Menstrual cups were invented in the 1980s, but have only been popularized in the U.S. more recently. They’re made of silicon or rubber and shaped like a little cup with a short stem. When you’re on your period, you insert the cup into your vagina, cup face-up, stem-side down, and the cup collects all the exiting blood. When you think it’s full, you empty it into the toilet, rinse it at the sink, and put it back in as needed. Menstrual cups are reusable, meaning they eliminate the need for single-use menstrual products like pads and tampons.
When I heard about them, I thought they were revolutionary. Periods are annoying — they cost a lot of money, they ruin underwear, they give you cramps and they generate a lot of plastic waste. But menstrual products, whatever the tampon tax might say, are a necessity, and they’re not something I wanted to eliminate. The idea that there was a sustainable alternative rocked my world. I was momentarily intimidated when my friend read me Buzzfeed’s list of “75 Things To Do If Your Menstrual Cup Is Stuck Inside You,” but ultimately I was committed to at least trying it out.
Why make this swap?
Disposable menstrual products are riddled with plastic. Tampon applicators, packaging and even strings are often all plastic. Plastic hides throughout pads, from the leak-proof seal to the packaging. And most of these disposable plastics ultimately end up in landfills.
At the time of their invention, these disposable menstrual products were life-changing. According to a (highly informative) National Geographic article, prior to the invention of disposable menstrual products, those with periods in the U.S. used homemade, pad-like cloths, which they had to wash and display for everyone to see at a time when simply having a period was shamed. As technologies improved and pads and tampons stormed the market, menstruators were able to bleed discreetly, which was especially appreciated as women entered the workforce in larger numbers.
However, even in providing those with periods with a major convenience, these disposable period products locked consumers into, on average, 50 years of consumption. In the U.S., people bought 5.8 billion tampons in 2018. National Geographic estimates a single person uses between 5,000 and 15,000 pads and tampons throughout their lives.
By now, technologies have improved again, and hopefully attitudes have as well. In addition to destigmatizing periods (at least a little), we’ve also developed technologies like menstrual cups, period underwear and an improved reusable pad. All of these products function in slightly different ways, but above all are reusable. They eliminate the need for single-use products, which is what zero waste living is all about.
Not to mention, they save you sooooo much money. If you average out one box of tampons to around $8, and assume one box of 36 tampons will last through two period cycles, you’re still spending $48 a year on tampons alone. If you’re using panty-liners, that’s an additional cost. You can get a menstrual cup for around $30, and if that lasts even for just three years, you’re saving $114.
What I did
I knew I wanted a menstrual cup over any other reusable period product, because it seemed cleaner and more tampon-esque. I did a lot of research to pick one out, since there are a lot of options and everybody has a different body type. I did a couple online quizzes to help pick out the right cup. I knew I’d need a smaller size, because I have pretty light flow and have never been pregnant. I ultimately decided on the Cora cup, because it was recommended by the New York Times for first-time users. This cup has a little indent, and has cross-hatching that makes it easier to grip.
I was a little nervous to use it for the first time. I was worried I either wouldn’t be able to get it in, or worse, wouldn’t be able to get it out. It definitely was a little awkward at first, and wasn’t sitting in the perfect spot right away. But with a little time and practice, I figured out how to get it in properly so it felt normal. Getting it out was a bit of a struggle. My fastest record was probably about five minutes — it was really about finding the right angle and grip, and just being patient and not freaking out. I did, however, become much more intimately familiar with my own vagina than I ever expected to be.
I still used a pad at first, because if it wasn’t the perfect fit I knew it would leak. But once I figured out how to get it to fit correctly, there was very little leakage and I switched to a panty-liner. I’ve only used it for one period-cycle so far, but I’m feeling good about it.
What this means for you
I know a lot of people are grossed out by the idea of menstrual cups, because you can’t be afraid to get your hands dirty with a little period blood, and because you do have to be really comfortable with your own body. That being said, there are other options for a zero waste period, like reusable pads or period underwear. You would still have to deal with your blood with either of these options when you wash them, but they are less invasive and there’s no fear they’ll get stuck inside your body.
Ultimately, I think the simplicity and success of this swap has made it one of my favorites. Whether or not a menstrual cup is for you (and whether or not you even have a period) just keep in mind that any zero waste solution surrounding menstrual products is at least a little reliant upon society destigmatizing periods.
Coming up next: Final column wrap-up