What Is a Menstrual Cup and How to Use One

Dr. Jolene BrightenPublished: Last Reviewed: Menstrual Cycle, Period Leave a Comment

At first glance, menstrual cups may seem daunting. While this period product still falls behind tampons and pads in popularity, many people are starting to see the benefits of switching to a menstrual cup. 

Menstrual cups can be worn longer than either tampons or pads, and can be reused for up to 10 years, making them a convenient, cost effective, and sustainable swap.

If you’ve been curious about ditching pads and tampons, read on for the pros and cons, benefits, risks, and the how-to’s of menstrual cups.

What are Menstrual Cups?

Menstrual cups are reusable, bell-shaped silicone cups inserted into the vagina to catch period blood. They are made with medical grade silicone or rubber and can be worn safely for up to 12 hours before being cleaned, and reused. While single-use menstrual cups do exist, many women prefer the reusable cups as a cost-effective and sustainable alternative to disposable pads or tampons.

How Do Menstrual Cups Work?

A menstrual cup is designed to fit comfortably inside your vagina during your period. It works by forming a light seal inside against your vaginal wall, preventing leaks and capturing period blood. Unlike a pad or tampon, a menstrual cup does not absorb blood, it simply collects it. When it is time to change, reusable menstrual cups can be emptied, washed, and placed back in the vagina. Never reuse a disposable menstrual cup.

The Pros of a Menstrual Cup

What makes a menstrual cup worth it? Thanks to their sustainability, cost-effectiveness, and comfort, this period care product is quickly growing in popularity.

Cost-efficient

It’s no secret that periods can be expensive. “Period poverty” is a real issue, and occurs when menstruators struggle to afford, or lack safe access to the necessary period care products, clean toilets and hand-washing facilities. In a recent study on period costs, the average participant reported spending $13.25 each month on menstrual products. When you consider that over an average lifetime, a woman or menstruating person has a cycle for about 40 years of their life, that means we’re shelling out $6,360 just to have a period. 

What if we could replace those monthly costs with a reusable option? While reusable menstrual cups are more expensive upfront, ringing in at about $20-40, they are designed to last up to 10 years, and can save you serious money in the long-haul.

Eco-friendly

While we’re saving our wallets, why not save the planet too? Menstrual cups offer a reusable alternative to disposable pads and tampons, joining the ranks of other eco-friendly options like reusable pads, and period underwear. 

In 2018 alone, US consumers purchased (and tossed) 5.8 billion tampons. In fact, just one menstruating person can use between 5,000 and 15,000 pads and tampons in their lifetime, all headed straight for the landfill.

Like any single-use, disposable product, pads and tampons are rife with plastic. From plastic applicators and adhesive strips, to leak-proof liners and moisture-wicking padding, to their individually-wrapped packaging, the plastic waste from period products is frankly staggering.  While some brands do offer more eco-conscious options like applicator-free tampons, organic cotton pads, or plastic-free packaging, these items ultimately still end up in a landfill. Shifting to reusable options like menstrual cups could seriously reduce your personal waste footprint.

You Can Easily Assess Your Blood Color

Did you know that the color of your period blood can actually be useful information? With a menstrual cup, it’s easy to notice any changes in your menstrual blood color, consistency, or odor throughout your period. Familiarizing yourself with your menstrual blood can help you identify hormonal shifts, nutrient needs, or even infections. 

Read more: Period Blood Color — What does it mean and what's normal? 

Chemical-free & Non-irritating

Menstrual cups are made with either rubber, or medical grade silicone, meaning they are smooth, chemical-free and non-irritating. If you have a latex sensitivity, be sure to opt for a silicone cup! Because they are smooth and non-absorbent, menstrual cups are a great choice for folks who feel sensitivity or dryness when using tampons.

Pads and tampons, on the other hand, raise serious concerns with reports of toxins and harmful synthetic ingredients like undisclosed fragrances, bleached cotton, plastic fibers, pesticide residue, and more, all exposed to some of the most sensitive and highly absorbent skin on your body.

Mess-free Period Sex

If you enjoy intimacy all month, menstrual cups are the way to go. While most reusable menstrual cups are too large, some disposable menstrual cups, (and a few reusable options!) are designed with intimacy in mind. Some options are designed with a low-profile shape that allows you to have vaginal sex with your cup still in place. Just keep in mind that menstrual cups are not contraceptives, and you’ll still need to use protection to prevent pregnancy or infections. 

The Cons of a Menstrual Cup

If menstrual cups were all sunshine and sustainability, we’d all be using them. For some folks, they are! But for others, they pose some serious obstacles and “ick” factors. Let’s take a look at some of the disadvantages of menstrual cups for period care.

They Can Be Messy

This one probably doesn’t surprise you. Removing a full menstrual cup will be messy until you get the hang of it. If seeing or touching blood makes you squeamish, maybe this isn’t the route for you. I definitely recommend starting your menstrual cup journey on days when you can be comfortable at home (not in a restroom stall!) and expect a bit of a learning curve.

They Can Feel Stuck

Don’t worry, your menstrual cup can’t get permanently lost, and you can remove it yourself (keep reading for an explanation on exactly how to do this). However, especially as you first learn how to wear a cup, you may experience difficulty reaching the cup to remove it, breaking the suction seal, or simply frustration  that can be scary. 

They Can Be Difficult to Use

Of all the period products out there, menstrual cups may be the most difficult to use. It may take readjusting, or several tries, to find the right position or cup size that works for your flow. Getting it out without making a mess might be even worse. Some people find using a menstrual cup to feel relatively natural, but for others, it might be a frustrating or negative experience. Remember, you get to choose what works for you.

You Need to Wash Your Menstrual Cup Between Uses

With pads or tampons, you simply toss the old one, and unwrap a fresh new one. Menstrual cups however, need to be washed thoroughly between uses in order to avoid the risk of infections. While this reusability is one of their greatest strengths, this can be difficult when you’re in a public restroom or away from home.

Menstrual Cups Could Dislodge an IUD

Some recent research suggests that using a menstrual cup could increase your risk of shifting an intrauterine device (IUD, a form of birth control). While an IUD sits in your uterus, not your vagina, there is a risk of pulling on the strings, or causing suction when removing your cup. If you have an IUD and are considering using menstrual cups, talk with your doctor.

Menstrual cup quote

How to Use a Menstrual Cup

Alright, you’ve weighed the pros and cons, and you're ready to give it a try: how do you use a menstrual cup? While they may look intimidating, menstrual cups can be a safe, comfortable, and secure way to manage your menstruation. Expect a learning curve, and follow these tips to see if cups are the way for you.

How to Insert a Menstrual Cup

  1. Start with a clean cup, and clean hands. Clean your hands, fingernails, and cup thoroughly with warm soapy water to prevent new bacteria from entering your vagina.
  2. Fold the cup. If you’re looking at a menstrual cup thinking “how the heck is that fitting up there?,” never fear. There are several ways to fold a menstrual cup that allow you to comfortably insert it. You can fold it in half in the shape of a “C” or a “U” (when viewed from the top), an “S,” or an “M” shape. Experiment to learn what works for you — but just make sure the cup's opening faces up so it can do its job. 
  3. Insert the cup. Find a comfortable, relaxed position; some prefer sitting, squatting, or standing with one foot up on the toilet. Holding the folded menstrual cup with one hand, use your other hand to part your labia, and gently guide the menstrual cup into your vagina, pushing back towards your tailbone. If you prefer, you can also use a small amount of water or water-based lube on the outside of the cup.
  4. Allow the menstrual cup to “pop” open to a full circle. Your menstrual cup should sit pretty low in the vagina, but high enough to not protrude. To make sure it is fully opened, insert your finger along the menstrual cup and feel around the rim to check if it is still folded. You can also grab the base of the menstrual cup, and gently rotate it to make sure everything feels leak-proof and secure. 

How Long Can You Wear a Menstrual Cup for?

You can safely wear a menstrual cup for up to 12 hours, meaning you will need to change it less frequently than a pad or tampon. Most women prefer to empty their menstrual cup every 4-6 hours during the day, but as you adjust to wearing a cup, you will learn the volume of your own flow, and decide what works for you.

Can You Sleep with a Menstrual Cup?

Yes, you can wear your menstrual cup while you sleep. Because it is safe to wear a menstrual cup for 12 hours, you can safely use it for period protection overnight. 

How to Tell When Your Menstrual Cup Is Full?

You won’t be able to feel when your menstrual cup is full, but with regular use you’ll get to know your flow and its timing. A typical menstrual cup can hold around 1-2 oz, a lot more than even heavy duty tampons. For your first few uses, empty your cup after 4-6 hours and note how full it got in that time. From there, you can start to gauge what frequency works best for your flow.

How to Remove a Menstrual Cup

Always remove your cup with clean hands. Find a comfortable position, generally sitting or squatting above the toilet. If it helps, you can gently bear down on your pelvic floor muscles, pushing the cup further down and making it easier to grab. Using your finger and thumb, reach the base of the cup (not the stem), and pinch it to break the suction seal. You can also use your finger to break the seal by reaching to the rim of the cup. Once the seal is released, gently pull the cup down and out.

Cleaning and Maintaining Your Menstrual Cup

After removing your menstrual cup, empty the blood, and clean it thoroughly with warm water and a mild, unscented soap. Double check to make sure that no blood remains in the holes along the rim. After a wash and a rinse, you can reinsert the cup for its next use. If you are changing your cup in a bathroom stall, or other place where you can’t give it a full wash, it’s ok to simply wipe it clean with toilet paper, and reinsert it. Be sure to wash it the next time you are able to do so.

After every period cycle (and before using it for the first time), it is also important to disinfect your menstrual cup. For most cups, simply sterilize in boiling water for 5-10 minutes, taking care not to let it burn against the pan.

Are Menstrual Cups Safe?

Menstrual cups are safe to use. The risk of any side effects from using menstrual cups is very low if they are used correctly. Because menstrual cups do not absorb blood, and are washed and sterilized frequently, they carry a very low risk of infections. Further, they can be safely worn for longer periods of time than tampons or pads.

Can Menstrual Cups Cause TSS?

Menstrual cups are considered very safe when it comes to Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). TSS is a very rare condition caused by bacterial overgrowth. Because menstrual cups are non-absorbent, your risk of TSS is even lower with a menstrual cup than with tampons. To reduce the risk of any infection, always wash your hands before inserting or removing your cup, and thoroughly clean your cup before insertion.

Can Menstrual Cups Get Stuck?

Sometimes, if a menstrual cup is inserted incorrectly, or creates a suction seal against your cervix, it can feel like it’s gone for good. If this happens to you, don’t panic! Your menstrual cup cannot be swallowed up by your vagina, and I promise it will come out. 

If normal removal techniques aren't working, there are a few things to try. First, take a break and relax. If you’ve been trying for a while and your vaginal muscles are stressed, clenched, or sore, give your body a chance to calm down. With clean hands, you can insert a finger along the side of the menstrual cup until you feel the rim. Gently, try pressing inward on the rim, or squeezing the body of the cup until you can break the seal. It may help to try several different positions, or to remove the cup while in a bath or hot shower.

If you still feel stuck, relax and be patient. Remember that your menstrual cup is made of medical grade material, and it’s ok if it’s up there a little longer than you planned. Once your cup is unstuck and your stress has subsided, take a moment to review how to insert your cup, and make sure to always rinse any blood out of the small holes on the rim, which help release suction pressure.

Can Teens Use Menstrual Cups?

Teens can certainly use menstrual cups, and menstrual cups are safe for menstruators of any age, and any size. That said, menstrual cups have a steep learning curve compared to pads or tampons, so may be frustrating for teens who are just starting their periods. If your teen is curious about menstrual cups, be open to talking with them about their anatomy, and use this article to help guide them towards the information they need.

Read next: 11 Ways To Prepare Your Daughter For Her First Period

Do Menstrual Cups Hurt?

Menstrual cups should not hurt if they are inserted correctly – in fact, you shouldn’t feel one at all once it’s in place. Those with sensitivity may actually prefer menstrual cups over tampons, as the smooth silicone surface can be much more comfortable than dry, absorbent cotton.

Can I Use a Menstrual Cup If I Am a Virgin?

Yes, you can absolutely use a menstrual cup if you have never had sex. Your vagina is a muscle, and is designed to be flexible, expand and contract, whether or not you have had penetrative sex before. Remember that virginity is a societal concept; if you haven’t had sex, you haven’t had sex, and inserting a menstrual cup isn’t going to change that. If you’ve never used tampons, or inserted anything in your vagina, a menstrual cup can be a big jump. Take time to get comfortable with your body, and your anatomy, and be patient with yourself as you learn. 

Will Using a Menstrual Cup Make My Periods Shorter?

While there is currently no clinical research on the claim that menstrual cups can lead to shorter periods, it’s definitely worth considering. Some people who switch from using pads and tampons to menstrual cups find that they notice a shift to lighter or shorter periods. Unfortunately, there’s big money to be made from selling pads and tampons, so it may be a while before we see well-funded research on this benefit.

Your choice in period products is yours alone, and only you can decide what’s best for you. That said, I definitely encourage you to consider all your options! I hope this article answered all the questions you needed to decide if menstrual cups are worth a try. Check out these resources to learn more about your period and your health.

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References

  1. Long, Jill MD, MPH, MHS; Schreiber, Courtney MD, MPH; Creinin, Mitchell D. MD; Kaneshiro, Bliss MD, MPH; Nanda, Kavita MD, MPH; Blithe, Diana PhD. Menstrual Cup Use and Intrauterine Device Expulsion in a Copper Intrauterine Device Contraceptive Efficacy Trial [OP01-1B]. Obstetrics & Gynecology. 2020. 135. 1S.
About The Author

Dr. Jolene Brighten

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Dr. Jolene Brighten, NMD, is a women’s hormone expert and prominent leader in women’s medicine. As a licensed naturopathic physician who is board certified in naturopathic endocrinology, she takes an integrative approach in her clinical practice. A fierce patient advocate and completely dedicated to uncovering the root cause of hormonal imbalances, Dr. Brighten empowers women worldwide to take control of their health and their hormones. She is the best selling author of Beyond the Pill and Healing Your Body Naturally After Childbirth. Dr. Brighten is an international speaker, clinical educator, medical advisor within the tech community, and considered a leading authority on women’s health. She is a member of the MindBodyGreen Collective and a faculty member for the American Academy of Anti Aging Medicine. Her work has been featured in the New York Post, Forbes, Cosmopolitan, Huffington Post, Bustle, The Guardian, Sports Illustrated, Elle, and ABC News. Read more about me here.