Think you only have two options when it comes to coping with your menstrual flow? Think again. Introducing, the menstrual cup. It may be revolutionizing how women manage and view their menstrual cycles.
Menstrual cups have been around (and patented) since 1932. They weren’t commercially available in the US until about 1987, and have evolved over the years. The “cup” is a flexible, funnel-spaced device that is inserted into the vagina during menses to collect menstrual fluid. When the cup is full, it is removed from the vagina, emptied, and replaced. The key differences being the collection versus absorption of menstrual fluid, as pads and tampons do, and the fact the cup is reusable. Intrigued?
There are several manufacturers of menstrual cups. They come in various shapes, sizes, and even colors. Most are made of silicone or rubber, and one cup can last five years or more if cared for properly. There are also cups marketed as single-use, or reusable through one cycle (and even one that can be worn during intercourse). The menstrual cup is more popular with European women, but may be gaining popularity in the US. And that begs the question, why the lag? In my own experience, many women have never even heard of the menstrual cup. And if they have, there are all kinds of questions and doubts (leakage, infection, comfort). Is it the fear of the unknown preventing its use?
“But I’ve been using tampons without any difficulty for years.” A 2011 study asked women to switch from tampons to the menstrual cup. They found that menstrual cups were well tolerated by subjects, and are a satisfactory alternative to tampons. Not to discourage tampon use (let’s face it, a genius invention that has been enabling women to swim, play sports, and be active for years), but consider the down-sides to tampons for a moment. How much trash are we creating when using tampons: the box, the instructions, the wrapper, the applicator, not to mention the tampon itself? Are you tossing or flushing? What impact is that having on our planet? And like anything else we put into our bodies, do you know what’s in your tampons? The FDA regulates the safe amount of chemicals in feminine products. Unless you’re using 100% pure cotton tampons chances are there’s other ingredients in your tampons. And we cannot talk about tampons without mentioning the dreaded toxic shock syndrome (TSS). Although TSS is uncommon, it does happen, but it’s usually with high absorbancy tampons worn beyond the recommended time frame. There have been no reported cases of TSS occurring with the use of menstrual cups. What about the potential harms to my body from the menstrual cup? A preclinical study (before they were available commerically) showed no toxicity or mutagenicity (cancer-provoking potential). Furthermore, menstrual cups do not significantly affect the vaginal flora or pH (the disruption of the normal vaginal environment causes bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections), nor do they cause urinary tract infections.
But can I really rely on the cup? One study measured the frequency of leakage and changing the Mooncup (a specific brand) along with its acceptability among the participants. A total of 126 cycles with women using their usual product and 71 cycles with the Mooncup were recorded. They found that the Mooncup leaked 50% less frequently and was required to be changed 2.8 times less frequently, on average, during one menstrual period than regular sanitary protection (read: less leaking, less changing … equals less time in the bathroom). Interestingly, of the women in this particular study, more than half decided to continue using the Mooncup for sanitary protection.
So if I make the switch, will I really be happier? During clinical testing with women, after three cycles of cup use, 37% of subjects rated the cup as better than, 29% as worse than, and 34% as equal to pads or tampons. In this study, the cup was preferred for comfort, dryness, and less odor. Remember, tampons absorb everything including normal discharge that lubricates the vagina and maintains a normal pH. And what did women say negatively about the cup? The cups received lower ratings in this study for disposal and convenience. The removal of the cup from the vagina takes some practice. In this particularly study a large majority of women were able to insert and remove their first cup using only written instructions. If using the standard reusable cup, it should be emptied, rinsed/wiped, and reinserted (not always the most convenient option in a public restroom). For women participating in this study, there were no significant health risks reported during postmarketing surveillance.