Women’s bodies are gross. Or, at least, that’s the core message of most “feminine hygiene” products. Pads and tampons provide “powerful protection” from menstrual blood. One company’s Amazon product description boasts that their pads help “channel fluid deep inside the pad and away from you.” Others market how “discreet” they are. Some products even come scented.
Menstrual cups leave no room for such squeamishness. You insert the bell-shaped silicone cup directly into your vagina and leave it there for up to 12 hours. When it’s time to remove it, you pour the blood out, wash the cup, and then reinsert it. And unlike pad and tampon users, the menstrual cup’s ever-growing fan base is increasingly vocal, writing countless odes to their cups in the last few years. A recent Kickstarter project for a collapsible version known as the Lily Cup Compact raised $325,000, more than 40 times its initial goal. A representative from the Keeper, Inc., maker of Keeper Cups and Moon Cups, declined to comment on their sales numbers but pointed out that behemoth chains such as CVS and Walmart have Keeper Cups in stock. Diva Cup, a brand that is to menstrual cups what Kleenex is to tissues, told me that in the U.S. and Canada, menstrual cups sales are growing 20 times faster than pad and tampon sales.
By encouraging users to engage with their bodies during menses, the cup plays a subtle but pivotal role in normalizing periods. From an early age, girls receive messages suggesting that their periods are shameful, embarrassing, dirty. In one study, researchers interviewed several dozen girls about how they felt about menstruation and found that girls thought of the period as a “hygienic crisis” in need of a quiet fix. In another study, researchers polled 11- and 12-year-old Australian girls and found that 73 percent agreed that “getting your period is something to keep quiet about,” while 67 percent agreed that “periods are embarrassing.”
These attitudes play a role in the general revulsion towards menstrual cups. When I messaged a friend to ask her if she’d ever used one, she instantly replied, “Ew, absolutely not.” I asked her to elaborate, and she said she’d rather not know the “absolute quantity” of blood from her period. “I like thinking of it as a change of color, not a liquid,” she said. Another friend who expressed disgust at the idea explained, “I don’t like the concept of it all collecting together.”
Shame and embarrassment may seem like touchy-feely problems, but they have real-world effects. Scholars have argued that the idea of vaginas and especially menstrual blood as unhygienic or shameful actually contributes to stigma against women. In some areas, there are persistent myths that people who menstruate can taint food or defile idols with their touch. One study found that merely being associated with menstrual products has negative effects for women; people who saw a woman accidentally drop a tampon from her handbag rated her as less competent and were more likely to sit a chair-length’s away from her. (A woman who dropped a hair clip instead did not receive these negative evaluations.) Period stigma can also affect women’s perceptions of themselves: Menstruating women who were told an interviewer knew they had their period were more likely to believe the interviewer did not like them; these women also showed less effort in making a good impression.
Even if you don’t care about changing period norms, using a menstrual cup offers practical benefits. For one, it saves you money. Assuming you go through a small package of pads or tampons per period, you’re spending about $60 a year on menstrual products; in 2014, the feminine hygiene industry pulled in over $3 billion in profits. A menstrual cup, on the other hand, costs $30 to $40 and can last for up to a decade with proper care.
Because it’s virtually a one-time purchase, the cup also reduces the massive amounts of waste generated by pads and tampons. Each pad and tampon is individually wrapped and housed in a box or bag; many pads contain extra sheets or two of plastic to hold “wings” in place, and most tampons come with disposable plastic applicators. By contrast, the cup requires throwing away only one cardboard box or no waste at all: Moon and Keeper cups are shipped in pouches instead of boxes, because latex and silicone cups are unlikely to be damaged in transit. Also, unlike pads and tampons, menstrual cups don’t contain dyes, odor neutralizers, scents, or other chemicals.
Economic and environmental benefits not enough to sway you? In that case, it’s also worth noting that the cup is great for lazy people, since pads and tampons must be switched out every few hours and a cup can hang out for half a day (according to manufacturers’ suggestions). Plus, the cup promotes better vaginal health. Some cotton tampons absorb natural fluids as well as menstrual blood, which dries out the vagina and makes it more likely that the tampon will chafe at your vaginal walls, increasing risk for toxic shock syndrome, or TSS. The cup just collects the blood, which results in less TSS-causing bacteria.
To pre-empt other frequently asked questions: No, you can’t feel it once it’s in; yes, you can swim in it; no, it doesn’t leak often (one study found it leaks half as much as other methods), and it likely won’t overflow—for many women, one cup can fit an entire cycle’s worth of menstrual blood at once.* (Fun fact: Most women lose less than a shot glass’s worth of blood per period. You bleed a lot less than you think you do!) And yes, there is a bit of a learning curve for practicing how to fold and insert the cup, but most users get the hang of it in a cycle or two.
If you already use a cup, or you try one and like it, tell a friend. A study of Nepalese girls found that the girls were more likely to try a menstrual cup if they knew someone who had used one. And if the cup is not for you, that’s OK, too. Whatever your period product of choice, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
*Correction, June 10, 2015: The original version of this article stated that a menstrual cup will “never overflow”; this is not necessarily true for all women, particularly those with heavier menstrual flow. (Return.)