To [Period] Cup or Not to Cup

It’s the new fad for sustainability, for saving resources and ridding our planet of non-biodegradable (and blood-soaked) materials, one period and one woman at a time. While Thinx and similar platforms has revolutionized period-absorbent underwear, period cups go a step further in satisfying your cyclical needs.

Period cups can be a good fit for women in all walks of life, from nulliparous to postpartum. There are many companies on the market today, catering cups for various sizes and shapes. In fact, even the step to decide which cup is right for you may be overwhelming. That’s why some genius people have created quizzes you can take to make this decision easier, for example this online resource (https://putacupinit.com/quiz/).

As absorbable and brilliant as the various aforementioned “period brand” underwear is, sometimes you need extra protection for those extra heavy days (and let’s just say it, washing that underwear is not fun when it’s full of viscous, sometimes clotty, material). So now we’re back to square one, where the options are the traditional disposable pads, disposable tampons, or the more environment and cost-friendly options of reusable cotton pads and the topic du jour, period cups. Let’s play the elimination game, shall we? If sustainability and cost were not issues, I’d still steer clear of tampons because their design hinders the outward flow of blood and have a higher chance of trapping blood and potential pathogens higher up in the vaginal canal. This may enhance the “cramping” pains some women feel in the beginning of menstruation, and may increase the risk of urinary tract and gynecological infections. Brands such as GladRags make reusable pads of various sizes and absorbency needs, from daily discharge, to spotting, to heavy duty overnight ones. These are a good option for people who don’t like the feeling of any foreign object anywhere near the cervix. However, we have the potential issue of overflowing and soaking through the pads, and there is a need to do extra laundry with these.

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Personally, I have found the combination of period cups and period underwear the best bang for your buck in terms of cost, convenience and sustainability. Period cups are made from medical-grade silicone and can stay in the body for up to 12 hours at a time. This means that there is a minimal amount of taking out, emptying, cleaning, fidgeting and general fussing when “changing” your cup. Now, some of you may wonder if it can hold the amount of blood for heavier flows. From my experience, emptying the cup every 12 hours seems to work for even my heavy days. Since everyone is different, I’d recommend changing the cup out every 6-8 hours on your heaviest flow dates to test your own needs and figure out a time frame that works for your body.

Every time the cup is removed, it should be emptied directly into the toilet, and then rinsed in some warm water (with already clean hands) – that’s why I recommend washing your hands before expelling the cup, and again after you reinsert. After the cycle, the cup should be washed with mild soap (you can buy special intimate soap or use gentle castile soap), dried and stored in a dry place until next use (they usually come inside canvas bags for this purpose). The cup can be reused continuously and should last about five years, after which it should be replaced.

One thing that can be concerning is having to change the cup in a public multi-stall restroom with a common sink area. Most of us would probably shy away from going up to the sink and washing our bloodied cup right there for everyone, even fellow bleeding women, to see. For one thing, not everyone is familiar with period cups. For another, it’s one thing to be comfortable with our own blood, but another to not skeeve someone else’s. Luckily, I haven’t found this scenario to be too concerning – because of the generous time frame of the cup capacity. Even if I have (rarely) had to empty and change out the cup in the middle of the day, I could usually schedule it around finding a private or semi-private restroom area for this purpose. Otherwise, I change it once in the morning before starting my day, and about 12 hours later before I go to bed – all in the privacy of my own home bathroom.

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Expelling and inserting the cup could be an art form, of sorts. When expelling, the kegel muscles come into play, so it may be more familiar to ladies who have practiced strengthening these muscles, say during and after pregnancy. But anyone can easily learn how to control these muscles – think of relaxing and opening while you go do a number one or a number two on the toilet. The same relaxation and “pushy” feeling is required to make it easier to get the cup out. In fact, when you really learn to control those muscles, you can simply “pop” the cup most of the way out from a seated or squatting position (ideally over a toilet). Most cups also have a tiny string-like protrusion toward the bottom, which you can pull on to get the rest of the cup out. Reinserting the cup also takes some practice. There are two main ways to squeeze the cup, into either a triangle or a “U” shape, to make it easier to insert into the vaginal opening. From there, you can push up a bit until it expands out fully, and give a gentle twist, rotating it to give it some suction (which will help prevent leakage). You may have to adjust according to where your cervix is facing, and how high up you insert will depend on your comfort. When using the cup, it should feel comfortable and you shouldn’t even feel like anything is inserted at all. It takes practice, but once you get it it becomes second nature.

The really great thing about period cups is that it provides a very real, physical insight into your cycle and intimate area. You can literally see how much blood is expelled every “x” amount of hours that you will be emptying the cup. You can also see the quality of said blood: is it clotty, dark or bright red? These can be great indicators of your reproductive hormones and sexual health. Also, the very act of inserting the cup puts you in a place to move beyond perceived boundaries and into greater intimacy with yourself. You have to feel how high up feels comfortable, and whether your cervix has a natural curve toward one side or the other.

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So let’s recap (or cup, rather), shall we? 

The pros of period cups are they:

  1. Help reduce waste that would otherwise pollute our environment in unrecyclable heaps of plastic, cotton, and biological waste matter.

  2. They are cost-effective since you only need to invest in one about every five years, and will save a lot of money in the long run on sanitary feminine products.

  3. Need minimal changing (2-3 times a day) and minimal upkeep (washing in warm water and some mild soap).

  4. Can be left in overnight, for up to 12 hours.

  5. Can be used in conjunction with period underwear, or reusable pads (or disposable pads).

  6. Get you more attuned to, and in tune, with your cycles and body, and give insight into your health.

On the other hand, the cons of period cups are that:

  1. They take a bit of getting used to in terms of skills to expel and reinsert.

  2. They need to be washed in between reinsertion, which can prove challenging in a public restroom setting.

  3. They can foster growth of bacteria and other pathogens if left in for longer than 12 hours, so definitely don’t forget about taking them out once your cycle is over!

For me, the pros greatly outweigh the cons, and I’ve been happily using the cup for several years now. If this article intrigued you in any way, I’d encourage you to try it for yourself. There are tons of tips and tricks you can find online for troubleshooting, and you can reach out directly to the companies that make the cups for specific questions. Utilize that quiz to get paired with your perfect cup-match, and start cupping, you sustainable, body savvy diva!

Originally published in Jejune Magazine.

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