(V Is For Vagina)

Why The Long-Ignored Menstrual Cup Is Finally Going Mainstream

Experts and enthusiasts explain.

Saalt / Instagram

For a long time, menstrual cups have gotten a pretty bad rap. Though some of the first iterations were patented in the 1930s, the product itself has flown under the radar for decades. It’s not all that hard to guess why — to many, the tool can seem messy, scary, gross, taboo, or all of the above. At some point though, something changed. You probably noticed this yourself: All of a sudden, the product became more common on store shelves and aesthetically pleasing pictures of it flooded social media. Yes, it was the rise of the menstrual cup, and it’s a movement that’s only getting stronger today.

Some speculate that this rise, which arguably started around the early 2000s, was due to increased interest in reusable products, since the menstrual cup is known for being less wasteful than tampons and pads. Others believe it’s thanks to the influence of brands. One of the most popular menstrual cups on the market, DivaCup, launched its star product in 2003 and got it onto mass-market shelves like Walgreens and Target several years later. And in 2018, Tampax itself launched the Tampax Cup, no doubt exposing thousands (if not millions) of new people to the product. Between those years, countless other trendy new brands flooded the market as well.

Likely, it was a combination of many factors that kickstarted this increased interest. Whatever the case, its growing popularity is very real — and you can expect it to stay that way. “I believe reusable, sustainable period care is simply the way of the future,” Cherie Hoeger, co-founder of Saalt, tells TZR in an email. “The CAGR for the menstrual cup market is forecasted to grow at 5% over the next five years, with 48% growth in North America. That’s because once people are convinced to make the switch to a cup — they rarely go back.”

Dr. Alyssa Dweck, practicing gynecologist and INTIMINA’s Sexual and Reproductive Health expert, says she’s seen this firsthand. “I am absolutely noticing this in day-to-day practice, especially with the younger population. My patients are interested in the environmental benefit, cost savings, and leak-free menstrual options.”

And it’s the realization of those benefits that keeps its momentum going. “We’ve found the freedom from disposables can be so liberating to new users, that they literally become human megaphones,” says Hoeger. Brittany Hannon, a 37-year-old Los Angeles-based real estate agent who switched to a menstrual cup in 2020, echoes this. “I have convinced a lot of people to make the switch,” she says. “Many people are skeptical, just like I was. [But] I think when they hear how much I love it even with my [initial] hesitation, they want to give it a try.”

Clearly, a fire has been lit. But while it may be beloved by a growing number of people, none of that actually answers the question of what a menstrual cup is, and why those who use it love it so dang much. So, with the help of doctors, experts, and enthusiasts, TZR has broken down everything you need to know. Continue on to find out if you’ll be the next to join the movement of users driving its rise to mainstream.

What Is A Menstrual Cup?

Though seemingly complicated in appearance, menstrual cups are actually quite simple. “They are typically made of medical-grade silicone, come in a variety of shapes and sizes to allow for variable flows and users' anatomy, are reusable and portable, and easy to use once acclimated,” shares Dr. Dweck.

Nicole A. Sparks, M.D., an OB-GYN, explains that they’re also bell-shaped with a stem on the end, and are placed inside the vagina for use. “To insert a cup, you fold in the rim, part the labia and insert,” she says. “It should sit comfortably below your cervix.”

As you can imagine, they work very differently from tampons, pads, and period underwear. Instead of using absorption, says Dr. Sparks, menstrual cups “form a tight seal inside the walls of the vagina” in order to collect blood. “When you’re ready to change it, simply remove the cup, pour the blood into the toilet, clean the cup, and you can reuse it again.”

What Are The Benefits?

One of the most common reasons for its use is that it’s easier on the environment than tampons and pads; both Dr. Dweck and Dr. Sparks confirmed that this is a major reason many of their patients become interested. In fact, another menstrual cup user TZR spoke to — 36-year-old patient care tech Carina Melero — confirmed this was part of the main impetus for her. “I decided to try them out because I was struggling with finding organic and ecologically sourced tampons that fit in my budget,” she explains.

Of course, the cost is another obvious benefit. While a menstrual cup is an investment up front — most average around $30-$40 — Dr. Sparks explains that a reusable model (when cared for properly) will save you money and trips to the store in the long run. Hannon agrees that this has been the case for her as a user. “I do save a lot of money since I don’t have to use disposable products.”

There’s also its sheer capacity to hold blood. “Menstrual cups can hold more than a tampon can — sometimes two to three times more depending on the cup, so you can keep a menstrual cup in place for up to 12 hours while a tampon can be kept in place for no more than eight hours,” says Dr. Sparks. Thus, it can be a better option for individuals with a heavier flow, or if someone is in a situation where they can’t change a tampon often enough.

Perhaps most importantly, menstrual cups can help improve accessibility to period care. “In the age of period poverty, where adolescents may miss school because of a lack of access to menstrual products, a menstrual cup is a game changer as it can be reused over and over again and save money over time,” says Dr. Sparks.

Why Are People Still So Hesitant?

Yes, the list of benefits is long — but the list of uncertainties often stretches even longer.

Part of this is due to misconceptions surrounding menstrual cups. According to Dr. Sparks, many people perceive them to be unsanitary and messy. She explains that as long as you maintain proper hygiene and use a spray bottle or specialized sanitizing wipes while cleaning it in a public restroom, that doesn’t have to be the case. “Over time, as you get more comfortable using a menstrual cup you will develop a solid emptying and cleaning routine that works for you.”

Additionally, she says, many people are worried about accidental spills. (Hannon confirms this: “My biggest hesitation was thinking it was going to be a blood bath!” she says.) While Dr. Sparks explains that while this can happen at the beginning, “once you properly learn how to place and remove a menstrual cup, you will feel like a pro.”

For some, the length of time a menstrual cup stays in the vagina can raise questions on toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a life-threatening bacterial infection that’s commonly known to occur in people who menstruate and use tampons. While cases of TSS associated with the use of a menstrual cup have been fewer than those of tampons (the first reported case was in 2015), it is still a possible risk, so be sure to follow the guidelines regarding usage.

Melero thinks the initial hesitation is also simply due to the unfamiliarity of menstrual cups. “I do think there is a curiosity about them, but a fear to make the leap. People are so comfortable with tampons and sanitary napkins,” she says. “Trying something new, especially when it's something you're putting in your vagina, is scary and uncomfortable.”

Many of these are long held. In fact, Hoeger says that at Saalt, she still sees the same uncertainty around menstrual cups as she did when the company launched in 2018. For the brand, that means continued education is crucial — not for Saalt alone, but for menstruators in general. “Consumer behavior change always takes time, but we know that taking time to educate consumers is worth it beyond just revenue targets,” she says. “By simply using a cup, a person naturally learns more about their body and flow, which in turn creates an open and accepting environment around periods.”

How Should I Take The Plunge?

If you’re curious about using a menstrual cup, there are steps you can take to acclimate yourself to the process of using one or even just the idea itself. As Hoeger mentioned, education is key, and taking time to learn the technical aspects is a crucial part of that.

Dr. Sparks explains, for example, that she often hears misconceptions about menstrual cup size (which is “more related to your childbearing history and where your cervix lies in the canal” than your flow). Instead of guessing, she recommends looking up the sizing guidelines from the brand you’re using. And of course, if you’re still unsure about anything, talk to your doctor.

Hannon and Melero also stress the importance of ample research.

“I watched YouTube videos with reviews and how-to’s so I would be prepared when I first tried it,” says Hannon. “They really did help start my cup journey.” Melero shares a similar story. “For anyone curious or considering making the switch, I would recommend that they do their own research. Yes, hearing about all the positives about menstrual cups from an actual user is helpful and reassuring, but I found that reading up on them, and the different brands, made me feel most at ease.”

And remember: It’s totally normal to be iffy at first. “Most menstruaters are skeptical, apprehensive, anxious, and excited,” says Dr. Dweck of menstrual-cup beginners. “This reaction quickly leans towards one of relief, thrill, and excitement with familiarity and repeated use.”

With that, all that’s left is to decide on the cup that’s best for you. If you’re ready to join the legions of cup evangelists, start shopping with the options, ahead.

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