Mom’s Guide to Menstrual Cups

It was the summer of 1992. I was at church camp and my period came for the first time. The nurse was a 45-year-old man who was totally unprepared and overwhelmed, as was I. He went to Kroger and bought me a box of pads that you could have sewn together into a functional mattress. I took them to the bathroom, read the instructions, followed them, and went back to my group only to discover that I would be required to swim. Ashamed, embarrassed and trying to figure out the logistics of not being anchored to the bottom of the pool by the absorbency of the pad in my bathing suit, I went back to my cabin where my 16-year-old counselor explained things and gave me her full box of “super” tampons. I spent the next 90 minutes in the camp bathroom in 90° heat trying to figure those out. Despite clear instructions, I used the whole blue box and cried a whole lot of tears.

The 25 years since have been marked with countless incidents and discomfort. In case having a period every month and the accompanying physical pain, emotional turmoil, and all-around feeling of blah aren’t burden enough, the traditional tools have never been my friend. I have found them to be messy, uncomfortable, and requiring a varied amount of products to get the job done effectively, especially post babies. I had come to dread that time of the month even more than normal, so you’d think that when I heard about an alternative I would have been totally open to it, but my thoughts went a little more like this: What?! You do what with that thing?! And you use it again?! Gross. Absolutely not. I am kinda crunchy, but I am not THAT crunchy. No way. Never. But after more miserable and messy periods, I hopped on Amazon (because you had better believe I was not going out in public to buy one) and purchased the cheapest option I could find to test it out. Just as necessity is the mother of invention, desperation is the mother of trying things you swore you never would. (<– I’d like to thank the Academy motherhood for teaching me that lesson over and over again). 

What is a menstrual cup? A silicone or latex cup used internally to collect fluid in place of an external pad or tampon to absorb it.

I read the insert, boiled it to be sure it was “clean”, took a wild guess at which fold would work easiest for me and had tremendous success THE FIRST TIME. I felt nothing. Nothing. No rubbing or pressure or discomfort at all! My husband came home and I was skipping around smiling like I had some kind of big surprise and when he asked me what it was I told him. He was underwhelmed. How could he NOT understand how life-changing this was for me? No mess. And more than that, hardly any pain. Yep. I’m one of the people whose cramps were made worse by tampons, so to be on my period and feel only slight discomfort was amazing. But (since I’m a tell-it-like-it-is kind of girl) as wonderful as day one was, the second attempt was not so lucky. In fact, it was rather unlucky and rather messy and I was mad. I almost quit then and there, but I had been having a period for nearly 25 years, so the rational part of my brain (which is not always on high alert that time of the month) said that expecting to change how I operate overnight without some success and some struggle was unrealistic. So I committed to 90 days and three periods and I haven’t looked back.

Why consider menstrual cups?

They are clean. After you get the hang of it, menstrual cups are not messy. Since you only have to empty them every 12 hours, you can do so at home (Tip: Many women I know only empty, clean, and reinsert theirs in the shower.) I myself am not a fan of mess and all I need is a sink with hot water or a baby wipe (in a pinch). I choose to wear pantiliner for my own peace of mind, but it’s not necessary if you have a good fit.

They are green. Menstrual cups generate way less waste – none in fact – except the box it comes in. One period a month x 12 months a year x 40 years = a lot of waste, so if you are looking to decrease your footprint, this is a good way. And even if you aren’t worried about the environment, cups mean less stuff. I used to have light, medium and heavy products for differing times in my cycle which meant boxes and boxes of partially used products under my sink – with wings and without, extra long and teeny tiny, double thick and super thin. Now, I have just one product. Just one thing to manage, clean, and store that only needs to be purchased every five years.

They are lean. Let’s do the quick math here. Even if you purchase a more expensive brand of menstrual cup at a drugstore and not online (so, probably $40) and you buy two for convenience, you have still only spent 2/3 of what the average mom spends on feminine care products in a year. I spent $10 on my two cups and have been using the same ones for three years now, which has saved me $10/mo. x 12 months x 3 years = $360.

Who can use a menstrual cup?

Anyone with a period. Young girls. Teenagers. Pre-babies. Post-babies. Pre-menopause. 

But what about a first-timer?  I am commonly asked if I would recommend them for young girls new to having their period and my answer is absolutely yes. Of course, I know lots of women at different ages and stages who are using them now. Post-babies, I find the menstrual cup to be so much nicer to my body than a tampon. For me, using a menstrual cup has meant additional learning about my own body, how it’s made and how it works. Even having delivered babies and having periods for a couple decades, I honestly wasn’t super informed, and I am now. I’m learning the ins and outs of my cycle, how I react during different parts of the process, and while we aren’t planning any more babies, it’s empowering to be more aware of my fertility. I absolutely plan to teach my daughter a whole lot more a whole lot sooner.

But what if your period is heavy? No problem. If you are worried, change it more frequently than every 12 hours, but most of my fellow cup users with heavy flow still only empty twice a day.

But what if it isn’t comfortable? I strongly recommend doing some research about the different types of cup before you purchase. This will require you to get up close and personal with your body, but it’s your body, so it’s okay. This chart will help you get started and there are a number of resources there to help you find a comfortable (and effective) fit. One of the primary complaints I have heard is about the “tip” (pictured above) which is the flexible part at the bottom of the cup that you use to pull it out. This can be easily trimmed (or you can purchase one without a tip at all).

But what if it “gets lost”? It won’t. Just as a tampon can get rotated and require extra effort to remove, this can as well, but given the design, it’s even less likely. 

But what if you have to empty it in public? I find that this happens exceptionally rarely, as I am almost always home at some point in 12 hours, but if not, or if you end up having to deal with it in an airplane bathroom or (heaven forbid) a port-o-potty, I promise you will survive. I prefer to have a sink for handwashing, but I have emptied mine in both of the aforementioned and less than ideal places and lived to tell the tale. For those that are nervous, or simply like to be overprepared, here’s what I keep with me when I am on my period: a tiny coin pouch with a pantiliner, a plastic bag of wipes, and travel size hand sanitizer. At one point, I went six months without using anything in this pouch in public. (Tip: This goes without saying, please only use hand sanitizer for your hands. Use the wipe or nothing for the cup. Hand sanitizer and your nether regions are not friends). 

What if you want to make the switch?

  1. Take this QUIZ can help you narrow down the choices. 
  2. Buy the least expensive option first BEFORE your next period, not when you are already on your period. In-store options are pricey.
  3. Practice. This sounds silly and self-explanatory, but if I were you I wouldn’t wait until your cycle has already started to get down to business. Give yourself some mess-free trials and build success. (Tip: Running it under warm water makes it more flexible and coconut oil makes it easier to insert. You’re welcome.) 
  4. Commit to 90 days or three cycles. Try different folds and different positions for inserting and use pantiliners for peace of mind until you figure out what works for you. 
  5. Give away your pads and tampons, because you won’t look back. 

Menstrual cups aren’t for everyone. If you are horrified even reading this, then they probably aren’t for you. But if you’ve been miserable, uncomfortable, looking for ways to make a smaller environmental footprint, have less mess, or save some money – they’re worth a try.

Do you have more questions? Ask! (I’ll answer back in the comments.) 

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