For eco-conscious moms and tween and teen girls, pads and tampons just don’t cut it. Pads can be messy, tampons run the risk of toxic shock syndrome and both leave behind a pile of plastic waste. Menstrual cups, meanwhile, provide a safe and earth-friendly alternative – yet learning how to use a menstrual cup can be both confusing and intimidating to first timers.
But Dr. Patrice Harold, the director of minimally invasive gynecology at Hutzel Women’s Hospital in Detroit, says that they also can be beneficial to the vagina and aren’t as scary as you might think. Here, she offers her tips on how to make the switch.
A clean alternative
If you are unfamiliar with a menstrual cup, it’s a bell-shaped, medical-grade silicone cup with a stem, loop or knob-like component at the base that’s inserted into the vagina to collect menstrual blood. The DivaCup, which Harold supplies at her office, can hold up to one full ounce of fluid and lasts for about 10 years.
As with tampons, you can swim or play sports while wearing the cup, and you can also use the bathroom with the cup in. Unlike tampons, though, which absorb fluid and mess with the vagina’s pH balance, menstrual cups collect the fluid and have less of an effect on their environment.
“I think (menstrual cups) improve the vagina’s health,” Harold says. “Some women I see get bacterial infections a lot, and it’s a tampon (that’s causing it).”
Harold adds that tampons that don’t collect enough fluid can also cause irritation when they are pulled out. The same goes for scented panty liners and the tape used to stick pads into underwear.
Meanwhile, the doc says that she’s never had a patient have a problem with a menstrual cup.
How to use a menstrual cup
According to the DivaCup website, menstrual cups come in different sizes. Diva Cup offers Model 1 for women who are under the age of 30 who have never had kids and Model 2 for women over 30 or who have had kids.
Other factors for choosing the right menstrual cup size include where your cervix sits and whether or not you lead an active lifestyle. (Check with your gynecologist if you’re not sure.)
To insert the cup, DivaCup suggests two options: the “U fold” or the “push down” method. To create the “U fold,” simply fold sides of the cup together and fold it in half. For the “push down,” press the top rim down in the center to form a triangle.
Once the cup is folded, you can push it inside the vaginal opening until the stem is in no further than a half inch. Next, hold the base of the cup and rotate it one full turn in either direction to ensure that it is fully opened and sealed.
The cup can stay in up to 12 hours, but Harold recommends emptying it every three to four hours. To remove, pinch the base of the cup to break the seal and pull down and drop the contents into the toilet.
If you struggle removing it, the doc explains that you can “bear down” to help push it out.
“The vagina is a closed system, so if you bear down like you’re having a bowel movement, it pushes the pelvic floor down and it will come to the tip of it,” she says.
At school or out and about? No problem. In a restroom stall, simply pull out the cup, dump it in the toilet, wipe it out (more on that below) and reinsert.
Menstrual cup care
Menstrual cups should be washed with warm water and mild, unscented water-based soap at least twice a day while in use.
You do not have to wash the cup out after every use, but you should wash your hands before removal and insertion – and use a dry or damp tissue to wipe it down before re-insertion.
At the end of your cycle, you should wash your cup the same way you do during your cycle – or you can boil it for five to 10 minutes.
If the cup becomes sticky, severely discolored or develops an odor, you may want to consider replacing it.
For more information on proper feminine hygiene or how to take care of yourself during your period, check out Dr. Harold’s advice. And if menstrual cups aren’t the right period pick for you or your daughter, see our article on how to use a tampon.
This post was originally published in 2018 and is updated regularly.