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SocietyJune 2, 2017

The life-changing magic of the menstrual cup


Over the course of her lifetime, an average woman will use more than 11,000 tampons and pads at an estimated cost of almost $16,000. But there’s an alternative: the menstrual cup – an indestructible, environmentally friendly, unlimited use product that fans call ‘life changing’. So why don’t more women use them, wonders MB Acres.

I have always struggled with my period: pain, heavy bleeding, sore kidneys, feeling faint and the urge to upchuck everything. Chances are that if you are a post-puberty woman there will be something in there that you can relate to. We know that time of the month can be awful; the hard thing is knowing whether your levels of pain, bleeding and so on fall within the ‘normal’ spectrum of awful… or whether there is something else going on.

Periods are undeniably disgusting but they are a part of life – and when you think about it, dealing with blood from your uterus is not all that different to dealing with blood from a paper cut or a stubbed toe. The standard ways to manage one’s monthly expulsion of blood and tissue from your lady-bits is to use disposable pads or tampons; most people use a combination of the two. With both of these the idea is the same: the product either externally (pads) or internally (tampons) absorbs the blood, and you dispose of it promptly.

A supermarket display of menstrual products. Photo: WikiCommons

Tampons and pads are fine, but there are a few drawbacks that began putting me off: the environmental impact of so much waste, the discomfort of wearing them and the expense.

But what choice did I have? For a long time I thought tampons and pads were the only options. In fact there are actually loads of other ways to manage your period, including menstrual cups, cloth pads and tampons, sea sponges, ‘period panties’ and menstrual discs. What you prefer out of these (or what you are even willing to try) will vary from woman to woman. But we have a choice, and that’s great news.

How do we find out about our options though? Periods are not something we talk about enough – most people I know seem to struggle along privately. It took me years to not feel weird about simply putting menstrual products through a checkout operator at Countdown. Think about that for a minute – why was I ashamed of the products I use to deal with a natural part of life?

The more we can talk about periods, the more we will be able to learn from each other and become empowered about our own reproductive health. Case in point: a few years ago I first encountered someone talking openly about ‘Moon Cups’ (a type of menstrual cup). It sparked my curiosity and after a little Googling I purchased my first cup.

Menstrual cups are small surgical-grade silicone cups that you wear internally and which collect your menstrual blood. There are loads of varieties: soft, more firm, clear, coloured, and with a ball, ring or stem at the base to remove it. There are even options for those with silicone allergies. The principle is that instead of absorbing your menstrual blood it collects it; the amount varies, but most cups I have seen in New Zealand have around a 30ml capacity. The cup stays up with a ring of suction and when it’s full you simply empty it into the loo and wash/wipe it clean, then re-insert and carry on with your day. Once every cycle it is a good idea to boil the cup to sterilise it properly.

A Lunette menstrual cup. Photo: WikiCommons

There are lots of different brands of cups, most of which have cringey ‘spiritual’ names: Diva Cup, Moon Cup, Luna Cup. I ended up buying the Diva Cup because it was what my local pharmacy had in stock. There are two sizes (one aimed at those who haven’t given birth, and one for those who have) and it cost around $60.

When I first used it I was quite nervous, and to be honest it took me a little while to get the knack. I was worried it would leak (it did), that it would be uncomfortable (it was, until I figured out how to use it) and that it would be revolting (surprisingly, less gross than tampons). I persisted, and after a week of trial and error I have not looked back. After 18 months or so of using my cup I have found it overall much more comfortable to wear and cheaper due to the one-off cost.

So is the menstrual cup a one-size-fits-all solution to period worries? Nope. Much like any product, it is going to suit different people in different ways, but I would hedge my bets that there is a menstrual cup out there for most women that will be their perfect fit. The cup gurus over at Put A Cup In It have even created a brilliant, bias-free quiz to help the uninitiated figure out which cup they should go for.

My menstrual cup has been life-changing. The biggest plus was an unexpected one: for the first time I have been able to understand what my body is doing more precisely. A few months ago I started keeping track of my periods, noting down when they started, how long they lasted, how much I was bleeding and anything else unusual. In February and March this year I had a particularly nasty time: I was weak and nauseous, bled for days on end, and on one particularly bad day lost more than 500ml of blood.

And that’s where the cup comes into its own. It’s given me an almost scientific approach to monitoring my own flow – instead of just thinking “wow I am going through a lot of tampons today!” I’m able to understand the problem in measurable 30ml units. Instead of using a wholly subjective scale, I had objective facts about what was going on in my body.

Armed with my notes I went to a doctor who was able to look them over and agree with me that things weren’t normal. She then sent me to a specialist who ran some tests and diagnosed me with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. As it turns out I have had it for years, and armed with a diagnosis I’ve been on medication for a little over a month now. Already the irregular, heavy and painful periods have gone, as well as the migraines, acne, and fatigue. It’s not quite smooth sailing yet, but things are infinitely better.

The confidence to actually talk to my doctor about this, and not just get fobbed off with ‘you’re on the normal spectrum’, was amazing. I had been to doctors, including a gynaecologist, about all of these problems before; without my menstrual cup I wouldn’t have had the tools to advocate for myself to get a diagnosis. These days I’m no longer squeamish about periods. No more delicate discussion of “that time of the month” – I’m preaching the good news about menstrual cups, loud and proud.

So ladies: it’s your body and what works for each of us is different…. But if you are struggling with your period, or just curious about what your other options are, then why not give a cup a try?

This story was updated in February 2021 to remove reference to menstrual cups not causing toxic shock syndrome. More recent research has found menstrual cups can, on rare occasions, be a cause of toxic shock syndrome.

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