Perhaps you’re a young woman who has just started her period (welcome to womanhood!). Maybe you’re a period pro who has her routine down to a science. You may be thinking about trying out tampons, or considering not using them anymore. Regardless of who you are, you’ve probably been hearing a lot about menstrual cups recently. Before you make a decision, it’s helpful to look at the features of both tampons and menstrual cups so you can decide what’s best for you.
What are they made of?
Tampons are typically made of a combination of cotton, rayon or a blend of the two. Although tampons no longer contain dyes or preservatives, it’s difficult to say what else is in a tampon. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States doesn’t regulate the ingredients of tampons, and so companies are not required to fully disclose what’s in them.
Menstrual cups, depending on the brand, are made of latex or medical-grade silicone. Although latex is a natural substance, many women have latex allergies. Medical-grade silicone is the hypoallergenic material that’s used in medical implants so they are safe for use in the body.
How does it work?
Menstrual cups are designed to collect your fluid until you’re ready to empty it out. Tampons absorb menstrual fluid, sort of like a cotton ball absorbs water. Unfortunately, because of this, tampons also absorb natural vaginal moisture, which can be drying for some women.
How much fluid does it hold?
Tampon absorbency depends on its size, but a menstrual cup holds over five times the maximum amount of a tampon.
Is it comfortable?
Once they’re inserted, you shouldn’t be able to feel either a tampon or a cup. With both types of protection it can take a little while to get the positioning correct, but once you do you won’t even know it’s there. Because tampons are made of cotton and fibers they can sometimes be drying or irritating to your vagina (especially if you use one that’s too absorbent) and this can upset your internal pH balance. Silicone is designed to be non-invasive to your natural biochemistry, so it doesn’t alter your natural balance of bacteria and moisture.
How do I put it in?
Both tampons and menstrual cups are inserted into the vagina. Tampons tend to sit a bit higher in your vagina than menstrual cups – and can be inserted either by using your finger to push the tampon into position or using an applicator that comes with the product.
A menstrual cup needs to be folded in order to be inserted, and then it opens up once positioned correctly in the vagina creating a gentle seal with the vaginal walls that prevents leaks. You may need to try a few different folding and insertion methods, but you will get the hang of it. (Here are some tips for getting started with your cup.)
Removing a menstrual cup also requires a bit more hands-on effort than tampons, which are just removed by tugging on the string. To remove you should squeeze the base of the cup, which breaks the seal, and then gently pull it out. Then just empty your fluid into the toilet and wash the cup before reinserting it. (Find more tips on removing your cup here.)
How long can I leave it in?
Many tampons can be left in for up to 8 hours, but it is recommended that you change them often for good hygiene and to avoid leaks. Cups can be left in for up to 8 hours (including overnight), but it depends on your flow. If you have heavier period it will need to be emptied more often, just like tampons.
Is it safe?
Both tampons and menstrual cups are safe to use. The risk most often associated with tampons is toxic shock syndrome, or TSS. TSS is a rare but potentially fatal disease caused when bacteria builds up in the vagina and enters the bloodstream. If you use tampons be sure to change them often and only use the size/absorbency necessary for your flow. Get the facts about TSS and the safety of tampons here.
The medical-grade silicone of most menstrual cups is non-porous, non-absorbent and bacteria-resistant so it doesn’t create an environment suited to bacterial growth like tampons (which is why it’s used in medical implants like heart valves). While they might be a little intimidating, they are absolutely safe to use.
How much does it cost?
It is estimated that one woman will use over 12,000 disposable menstrual products in her lifetime. Although there is a higher upfront cost for menstrual cups, the cost is significantly less over time than the cost for tampons.
How does it affect the environment?
Every year, approximately 20 billion menstrual products end up in landfills. (Although organic tampons are made purely from cotton, they need to be composted in order to biodegrade.) The average American woman menstruates for 38 years and will produce around 300 pounds of waste just from tampons, pads, applicators and wrappers. Since menstrual cups are reusable for a number of years, making the switch to cups could significantly reduce the amount of waste you contribute. Menstrual cups can also be recycled at any place that handles medical-grade silicone; many hospitals have recycling programs for these kinds of materials.
No matter what product you choose, make sure it works for you and your routine. Every woman is different, so what’s right for one woman may not be right for another. But don’t be ashamed of your choice. After all – menstruation is a natural part of a woman’s life, and should be embraced.