I am still proud to be going strong on the menstrual cup. While some women may feel intimidated by its odd shape, odd nature or odd process, I encourage us all to get to know our bodies, give back to the Earth and feel safe in the products we use. The menstrual cup might still be a mystery, but it doesn’t have to be. I suspect that soon enough, it will be a solid reality in society.