General Musings

Let’s talk reusable period products (part 1: Menstrual Cups)

So this blog post has been a long time coming! A lot of you will know that I gave up single use period products over a year ago (18 months and counting!) and so many of you have reached out to me asking about it, so I thought I’d write you a post of my experiences of the switch.

But before we dive in there’s a few things I want to be clear about:

  1. This is my personal experience of using these products- every person is different so what might work for me, may not work for you
  2. I always find things like this difficult to write because of my day job- being a doctor I worry people will take what I say differently. But I am writing this from a ‘person who menstruates’ point of view rather than a medical/doctoring point of view. If you have any queries around your own physical needs please speak to your health professional
  3. Having said that, being a doctor means I have a no frills approach to speaking about these things. So don’t expect euphemisms! I remember a friend asking for my ‘birth story’ and it was only afterwards (and from the trauma on her face) that I realised that she had meant in a ‘blogger’ kind of way…not a down-to-the-gory-detail kind of way. My bad. But one of the great barriers for a lot of us accessing health care is this ingrained idea that we should be ashamed/embarrassed of our body. The more we talk openly about periods, the better. So expect the ‘v-word’ and more…
  4. Ok so I’m going to break rule no.2 in a small way. Because seeing as you’re here I just want to point you to the NHS Heavy Period Self-Assessment. Whenever I speak to patients about their periods they tell me “oh it’s normal”, but that means nothing to me! I’ve had patients tell me their periods are ‘normal’ when in actual fact they’re desperately anaemic from their heavy periods. And when I’ve asked them why they didn’t come earlier they just thought that was what periods were like because that’s what is ‘normal’ to them. This Self Assessment is a quick and handy way to see if your periods are classed as ‘heavy’ and if you need to speak to your doctor.

Ok. Enough of the Terms and Conditions, lets get into the interesting stuff!

Why I made the switch…

Like I said I’ve been using reusable period products for over a year and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made- I wish I made it earlier! There are so many reasons why people choose to ditch the tampons/disposable pads- from personal preference, environmental reasons to financial reasons.

On average we will use 12,000 tampons in our lifetime and spend approximately £18,000 on products.

For me it was a mix of being more conscious about the environment and physical discomfort from the traditional options. I found tampons very uncomfortable/drying and I never felt ‘clean’ with pads- plus they irritated my skin. My friends, no one should settle for a product that gives you nappy rash as a grown adult*.

*I’m kidding, I didn’t get nappy rash, but it definitely irritated my skin!

So I did my research and took the plunge.

What do I use?

The main product I use is the Moon Cup menstrual cup. Not for any real reason beyond the fact that it was: in stock in my local Boots (and I had finally built up the courage to buy one) and they did a range of sizes (one for those who have delivered vaginally, and those who haven’t). I’m not sure the latter made any difference to the fit for me (as it’s the only one I’ve used) but may be something to consider. The reason why it’s impossible for me to recommend a cup is because everyone of you is unique and every vagina is different (I know, I said the V word). It isn’t a matter of one cup fits all, so be prepared for trial and error. But think of it as an investment. Even if you bought 2-3 cups before you found the right one, it’s still going to be cheaper for you in the long run! I have found this cup (which is a pretty standard shape) completely fine for me. Other big companies are: Organicup, Ruby cup and Diva cup.

I use mine on ‘flow’ days. The Moon Cup can be left in for up to 8 hrs (this varies by brand of cup). On heavier days I might have to empty it in the middle of the day but most days I can get away with putting it in just before work and come home to empty it. Then again I’ll empty it before going to sleep and first thing in the morning.

On lighter days I use my period pants/underwear or just my reusable pads. But I’ll come onto those in a separate blog post!

For reference in tampon terms I would use Yellow-Green (on heavy days) and teal/purple pads. I would always use a liner for double protection when using tampons.

What should you do before you buy one?

Research! One of the big things I would really recommend you do before buy a menstrual cup is to learn more about your body and it’s anatomy. You’d be amazed how many people can’t tell a cervix from a vagina, or even- which hole is which. This video from Put A Cup In It is great and shows you whereabouts the cup will sit (and hopefully that will also reassure you that you cant put it in the wrong place!)

Actually, while we’re here: basically just watch all of the Put A Cup In It videos. They are so great and will probably answer a lot of the questions you might have. (Really all I needed to do for this blog post was put a link to their website and leave it at that).

Have a look at the different brands and the shapes and sizes they come in. Some brands make ones just for beginners too. But all companies will have lots of FAQs and information on their website so definitely have a read.

It’s handy to have an idea of what your cycle is like too- it will help you understand how the cup can fit into that (pun intended). Like I said, I use mine on proper flow days and my reusable alternatives for the other days.

Another big thing is: you need to become comfortable with your period and your body. Now, I know this is going to sound a bit silly but periods have been sanitised- from the name ‘sanitary products’ to the blue ‘period’ liquid in adverts. Using a cup will make you face the reality of your periods- so be prepared for this- but embrace it! Your body is amazing and does amazing things. This is one of them- it’s not gross or dirty. I don’t want you to be put off by my frankness but I reckon some people might like to get a heads up!

Wearing a cup means you will come face to face with what your period really is- half of it is blood, but the rest is a mix of endometrial tissue/mucous/vaginal secretions (I know you just winced a little bit at all of that but that’s what I’m here for!) This means its surprisingly thick and gloopy (technical word). If I’m honest apart from that first time of ‘oh, wow it’s thicker than I thought’ you don’t have to really ‘see’ your period because you just tip it out into the loo. But I just want to prepare you!

The other thing you need to get your head around is inserting the cup/taking it out. Again we’re used to using applicators and not getting our hands ‘dirty’ or ‘in there’ but trust me, it’s just a mental barrier! You get over it pretty quick…

What’s so great about the cup?

Oh where do I start? Of course the environmental thing is a BIG tick and not having to rush out to buy period products every month is great (also: no having to empty out stinky bins! A seriously underrated ‘pro’.)

But it’s generally made periods so much easier (they hold much more liquid than the standard products) so I don’t actually have to go empty as frequently as I would’ve with other products. Once you’ve got the hang of your cycle, in real terms this can mean: no scanning for loos when you’re out and about! I know a big fear for people is having to use these in public toilets- I get you, and there are times when I’ve been out/travelling that I’ve had to do this but it isn’t so bad as long as you’re prepared…

I actually think it’s much cleaner (I know that seems hard to believe, but we’ll come back to that), I think my periods are a bit shorter and finally- it is SO much more comfortable. While some people say it makes their cramps less painful, I don’t get the physical discomfort internally that I got with tampons.

So how does it work?

I’m going to talk you through how I use it. Remember this takes practice, don’t expect yourself to be amazing the first time you use it! Each time I put it in/took it out I got better but I think it took at leat 2 cycles before I could do it without thinking. So give yourself some space and time to do it when you first give it a go.

Step 1: Obviously it goes without saying step 1 is washing your hands.

Step 2: folding and inserting. Once you’ve done some research you’ll find there are loads of different ways to fold the cup ready for insertion. You basically want to make it as small as you can to put it in. Some of the popular methods are: C-fold, U-fold and my personal fave- ‘punch down’. Have a play before you insert it and see what ‘feels’ right in your hand. I like to wet mine with water too before inserting.

Now I know the worst thing to say is ‘relax’ but take a deep breath in and out: the more tense you are, the more all your muscles tense up. And the vagina is like a muscular canal! Take your time and slowly slide/push it in, work with your body. Try and visualise the muscles of the vagina relaxing and contracting as they naturally would as you gently push it in.

It sits much lower than a tampon so you don’t have to go very far. The cup will open up and create a seal. Sometimes you might feel it ping open (this tends to happen when I’m in a rush!) but it’s fine- if a bit of a shock the first time it happens.

But that’s it! You shouldn’t really feel it. And really honestly, I don’t!

NB: if yours has a stem it shouldn’t be sticking out. If you find your cup is sitting in the right place but the stem is sticking out you might need to trim it down.

Step 3: Removing it. When you do this will depend on your cycle, but if you leave it too long you might find that you leak/feel like you’re going to leak. Once you know your cycle you’ll know when you need to go tend to it. The main objective of taking it out is to break the suction seal. You do this by squeezing the bottom of the cup to release the seal. I find as I’ve become confident and comfortable with it I can feel along further up the side of the cup and break the seal from higher which makes it more comfortable for me to take out. Don’t worry, you don’t have to go very deep with your finger/thumb. Whatever you do- don’t tug/pull it down. I had a few questions about whether cup usage can effect your pelvic floor- most of the reading I did around this didn’t agree with that but I would have a read around. It did say that issues came from people not removing them properly. If you feel like your cup is too high, just wait. I find in the mornings it might have made its way up higher (overnight) but it will come down on its own- walk around a bit/sit on the loo and be patient.

When you take it out you want to try and keep it as upright as possible so you keep the contents inside it and your hands clean- again this takes practice. After a few cycles you’ll be able to get it in and out without any mess.

Step 4: Emptying it out and cleaning it before re-inserting. The great thing about these is that unlike tampons and pads you can empty these straight into the loo! (PSA- you shouldn’t be flushing tampons down the loo. Apparently not everyone knows that?)

Just tip it out, rinse/wipe and reinsert. Now, full disclosure- as a Muslim household we have little shower bidets next to our loos, you might have even seen some homes with ‘lottas’ (plastic jugs which have water in them) which we use for cleaning after using the loo. This means I pretty much always know I’ll be close to a water source and I can sit there, empty my cup straight into the toilet bowl, give it a nice rinse and reinsert without getting up. You can just use toilet paper to wipe it (and I have done this when I’m out) but I prefer the cleanliness of washing it with water. I think some companies even make wipes for this but that might defy the eco-friendliness of the product! You can just wash it in the sink- especially if it’s close to hand but you may prefer just to get yourself a little water bottle to keep near the loo just for rinsing the cup.

I know one of the big fears about using a cup is what to do if you are out-and-about. No one wants to be in the public toilets washing their cup in the row of sinks! I’ve actually travelled abroad with mine. Like I said- you can just wipe it with toilet paper or prepare by taking a little empty water bottle with you- you know those small Tropicana bottles? Perfect! Keep it in your handbag* and when you need the loo you can just fill it up at the sink and make your way to the cubicle. If I’m honest I think I’ve only had to do that once because the rest of the time I can prepare for the day and time when I empty it to when I’m at home/somewhere more private. Remember most cups can stay in for 8 hours!

*If you are travelling by air, remember you can’t take water in bottles through security so make sure it’s an empty one!

That’s it! They recommend you sterilise your cup in between periods- I use those Milton Sterilisation tablets because I have loads left over from when R was a baby. But you can use boiling water too. Follow the instructions given by the brand you choose.

Leaking?

Leaking is a big fear for a lot of people, but I found I would leak with tampons too. Generally I don’t leak with the cup (unless I’ve left it too long and it’s full) but I do like the reassurance of wearing my reusable pads as liners/double protection. But I think that’s just a personal hang up from memories of beige trousers and leaks with tampons (sadly a true story…). You might find you don’t leak at all but it’s impossible to know until you try. But again you could try a different shaped cup or use double protection like me.

When do I need to replace it?

Good question- most brands say you should replace them when they become discoloured/show any signs of wear and tear. This can range from 2-10 years!

How many cups do you need?

I’ve been doing well with just the one but I might invest in a collapsible one which I can keep in my purse in case I get caught short with my period. Generally I know when my period is coming/can make do with pads for the first day but I like the reassurance of having one to hand in the case of an emergency!

Other random questions

I think I’ve covered most of the common questions and some questions I just won’t be able to answer. Remember everyone’s body and needs are different so this may not work for you. I did notice a few people saying they didn’t get along with the Moon Cup but other cups worked for them. Generally there were a lot of people also advocating for switching to the Cup!

Here’s a few random questions I will try to answer:

Can I use it even though I have an IUD? Good question. There are a few articles about this, but again I think it helps to understand your anatomy- the IUD sits in your uterus/womb. Theoretically, it could interfere, but if you’re using it correctly it should be fine. Remember, it sits in the vagina and is much lower. You might want to get your threads shortened and should check them regularly (tbh you should do that anyway!) If you’re worried- speak to your doctor/nurse.

Can I use it as a virgin? Good question-physically theres no reason you can’t and but ‘virginity’ is a concept that means different things to different people, and if we started diving into the deeper meaning of that we might be here forever! I’d recommend having a read around it so you can get your head around it.

Does it smell? No. It can smell a bit if you leave it in too long but only when removing it. Generally I haven’t found it smells, which is one of the reasons I prefer it to things like pads. Mine has discoloured a bit over time (a little yellow-y) but nothing that bothers me.

Can I poo/pee with it? Put A Cup In It has a great video on this. If my bladder is really full I might find it feels a bit ‘full’ down there but it doesn’t make me run to the loo more than normal. It can be an odd sensation pooing sometimes and you might find you accidentally push it down a bit but it shouldn’t come out! So don’t worry! Again big caveat- if you know you have issues with prolapse/your pelvic floor you might want to run it by a health care professional.

Overall

I’ve been so much happier with my cup and my friends will vouch for the fact that I am always trying to get them to make the switch!

Even though it’s my main go-to, I realise there’s lots of reasons why the Cup might not be for you. For me, it isn’t the only period product I use. But I’ll cover reusable pads and period underwear on Part 2 of my blog post, so keep posted if that’s more your thing (you can subscribe to my blog if you don’t want to miss it!)

I know I wasn’t able to cover everything, but like I said- everyone is so different- what works for me might not work for you. Hopefully it was still helpful regardless!

love,

8 Comments

  • pauline Burney

    Rumana, this is really really good ! I am way way past any of this, but retain an interest as a retired midwife and Health Visitor. We need to be open I am also old enough to remember making my own washable pads!! the whole exercise of sewing them was the “education” and ” preparation” for the onset of “growing up” There was no real explanation of what this entailed in those days. My mum was not a prude, but it just wasn’t done

    • Jo

      Thanks for this article. I too had much discomfort from tampons and towels eventually being diagnosed with lichen sclerosis which made each month an uncomfortable battle. I tried menstrual cups and I think they would be great for a lot of people except if your flow is very heavy. At times I would go through one in less than 90 minutes. They are also awkward in public toilets but for most of the time they are an excellent reusable solution.

      • the little pomegranate

        Yes it’s definitely dependent on your flow! I see my period as a multi product cycle, no “one” product to do it all.

  • Bunty

    Thank you for sharing your experiences on this brilliant invention Rumana. I feel quite envious as, like Pauline, I am way past the point of being able to try this product myself. Considering the potential financial savings, and reduction in environmental pollution, I hope that its usage becomes popular.

  • Lisa

    Hi Rumana
    A great read, and really considered content.
    I have purchased a couple of cups, but I seem to have issues with getting them to open up once inserted. I’ve tried different folds, but I can’t seem to get it to open up – and suggestions?

    • the little pomegranate

      Oh that’s annoying. I find giving it a poke/prod when it’s in often helps it pop open when I’ve folded it too deep.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.