A menstrual cup is a small, flexible cup that you insert into your vagina. Instead of absorbing your period flow, like a tampon or pad, the cup catches and collects your flow. After 8 to 12 hours, you remove the cup and wash it out for reuse. It's sometimes known as a period cup.
How Do Menstrual Cups Work?
The menstrual cup looks like a small bowl with a little stem on the end. Menstrual cups come in different sizes and materials. You'll see them mostly sold in small and large sizes.
- Small: For people with a light to medium flow, who are are under 30 or who haven't had a baby.
- Large: For people with a heavy flow, over age 30, or who have had a baby.
- Some companies also offer a "teen" size that is smaller than the small size, and/or an extra-large size.
Most period cups are made of silicone. However, some are made of rubber, so if you're allergic to latex, buy one that's made of silicone.
They also come in different shapes:
- V-shape: The cup is longer than it is wide. It tapers gradually from the rim. This is the most popular design.
- Bell-shape: The cup is rounder than the V-shape, flaring out from the rim. It is longer than it is wide.
- Round: The cup is wider than it is long, with the widest point of the vessel being below the rim.
- Asymmetrical: The cup has a slanted edge to sit at a certain rotation and angle under the cervix. It is longer than it is wide.
Like any other product for your period, you can buy cups online or over the counter at grocery stores and drugstores.
When Were Menstrual Cups Invented?
Although they may seem like a recent invention, menstrual cups have been around since the 1800s. The first menstrual cup, patented in 1867, was basically a rubber sack attached to a rubber ring.
In 1937, an American actor named Leona Chalmers patented the first commercially available menstrual cup, designing something that would fit in with her on-the-move lifestyle. Her design was very similar to the bell-shaped menstrual cup we have today. However, manufacturing it was hard as it was made of rubber, a scarce material during World War II.
In the 1960s, Chalmers tried again, partnering with a bigger menstrual products company to produce the cup. But women found it too rigid and embarrassing to insert, so it was not a success. In the early 2000s, menstrual cups were reintroduced, this time in a softer silicone form, which helped it to find a bigger consumer market.
How to Use a Menstrual Cup
If you're new at this, or trying it just before your period begins, you might want to start with the small size. Read the instructions that come with your cup. If you're taking the cup out of its packaging, wash it with soap and water and dry it before using it for the first time.
How to insert a menstrual cup
- Wash your hands well with soap and water.
- Apply a thin layer of a water-based lubricant to the rim of the cup or just wet it. This will make it easier to put in. Some people prefer to insert the cup in the shower for the same reason.
- Tightly fold the menstrual cup in half with the rim up and insert it inside your vagina, just like you would a tampon without an applicator. (Or bend one corner of the cup to form a triangle or the shape of the number 7, which creates a narrower entry point.) You might it find easier to insert the cup squatting, sitting on the toilet, or with one leg up. Slide the folded cup in toward your tailbone at roughly a 45-degree angle.
- Once inside, your cup will spring open and rest against the walls of your vagina. It forms a seal to prevent leaks. The blood then simply drips into the cup.
- If the cup doesn't open or feels uncomfortable, try to rotate it a little. Used correctly, you shouldn’t feel it.
It may take a bit of practice to get the cup to fit comfortably, but it can't get lost inside your vagina.
How to remove a menstrual cup
- Wash your hands clean with soap and water.
- Sit (or squat) in a comfortable position.
- Insert your index finger and thumb into your vagina and locate the cup's stem. Just above it, you'll feel the cup base. Gently pinch it to break the seal and remove it. If it's not coming out, use your pelvic floor muscles to push the cup down, then reach up and grab the stem and pinch the base.
- Keep the cup upright to avoid spills. Once it's out, empty the contents into the toilet.
- Unless your cup is disposable, wash it out with soap and water. At the end of your cycle, sterilize your cup in boiling water and dry it for next month's use.
Note: Although you can keep your period cup inserted up to 12 hours, you may need to change it more often than that if your period is in one of its heavy days.
Benefits of Menstrual Cups
They're eco- and wallet-friendly. A reusable cup costs $20 to $40 and can last up to 10 years. (By contrast, pads and tampons cost about $100 or more per year.) That means less money over time and less waste in landfills. These benefits don’t apply to disposable brands though.
You can leave them in for 12 hours. Tampons need to be changed every 4 to 8 hours, depending on your flow. But cups can stay in longer, so they’re good for overnight protection. And once you get the hang of inserting, there’s no need to wear a backup pad or liner.
You don't have to wait until your period starts to put one in. You can insert it into your vagina around the time you expect your period to start. This lessens the chance of an embarrassing leak.
They hold more. A menstrual cup can hold 1 ounce of liquid, roughly twice the amount of a super-absorbent tampon or pad. The difference can be a comfort on your heavy flow days.
You can have mess-free sex. Most silicone and rubber menstrual cups must be removed before sex. But the soft, disposable ones are designed with sex in mind. They look like a diaphragm, so they’re shaped like a dome (not like the usual bell). Your partner can’t feel them, and there’s no blood to worry about.
They're easy to use. Although some people have trouble with them at first, if you've used tampons (particularly the kind without the applicator) or a vaginal ring or diaphragm for birth control, you'll probably find them easy to insert.
There’s less odor. Menstrual blood can start to smell when it’s exposed to air. But your cup forms an airtight seal.
No vaginal dryness. Menstrual cups don't cause vaginal dryness, unlike tampons.
Disadvantages of Menstrual Cups
It can be tough to find the right fit. Cups come in different sizes depending on your age, flow, and whether you’ve had a child. Still, finding the perfect fit can be a challenge, more so if you have a tilted uterus or low cervix. It can take some trial and error, and you could have leaks in the meantime.
Removal can get messy or embarrassing. Even if you find it easy to insert the cup, removing it can be tricky and feel icky, particularly if you have to do it in a public restroom. As an alternative to washing it out at a public sink, one manufacturer suggests bringing a bottle of water with you into the stall and rinsing it out, then wiping clean with toilet paper. If that's not an option, simply wipe the cup with toilet paper, making sure that the tiny holes at the top of the cup are clear, since those create the suction seal. You can do a proper wash when you get home.
They could interfere with an IUD. Some manufacturers don’t recommend using a menstrual cup if you have an intrauterine device (IUD) inserted, as there’s a chance the cup could pull on the string or dislodge it. But a 2012 study found no evidence of this. Still, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor before combining the two.
They can be hard to insert or remove, at least in the beginning, and especially if you've never used a tampon or had sex. But you can learn to use them.
They could irritate your vagina if they were put in without lubricant or not properly cleaned.
They need to be washed after every use. Some people might find this a hassle, but it's the only way to avoid infection. The risk of toxic shock syndrome is very low for menstrual cup wearers. A 2019 review of clinical studies found only five cases of toxic shock syndrome after the use of a menstrual cup.
Menstrual Cup vs Disc
A menstrual disc is a period product shaped like a disc that's inserted in the space behind your cervix and your pubic bone, rather than relying on suction. It's made of the same materials as a menstrual cup and can be reused or disposed after one use, depending on the type you buy. It can be worn for up to 12 hours.
Unlike some kinds of menstrual cups, you can wear a disc with an IUD or while having sex. Also, one size fits most, so you don't usually have to keep shopping to find the right fit. Some brands do offer different sizes.
On the downside, people often find them harder to insert than a menstrual cup and messier to remove. Some brands have extra features, like a double loop tab on the end to make removal easier.
You clean and take care of menstrual discs the same way you'd take care of cups.