This is an open and honest discussion of a woman’s menstrual cycle. If you’re not prepared for what that will entail, don’t read this.
The purpose of this article isn’t to hound about the environment and convince you to buy one. I am not about to throw that stone. It’s not to discourage you from buying one either.
This is a candid description of my personal experience so that you are armed with practical information and a realistic–and accurate–depiction of pros and cons in action.
I want you to make a much more educated decision about whether or not silicone cups might work for you.
I had seen a couple different brands of menstrual cups and was curious about them. Sure, I read the websites, but those always play up saving the environment and downplay the practical realities. Any information on the practical realities is non-existent on product websites.
How well would it actually work? Was it really less messy? How easy is it –realistically speaking– to insert. Would it really help to decrease the volume of tampons and pads going to the landfill and through the sewer system? Would it be enough to make any real difference to the landfill or my pocketbook? Would the hassle of it be worth the amount of money and landfill space purportedly saved?
I realized these are questions that can only be answered by doing it myself and finding out, as each woman has to assess for herself if the bother of something is worth the end result.
I had previously posted quite the rant about the Soft Cup variety of menstrual cups, and what a complete disaster that was. With that experience fresh in my mind, even these years later because it was such a nightmare, I had some doubts about my ability to effectively use the silicone brands.
Then I saw a “blog/review article” that was actually a thinly veiled advertisement about “how oh so great and fantastic” a menstrual cup was. The article so seriously ticked me off that I posted a reply that I didn’t believe for a single second that the “author” had used one of these things. I actually questioned if the “author” was even female.
I decided to do a long-term, in-depth experiment myself so that I could write an accurate account of my personal experience. I’ve done the months. Now it’s time to write up and publish my findings.
There are two brands I’ve readily seen, Diva Cup and Mooncup. I’ve seen others now, but have not seen much variation in design. They are shaped about the same. They all have a pointy bit at the bottom, which you’re not supposed to grab to pull out so I wonder why it’s there in the first place.
Diva Cup is $40 at most pharmacies, making it rather an expensive initial expenditure. Mooncup I have seen at about $18 on their own website, making it more economical for the average woman. Until you add in shipping, that is, and do the conversion from pounds to dollars again. Then suddenly it’s around $27. That’s about what I paid for a Diva cup at Rite Aid, thanks to my 20% off rewards card and a $5 “load to card” coupon.
Others are as low as five to eleven dollars. Some come in pink, blue, or purple. So the technology is advanced enough that they’re making color options for the little cup that will catch your monthly flood of blood. Yes, we’ve reached the point where they’re trying to make it pretty for us. Oh joy.
“Hey, what color is your menstrual cup?”
“Blue. What’s yours?”
“I got pink. I feel so pretty on the inside!”
Down to Business
I conducted my testing over a period of several months. I used it on light days, heavy days, even “I might start while I’m out” days. I wanted to put it to the test through every likely scenario, and that could only be achieved through repeated cycles.
First of all, I knew the “never buy tampons/pads again” thing was not going to be realistic for me. I simply had to prove it by using one of these things. How did I know? Very simply. I have an exceptionally heavy flow.
“Holds three times more than a super plus tampon!” is one of the alleged pros. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it. We’re told over and over that the “average” woman only releases about two ounces of blood for her entire cycle, so there should never be much at all in the cup, right? I don’t know that I’ve ever met one of those average women. I’m certainly happy for them, to have such a barely there cycle. I, however, am a Niagra falls of menstruation once the dam breaks. I always have been.
“Holds three times more than a super plus tampon!” If they say so. But when I’m blowing through a super plus every 90 minutes, that means I’m going to have to take this thing out and put it back in every three hours to be sure I don’t overflow it. I did that for one cycle. By the end of the day, I was actually sore from repeated fisting of myself to get the thing up there. More on insertion later.
Let’s discuss the practicalities of a prolific flow first, as that is my personal biggest indicator of when I can and can’t use it.
Yes, you CAN overflow these things. I’ve done it more than once during my several months of testing.
This meant I had to be prepared to empty it at the mall, at restaurants, etc. Backup pad in the panties was a must just in case. As an author, I work from home; but you can extrapolate all of this to your job at the office, at the grocery store, wherever it is you are employed. Is there a private facility? Or does the restroom have more than one stall and a shared vanity that means someone may see you with this bloody thing in the sink while you’re rinsing/washing it?
Would you be wiser to take a second cup in a baggy, so you can put the first into the baggy and stash it in your purse until you get home? Is that really very practical, to have this bloody mess of a thing in your purse for several hours?
Diva Cup’s website suggests taking a bottle of water with you so you can rinse it at the toilet. Okay. Am I supposed to do this sitting on the toilet, with the water pouring out between my thighs while I’m straddling the toilet? Or am I supposed to stand up with no protection whatever and do this?
Have they really taken into consideration the muck factor? Have they ever tested this product on a woman who has free-falling river of a cycle?
Menstrual flow isn’t just blood. I have quite a bit of very slimy mucous that, oddly enough, is very sticky at the same time. Think Ghostbusters, in the library, with Venkman trying to get a sample of the ectoplasm for Egon. It stretches, it wraps around fingers, it drips like raw egg that never wants to let go of the shell. All this is hanging from the edge of the cup and I’m supposed to somehow get it to roll out into the toilet so I can then rinse the thing.
I’ve decided I need at least one more arm than I already possess in order to make all this work. Rinsing in the toilet with a bottle of water just is not going to happen for me. I’m not nearly that coordinated and there’s not nearly enough room. I need the sink. That means never taking the cup out in any public restroom.
“Or wipe it out with toilet paper” comes the next helpful suggestion. You mean that cheap toilet paper that shreds completely the instant it gets wet? I would need a baby wipe to feel even remotely comfortable just wiping. And then, I’m not sure I would want to put whatever chemicals are in that liquid substance the wipe is soaked with back up into me for my body to absorb from the inside.
I’m also not comfortable putting the residue of old blood back in me. To the sink I go, to clean it with hot water and soap. Every time. At home, the bloody mess is going to have to sit in the sink for a couple minutes while I take care of cleaning myself.
Doesn’t seem to matter how careful I am, it’s a mess. I have to pinch the bottom to get the thing out. If it’s half full, that means I’m squishing its contents into my vagina. I spend twice as long and use twice as much toilet paper to get all the blood and mucous cleaned away than if I’d used a tampon. Then I get to the cleaning of the cup to reinsert it. I also have to wash my hands again after reinsertion…because at least two of my fingers and my thumb have been up inside my vagina. Again.
This is not, by any means, a “cleaner” alternative. This is messy as hell and there’s no streamlining the process. It is what it is. Pulling a tampon out to drop directly into the toilet is far less messy.
I don’t care what carbon footprint my menstrual cycle causes. The heaviest part of my cycle is going to have to be tackled with tampons and pads. There’s just no getting around that for me.
Now let’s talk about insertion.
I’ve mentioned the two fingers and thumb, near-fisting of myself. There’s much more to it. Insertion is about technique and timing, not to mention finger length, arm reach, and your own flexibility.
I’m a big woman. I’m short, but round. My arms are short. My fingers are short. I already had doubts about whether or not I’d be able to get the thing in. The entire first week was my learning time, along with the entire next cycle. These “a couple times and I had it” claims are out the window with me. There is a definite learning curve, and you need to be prepared for it not to go smoothly every single time. Be prepared for this to take time to get the hang of.
First, folding the cup for insertion. I fold it over in half and pinch it together in the U shape. The Diva Cup is thick and stiff and doesn’t seem to want to go into any of the other configurations you can Google to see. The curved side going in first I slide the folds into my vagina.
The problems are 1. not pinching tight enough
2. letting go too soon.
The cup doesn’t want to be folded, remember. It doesn’t like to be folded over. It wants to be round, and will fight tooth and nail in order to be round. That first time, I lost count of how many attempts it took just to get the thing far enough into me that I could let go and push the rest of the way in.
Whenever it popped open before passing my pelvic bone, I had to take it out, re-fold it, and go at it again. I was seriously there for twenty minutes fighting with this thing, and went through it all over again eight hours later when I wanted to take it out to see how much was in it and put it back. It was quite frustrating.
I used a little bit of lubricating jelly at one point, because I was dry and rubbing myself raw. It helped immensely.
By the end of day 2, I was sore from repeated insertion attempts and didn’t want to use the thing anymore. I almost gave up, thinking the effort wasn’t worth it. My short arms and fingers don’t make it any easier. Neither does being rotund. I can’t do insertion while sitting on the toilet. I have to stand with a foot up on the toilet to open myself enough that I can reach to get the thing in. Maybe if I was sixty pounds lighter it would be easier. That’s not happening any time soon.
The idea is to push it into yourself fast enough to get the rim of the cup past the pelvic bone before it pops open. Once you’ve got that part in, you can push from the bottom to get it deeper inside. Regardless how I hold the cup, I have my first finger, my middle finger, and my thumb going into my vagina all at once. They start at the top of the fold, pinching tight to keep it closed, then walk down the length of the cup while pushing it into my vagina. I end up with my index and middle fingers performing the final pushes. I am getting better at it, six months later, but it’s always something of an adventure.
I can’t grip the cup any lower than the rim because it pops open in my hand. I can’t do it with my hand wet because it slides out of my fingers and pops open. It really got to be a pain in the ass.
Some manufacturer instructions will say to feel inside to be sure it has completely opened. Well, I have short fingers. I can barely get them in far enough to feel my pelvic bone. There’s no way they are going to make it another two and a half inches in to feel that the rim is fully open. Marvel’s “Mr. Fantastic”, able to magically stretch whenever I want, I am not. I have to go on faith that the cup’s desire to be round will win out over my vagina’s need to crush anything that goes into it.
When it came to my heaviest days, I quickly decided to leave off the cup during the night. The last thing I wanted to do at 2am, 4am, and 6am was wrestle with this bloody mess, have to clean the cup with soap and water in the sink every time, then put it back in again. I went back to tampons for overnight. I don’t even need to open my eyes to pull one out and put another in. I can do that in a couple minutes, versus the five minute minimum for dealing with the cup.
“Makes a light seal” the instruction book says. Light seal. That’s cute.
You’ve gotten the thing into you. You’ve worn it for several hours. You’ve gone to the toilet a couple times and felt it poking out while you’re sitting there. Now it’s been six or eight hours, you’re curious how much muck is actually inside it. Time to take the thing out.
There’s this handy little stick of silicone poking out. You’d think that’s how you remove it, right? Nope. I have no idea what that thing is actually there for. It’s not like the cup can “get lost” up there. It comes down toward the vaginal opening all by itself when you sit on the toilet. But no. You’re not supposed to grab hold and pull. You need to reach farther up to the little round base and gently pinch to get a good hold, then pull it out.
Just grasping the thing is another adventure for a short-fingered, short-armed gal. I found myself needing to be something of a contortionist to reach the nub end and get hold of it. Sometimes it took several attempts to get it firmly enough to remove.
Remember that “light seal”? Yeah, what they mean to say is seriously tight vacuum seal that you may feel pop open when you pinch the bottom of the cup to pull the thing out. I don’t know how other women perceive it, but sometimes I feel a small, mild sensation of pain when the vacuum releases.
Slowly pull the cup down and out, trying to keep the thing upright so you don’t spill it if you want to see how much is there. If you don’t want to see how much is there, just tilt to empty…but remember that it will not all come pouring cleanly out. There is that slimy, sticky mucous to contend with. The blood may stick to the inside of the cup, to the rim, to everything. Plus your fingers.
I did warn you this thing is messy.
My most successful “measuring” removal, the cup was 2/3 full. Over an ounce and a half in one six hour session, and I wasn’t in my hardest time of the week. So that “average of 2 ounces for the whole cycle” thing was blown in one six hour time period. I estimate my entire flow was around 16 fluid ounces that month. Two whole cups of menstrual flow. (no wonder I crave steak)
You already know the flow also contains the lining of the uterus, which sloughs off in bits and pieces. The vagina also continues to produce the clear liquid of its own lubrication. This means there is blood in the bottom of the cup, but then a layer of clear liquid on top.
Month 3…I got sick. I had a really bad cold with sinus infection. I was tired, run down. I couldn’t bear the thought of having to deal with a menstrual cup. I didn’t have the energy to wrestle with it. I used tampons and pads through that entire cycle. The experiment reinforced the need to keep my mind on what was really practical for me, for my physical shape and condition, and the ultimate decision was to suspend the experiment that month. I skipped the next month also. I was better, but still not up to fighting with the cup.
I had decided that removal and cleaning three times a day was most practical for me. Morning when I got up, late afternoon, then before bed. This way, I would not risk it filling too much on my more manageable days, and could also balance the number of hours the mess remained in the cup.
I thought about using a glove to reduce the mess. However, if I’m throwing a latex glove out every time I have to take my cup out, that negates the whole “better for the environment” thing.
It does have an odor when left in for longer stretches of time, another reason to remove every 6 to 8 hours rather than 12. I don’t care for the thought of the blood in there sloshing around for that long.
Another interesting tidbit – when the cup sits lower (like when you’re on the toilet), it may make urination a bit more difficult. There is a product now, used like a tampon, that stops accidental leakage of urine. The cup can do the same thing, pressing in just the right spots to cause slow, dribbly urination. Pushing the cup deeper sometimes alleviates that. I usually just bear down a little to force the urine through.
Also, at least once, I did have to remove the cup before a difficult bowel movement.
Now the experiment is concluded, I’ve determined that the cup is a great device for going to a party while I’m on my period. I have two of them (because I misplaced one the day before I was going to a party and had to buy another) and will use them for exactly that. I’ll use them when I’m going to be out of the house for a long time on a lighter day.
As a decrease the landfill option, it’s not going to work for me. Ever. I still have to have tampons and pads for my heaviest days. I’m not using as many regular tampons is all. Not enough to make any substantial difference to what goes to the landfill.
When it comes down to it, nights out aside, I’d rather use tampons and pads and have less hassle and far less mess to deal with. For me, they’re just not worth the effort needed.