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Period products have come a long way in the past century or so. Today, those who menstruate can choose from alternatives like period underwear, reusable cloth pads and menstrual cups, depending on their preferences.
The rise in alternative period products can be attributed to several things, including cost-effectiveness and comfort. Chris Bobel, PhD, a professor of women's, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, also attributed “a wider menstrual discourse” to the demand for alternative period products. “As folks begin to talk more openly and more often about menstruation and menstrual health, they share options beyond what they assume to be the one and only method of care — typically commercial pads and tampons,” she said.
SKIP AHEAD Best menstrual cups
Specifically, menstrual cups are having their moment, with search interest growing extensively in the past decade. According to global technology research and advisory company TechNavio, their market value is expected to grow by $366 million between 2021 and 2025. While menstrual cups are far from being as popular as pads and tampons, these bell-shaped devices are available in major drugstore chains like Walgreens and CVS, and major brands like Tampax have also released their own versions of the product.
“There is a proliferation of both cup and underwear products as well as cloth pads on the market and a wider accessibility of many of these products, such as cups for sale in chain stores,” said Bobel. “Back in the day, one could only find cloth pads in the ‘natural foods’ stores and online — same for cups.”
But how do you use menstrual cups, and are they a right fit for you? We consulted women’s health experts to discuss how they work and who can benefit from wearing them, plus rounded up a few of the best, expert-recommended options to get you started.
What are menstrual cups?
Menstrual cups are soft, reusable cups typically made of medical grade silicone that are inserted into the vagina to collect menstrual blood. Compared to other single-use period products on the market, they are relatively cost-effective: Most menstrual cups can cost anywhere between $25 to $40 and can replace continuous trips to the store. With proper care and cleaning, the experts we consulted said that one singular cup can last anywhere between six months and several years, as long as you pay attention to any signs of deterioration.
Menstrual cups are also more environmentally friendly than pads and tampons. The portability and ease of disposal that makes pads, tampons and panty liners so appealing results in a great deal of plastic waste both in their packaging and the material used to make them — an important detail considering the average menstruating person uses between 5,000 and 15,000 disposable pads and tampons in their lifetime.
“They're a much better investment than any single-use period products — repurchasing a box of tampons every month very quickly gets more expensive than buying a menstrual cup for $25,” said Mare Mbaye, MD, an OB/GYN based in New York.
How menstrual cups work
While they’ve gained popularity in recent years, menstrual cups aren’t new: According to the Museum of Menstrual History, commercial menstrual cups date back to the 1930s, which is around when the first commercial tampon was introduced. The menstrual cup performs essentially the same function as a tampon — it collects menstrual blood via insertion into the vagina typically by folding the cup, meaning you don’t have to stress about bulky pads to control your flow (which inherently raises issues about the stigma and shame surrounding menstruation).
Menstrual cups don’t have to be changed as frequently, either — the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advises reinserting a menstrual cup twice a day after emptying and washing it out. Based on your flow, the cup can be used for up to 12 hours at a time. “This means yes, you can sleep with the cup in place,” said Kameelah Phillips, MD, a board-certified OB/GYN at Calla Women’s Health in New York City. However, if your flow is heavier, “you might need to change it more frequently to prevent leaks,” noted Mbaye.
Leaking in the beginning can be common for some, especially if you’re just starting to learn which menstrual cup fits you best, said Alexandria Reyes, DO, a board-certified OB/GYN and founder of Magnolia Gynecology in Tampa, Florida. However, she noted that most people don't typically have issues with menstrual cup leaking. “I suggest a panty liner or pad in the first days of learning how to use a menstrual cup for backup,” she added.
Best menstrual cups to shop
To help you get started on finding the right menstrual cup for you, we compiled some expert-recommended options below.
Reyes recommended the Flex Cup due to its unique pull tab, which “makes it easy to get in and out.” She noted that the Black color helps prevent visible stains and, like the other options on this list, it can be used for up to 12 hours. The Flex Cup comes in two fits: Slim Fit, which has a 22-milliliter capacity, and Full Fit, which has a 30-milliliter capacity. The brand recommends the Slim Fit for first-time menstrual cup users and for those with both light and heavy flows, while the Full Fit is best for those who prefer a larger size and who have had two or more vaginal births. Reyes also recommended the Flex Disc for people who prefer a higher fit by the cervix.
Mbaye’s pick for first-time users is the Cora Cup “because it’s one of the easiest to fold, insert and remove,” she said. The cup has an intuitive indent on the side that helps you properly fold and insert it. It also comes with a vegan leather clutch to store it once it’s clean and completely dry. You can choose from two sizes: Size 1 is recommended for those who haven’t given birth and don’t experience bladder leaks, while Size 2 is best for users with a medium to heavy flow, as well as for people who have given birth.
Introduced in 2003, the DivaCup is a household name in the menstrual cups market and is one of the best sustainable bathroom products. These cups are made without chemicals, dyes or plastic, and the brand says they can last for several years with routine cleaning. They come in multiple sizes ranging from 0 to 2 — the size you need relies on how “light” or “heavy” your flow is. However, Mbaye doesn’t recommend this one for first-time users: “As one of the longest cups available it can hold a lot, but for those who have a medium or short vagina, it can be uncomfortable,” she said.
Mbaye recommended the MeLuna if you’re looking for a customizable cup that comes in a variety of sizes and styles to fit your needs. “When you’re trying to figure out what works best for you, you can change one variable at a time — size, shape or firmness — if a cup isn't right, instead of starting all over again,” she said. You can choose between the Classic or Shorty options (the latter is a smaller cup for people with low cervixes), and choose between softer and firmer cups plus three stem styles. Sizes range from Small to Extra Large.
For patients who have had vaginal births, Mbaye said the Lena Cup “may be a better option because its wider design allows for a better seal, meaning less leaks.” If you’re using a menstrual cup for the first time, the brand recommends the Lena Small size regardless of your flow. Lena Large, on the other hand, is recommended for more experienced users looking for additional capacity.
Who should use menstrual cups?
Experts agree that most people who menstruate can benefit from using a menstrual cup, but it may be necessary to try a few products until you find the one you like the most. “There are multiple sizes of menstrual cups available to fit different people,” said Mbaye. If you're trying to decide if a menstrual cup is right for you, Mbaye recommended asking yourself a few questions, including:
- Is a menstrual cup going to be cheaper than other options?
- Are you comfortable using it?
- Does it make sense with your lifestyle? For instance, if you’re using public restrooms for most of the day, would you be comfortable emptying and washing it in that setting?
Menstrual cups do have some drawbacks — and they aren’t for everyone. As Bobel pointed out, the biggest concern is the learning curve for effective use “that can be tough, especially if you are someone who is not comfortable with their anatomy.” There are other aspects that can be difficult for people to look past, including high upfront costs and the slightly uncomfortable process of inserting and removing it.
“Some folks balk at having to empty the cup. How do you do that at school, at work? What if you live in a refugee camp? On the streets? For some menstruators, it’s not, or at least does not seem to be, practical to use a reusable product [and] disposability is much more convenient,” Bobel added.
The most common complaint that Mbaye hears from patients “is the removal and reinsertion can sometimes be tough in the beginning” and it can “also be a little messy.” However, she said most report that this improves as you use it more.
Mbaye noted that vaginal irritation and even infection can occur if the cup isn’t properly cleaned during daily changes. Reyes also said that you shouldn’t use them “if you’re pregnant and bleeding, or just for discharge.” Phillips recommended avoiding them “if you’re allergic to the material — rubber or silicone — [and] if you notice recurrent vaginal irritation when using the cup.”
Are menstrual cups safe to use?
Menstrual cups are considered a Class II medical device by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), meaning that rather than the agency testing each cup individually, manufacturers must assert that their products have the same design and function as those already cleared for sale by the FDA. Thus, while menstrual cups aren’t technically approved by the FDA, they can be “FDA cleared” just like sanitary pads and tampons, which fall under Class I and Class II medical devices, respectively.
A 2019 comprehensive analysis by peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet confirmed the safety of menstrual cups, calling them “an effective and safe alternative to other menstrual products.” The study found that these cups had no negative effect on vaginal microflora and were not associated with abnormalities in the vagina or cervix. The paper also found they’re as likely, if not even more likely, to prevent leaks compared to tampons and pads, and over 70 percent of participants were willing to continue using them.
How to clean your menstrual cup
Most menstrual cups have a pull tab or a stem that you can use to get them out. When you do change it out, “it should be washed with soap and water and wiped clean before being reinserted, preferably at least twice a day,” Mbaye said. Phillips suggested using mild, water-based soaps (not oil-based ones) to clean them, while Reyes also suggested emptying out the menstrual cup in the shower and rinsing it off with a hand sprayer, especially if it’s your first time using one and emptying it out.
Between periods is a great time to ensure it’s being properly cleaned and sanitized to lengthen its lifespan. “The cup should be sanitized by rinsing it thoroughly, then boiling it for a few minutes. After the cup has been boiled, set it aside to completely cool down and dry off,” said Mbaye. Keep in mind, you should always clean the cup according to the manufacturer’s directions.