I was 9 when I first saw an advert for menstrual cups. It was stuck to the back of the toilet door at my favourite local restaurant. A decade later, it’s still there. Although the tiles, the lock and the taps have all been changed, the advert has evaded removal.
Its corners are disintegrating but the writing remains clear:
Although it was 2010 before I ever heard of a menstrual cup – and 2019 before I used one – they’ve been around for over a century. The first records of menstrual cups are dated to 1867, while the first commercial cups were made in 1937.
Their current popularity is attributed to growing awareness of the environmental cost of single-use pads and tampons, and broader calls to lift the shroud of shame and mystery from sexual health in general.
I’ve been using a menstrual cup for 1 year and 1 month, and I’m here to give an honest account of what it’s been like.
I am pretty sure that the Mooncup marketing team was not referring to leakages when it put the word ‘safer’ on its advert. It was probably referring to bacterial infections.
Your vagina is meant to stay moist – like your nostrils or your eyeballs. Vaginal fluids help to balance pH levels and protect against bacteria. Because they absorb the ‘good’ fluids as well as the blood, tampons cause dryness and can increase the risk of infection.
Pads, too, carry a higher risk of infection than cups, a study published in The Lancet has found. A blood-soaked pad is the perfect environment for bacterial growth. Not surprising, really.
A bonus point for the cup is that because there’s no dried/drying blood, there’s no icky smell.
For me, where my menstrual cup is most notably safer is in the leaks department. I admit that placing my cup is still difficult. Attempt number 3 is normally the lucky one. Checking the cup is open properly can be a fiddle, but I’m happy to spend the extra minute because my cup has never leaked.
Furthermore, it is safe to insert your cup before your period starts, so there’s no chance of being caught out.
Period care products are an unavoidable item of everyday life. Without thinking, I used to throw boxes of tampons into my shopping basket alongside the kitchen towels and orange juice. I did that for six years. I had been having periods and using disposable products for six years before I ever stopped to wonder ‘what are these tampons made of?’
As it turns out, nothing natural.
Products from brands such as Tampax, Bodyform and Always are made of polyester (essentially plastic) and viscose. These man-made fibres take 500-800 years to decompose in landfill.
100% cotton tampons and pads are better, but still take decades to decompose.
Plastic tampon applicators never do. Last year, I took part in a beach clean. I saw applicators everywhere – yellow, pink, pearly white. They must have been the most common item I cleared from the beach that day. It’s shameful because it’s avoidable.
The Guardian states that the average women uses – and throws away – 8,640 tampons or pads in a lifetime. Compared with disposable pads or tampons, using a menstrual cup reduces the amount of plastic thrown away by 94-99.6%.
Looking back, I can’t believe I never stopped to ask what materials were in my tampons and pads. I always check the materials in a t-shirt or a pair of jeans before buying, and those stay on the outside of my body!
I spent £350 on tampons and pads in my teenage years, before I became aware that Tampax was not the only way. In the year since I started using a cup, I’ve saved £80. Most cups last a decade, so I’ll have saved myself £800 by the time I’m 30.
In a lifetime, you can expect to spend £1,500 on disposable tampons and pads. The BBC allows you to calculate your spending here.
Another saving is that menstrual cups can safely collect more blood than tampons and pads. So not only do they need to be changed less often, but there is also a smaller chance of needing to use two products at the same time.
The cup I bought was from TOTM (size 2) and costed £19.95. There are lots of different menstrual cup brands out there, with prices ranging from £5 to £40+. I wouldn’t worry too much about the differing box descriptions; the variations are mostly in marketing rather than function.
The two main things to look out for are a) size and b) stem type. Most brands make 2 sizes – one for if you’ve given birth vaginally, and one for if you haven’t. Some brands, like TOTM, make a third, smaller size for if you’ve never had sex.
The stem helps you to remove the cup. Some cups have long stems, some have short ‘nubs’, and some have no stem at all. I haven’t quite worked out how the last kind doesn’t spill all over the place, but stemless cups such as Nixit have received rave reviews.
Menstrual cups: trendy but not mainstream
When I was 9, reading the Mooncup advert on the toilet door, I barely understood the idea of a period. When I got my first period years later, I was shocked and squeamish.
Thank goodness, then, that disposable products allowed me to throw way all evidence of my discomfort. Tampon strings and applicators meant I could keep a safe distance from the mess.
It is true that inserting a cup requires touching my vagina, seeing blood, and yes, sometimes having to touch it. But I have found that it’s really not that bad.
Considering that they provide a secure method of collecting blood, are invisible from the outside, do not hinder taking part in sports, and only need to be changed around 2-3 times a day, it is strange that menstrual cups are not more popular.
The choice of how best to manage your period is your own. However, the embarrassment that blankets all talk of periods means we do not always make informed choices.
We do not have conversations with our friends about what has worked for them. We do not speak up when we are uncomfortable. Perhaps if we did, we would realise that we are not the only ones who find inserting a menstrual cup difficult; we are not the only ones for whom contraception has made our periods worse not better; we are not the only ones who get cramps. We would be less embarrassed because we would know we were not alone.
A year ago, I tried something new and, frankly, a bit scary. This is my honest review.