Since we’re delving into the whole zero waste topic, why not go the whole hog and discuss zero waste when it comes to bodily functions.
I used pads for years and was a late user of tampons (not cottoning onto them until probably grade 9 or 10; I didn’t realise you had to insert the full size applicator inside yourself before popping the inner tube. Duh. Also, cottoning on – badoom ching). Tampons were a revelation though, particularly when it came to playing sports – no more chaffing, bulkiness down below, worrying about overflow, where’s my next pad etc.
Here’s the thing though – pads and tampons were the main forms of absorption that were taught to us a kids when we learned about the maturing body and periods. I have no doubt that other methods were mentioned, but mostly what I took from those lessons were pads and tampons, pads and tampons. When you got your period, you used pads or tampons.
Certainly none of the teachers shared their experiences with other methods, if they even did use other methods anyway. And mainstream advertising and media pretty much centres on pads and tampons exclusively. My mum tried to introduce me to the sanitary belt (a very vintage piece of menstrual technology that feels like wearing a sumo loincloth between your legs)
Then I read a fleeting paragraph in a blog post by Paris-To-Go about this thing called a Mooncup and sort of mused over the concept of inserting a silicone cup that was meant to contain the blood flow and which you just emptied when full. For Ariana, it reduced her cramps, shortened her period, and she could do everything – sleep, cycle, swim, all leak free and with less stress about how long you could operate before needing to change.
After this more in depth post I decided to try it out. I mean, why not. At that stage I wasn’t so much about zero waste as I was just curious about something not as heavily marketed in the media.
What is it?
Menstrual cups are literally cups, usually made out of medical grade silicone, designed to be inserted into the vagina and which then sit just under the cervix, catching any menstrual discharge. The same muscles that hold a tampon in place, hold the cup in place. The cup forms a vacuum seal inside the vaginal canal that should prevent leakage. From what I’ve read, silicone is probably the most commonly used material the cup is fashioned out of, although I understand there are ones available in a rubber/latex compound of sorts. An engineering friend told me that technically nothing adheres to silicone, and that is why it’s a suitable material for use within the body as bacteria shouldn’t be able to adhere to the surface of the cup as easily and cause problems.
On a side note, I can definitely support the theory that nothing adheres to silicone; one of the little birdies broke off a key on my laptop. I tried to superglue the it back to the silicone pressure point with polyethylene (hard core adhesive). It didn’t work. 3 times in a row. I now have bald spots on my keyboard.
Generally from what I’ve seen so far, cups come in 2 sizes. What ‘fits’ you will depend on each manufacturer. Some use age and bodily experience as defining factors as to whether you should buy a large or small (i.e. Juju recommend the smaller size if you’re under 30, not sexually active, and have not had a vaginal birth). Other brands will use your own period flow as the defining size factor (e.g. a mature age woman who is sexually active and has given birth may have a generally light flow and therefore suit a smaller cup, whilst you can have teenagers who have heavy flows whom require the larger cup).
Initially I started out with a Juju Cup, but despite being under the age of 30 at that stage and not having given birth, the smaller size was far too small for me. Perhaps I have a really cavernous hoo-ha; the cup would sit up too high, it was a pain to get out (I was often knuckle deep trying to merely find the stem), I often overfilled the cup, and had leaks all the time. However the silicone is beautifully clear and incredibly soft, so insertion and retrieval is fairly comfortable.
I then went with the larger size Lunette cup. The silicone on this one is opaque and is a little firmer in texture than Juju, but usually the smaller sized versions of menstrual cups are softer than their larger counterparts. Lunette’s stem is flat and ridged, which I found immensely helpful in terms of retrieval and grip.
Various ways to fold
Folding the cup to insert is obviously an important aspect of use. Most people go with the U-fold/C-fold as it makes the most sense.
I find the area of the U-fold still quite large though, and I prefer the Punch down fold instead.
The tip of the Punch down fold is slimmer in profile and smaller overall, more akin to the tip of a tampon, which is why I find it easier to insert. Once the fold is sufficiently inside the vaginal canal, the rest of the cup pops open and forms the seal. You shouldn’t feel the cup, much like you wouldn’t with a tampon, and if you do then it’s just a case of reaching up and pushing the cup further. On occasion I’ve found that my vaginal muscles will naturally pull the cup up a bit more, especially if you stand up and do a few kegel clenches. Juju provide a great page on the various types of folds you can use with your cup.
Any physical benefits so far?
My cramps have not lessened any more in intensity, although the full duration of my period seems to have been shortened somewhat. My usual period lasts for 4-5 days, which is more than manageable anyway, but now I find that after the first 2 days I’m nearly finished up by the third.
For me, the first day or two are usually the heaviest, and when I used tampons I would be on super, changing them every 2-3 hours. The cup is meant to hold more than a super tampon and on the whole I have found I can go a few more hours more than a tampon without changing. On a few occasions I have filled the cup within 2 hours, but those times I could tell I was having a bad period by the severity of the cramps, and usually that means the period is going to be a heavy one anyway.
Are there any physical adjustments to get used to?
You’re going to handle your business. A lot. By that I mean lots of inserting of multiple fingers in order to locate the stem of the cup for retrieval, having a feel round inside to make sure the cup has completely opened etc. Then there’s the ‘bearing down’ action to physically push the cup lower down the vaginal canal so that you can remove it from your body altogether. There is also the initial uncomfortable feeling of pulling something conical in shape as it comes out of the canal, and that can cause some tenderness to the inner soft tissue of the vaginal opening. I don’t have this issue anymore since becoming acclimatised to the sensation, but the key of course is always to relax completely. Including your bum. Unlike with a tampon where you can pull the externally located string against the force of your vaginal muscles, you can’t fight those muscles when that thing is internal and naturally vacuum sealed. Believe me, I’ve tried.
Also, you can’t remove the cup easily if you need to go to the toilet first. Your bladder and rectal sphincter will naturally want to retain everything inside and therefore be active – that cup ain’t coming out until you’ve let everything else out the way nature called you to.
TMI? Ladies, we’re talking about vaginas and menstrual fluid. I think we are passed the point of modesty.
How you do actually remove the cup then?
The stem is meant to be a physical beacon to locate where the cup is, not to use as you would with a tampon string for full retrieval. You push down (like you’re doing a poo) once you’ve located the stem, which moves the cup further downwards. Once you can feel the rounded base of the cup, you pinch it between your fingers to break the seal the cup has made against the vaginal canal (sometimes you can hear a hiss of air) before removing the whole cup.
I find the Lunette very easy to remove because the base of the cup is also ridged in thick stripes; Lunette’s silicone was super slippery and I could never get a good grip despite there being some pattern to try and provide a little grip.
Emptying and reinsertion
If you’re not in a toilet that includes a wash basin, then it’s a matter of pouring the contents of the cup into the toilet bowl and wiping clean with toilet paper. A lot of the ‘how to use’ guides suggest bringing in a bottle of water with you for rinsing purposes, but with one hand potentially covered in discharge, I am disinclined to do that. If you’re in a cubicle that includes a wash basin, then this task is infinitely better in my opinion; you dispose either in the toilet bowl or down the sink and then rinse everything immediately before reinserting.
Note if you’re using the wash basin method, the water you use to rinse has to be good enough quality to drink (i.e. potable). This actually brings me to the next thought train when it comes to menstrual cups.
Are they really more beneficial in say, developing countries?
The argument for the use of menstrual cups in developing nations where waste facilities are not readily available and a general low income demographic, is high. The logic makes sense of course – pads and tampons cost continuous money and they require sanitary disposal after use. A menstrual cup is therefore a great idea since it’s a once off purchase that can be used multiple times for years at a stretch.
Considering that one needs potable water when using these cups though, causes problems for areas that do not have easy access to clean drinking water. I’m not sure how one would get around this situation. Can anyone enlighten yours truly?
How do you clean, sterilise, and store the cup?
During my period it’s a simple case of washing the cup with a bit of liquid castile soap every time I empty it. They say you should use unscented in case of irritation, and I definitely cannot recommend using any other liquid soap that isn’t castile due to all the extra fragrance and anti-bacterial ingredients they include in the formula. After my period is finished I’ll boil the cup in hot water in a pan over the stove for 5 minutes, ensuring the entire cup is submerged. Be careful when retrieving after boiling as the silicone is very hot.
Most cups come with their own storage bag, which should be made from cloth. The point is that the cup air dries within the bag and should not be stored in anything airtight. As long as you boil and then air dry after every use, the cup is good to go when your cycle next starts up again.
The Lunette has coloured a little bit with use, and usually takes on a bit more tint towards the end of my period when the discharge is darker and has oxidised. It’s nothing horrible though, and I swear the boiling reduces any strong discolouration anyway.
Are my periods fully zero waste now?
No, not completely. I still use panty liners to catch any spills that may occur. Overall I probably leak 15% of the time but that’s due to the cup being placed incorrectly, or it shifts whilst it’s inside me. I tend to wear a night pad on the first night too, as my flow can be so heavy that I will overfill the cup. An alternative to the liners/night pad might be to wear a set of reusable period panties that you wash after soiling/use.