WARNING: People who are offended by graphic discussion of menstruation should go read something else.
One of the very first things we put into The Earthling’s Handbook was an article about alternatives to disposable pads and tampons. I’ve often been tempted to write a newer article with even more details about just how fabulous these reusable items are and the new discoveries I’ve made over the years . . . and now, a friend has asked me to write just such an article so that she can show it to other women and change their lives like I changed hers ten years ago!
Here’s an illustrative example:
Taking a road trip as a tampon user: Stuff inner pocket of purse with as many tampons and pantyliners as will fit. Put box of tampons and box of pantyliners in duffel bag; leave spare pair of shoes at home since there’s now no room for them. Beg for a rest stop every two hours and check for blood on car upholstery every time. Leave a trail of bloody cardboard tubes, wrappers, pantyliner backing papers, and mouse corpses–I mean, used tampons wrapped in never-enough layers of toilet paper–across America. Deplete purse stash before reaching destination; restock from duffel bag while companions complain about my having the hatchback open in the cold. Try to buy more tampons in local stores, which have every variety but the one I like, as blood drizzles into my only shoes.
Taking a road trip as a reusable menstrual cup user: Insert cup. Put cup’s little fabric storage bag in my toiletry kit. At rest stop, empty cup and reinsert. Once a day, remove cup in shower and wash it. After period ends, stash cup in its bag.
Seriously, it’s that easy! It’s strange to recall that I was reluctant to try the cup because I was (I thought) a happy tampon user, and I figured anything that was better for the environment must be more work or uncomfortable or less effective or something. The cup is superior in every way!
It can be messy, but in my experience tampons were very messy too, because they almost always started leaking before I could change them. With either method, I get some blood in my cuticles and under my fingernails. I just scrub my hands afterward; no big deal. Tampons were messier in that they encourage the flow to clot up above the tampon, so at least once per cycle (whenever I was in a crowded but very quiet public restroom) I’d have something akin to a handful of warm grape jelly suddenly land in my palm, causing me to emit the sort of yelp that polite strangers cannot help inquiring about and then wishing they hadn’t–whereas with the cup, I have no clots or very small ones that stay inside the cup until I pour them out.
I will admit that the cup, being a wet rubbery device, can make a squeaking noise when handled, and I’m sure other restroom patrons can hear that . . . but nobody’s ever asked; they probably think it’s my shoe squeaking against the floor. The only other etiquette concern is that sometimes, tiny splashes from the cup will get on the underside of the toilet seat–which is the kind of thing the female user might not notice right away unless the men in her house point it out. Once you’re aware of this, you can check for it and clean up.
One of my favorite things about the cup is the way it works during light flow or no flow at all: You can just leave it in all day, and it catches whatever is there. This is ideal for the “my period is going to start at any minute” feeling. The cup is far better than tampons or pads for getting all the dregs out on the last day; it’s not itchy or sticky, and it doesn’t fall apart and leave you full of fluffs.
Oh, and speaking of that last day, there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that using a cup makes your period shorter! Mine went from six days to four, and I can’t think of any other variable that would explain it. My impression is that the cup’s light suction brings the flow out faster.
There’s a lot of discussion of reusable cups and cloth pads on the mothering.com Natural Body Care discussion board. One of the most useful things I’ve learned there is a “dance” to do if you have inserted your cup but can’t get it to unfold inside you: Rotate your hips in circles as if twirling a hula hoop. Then do some high marching steps. It really works! (And I have no idea why, or why the cup won’t unfold in the first place.)
Frequently Asked Questions
(By “frequently” I mean “at least once since I put up the original page”.)
What brand of cup (or cloth pad) is best?
I haven’t tried a cup I didn’t absolutely adore! But because they last so long, I’ve only tried two. This very dedicated woman has tried every style of reusable menstrual cup she could find–interesting comparisons.
My first cup was a Keeper, and I did keep it, even after giving birth vaginally; it still worked! But it didn’t work as well, so I decided to indulge my curiosity and try the other brand widely sold in the U.S., the Diva Cup, in the postpartum size. I like it even better than the Keeper! Partly that’s because it fits me better (less leakage) than the Keeper ever did, but your anatomy may vary. I also like the Diva’s clear silicone: It’s easy to see whether it’s clean, and it has no smell, whereas the Keeper is made from natural rubber that’s opaque dark brown and smells like sneakers. My Keeper (this may have changed since 1997) has its tiny holes around the base of the rim, rather than at the very top like the Diva; this means that when the Keeper fills up to the holes, tiny droplets of flow can escape, whereas the Diva really can fill all the way up without leaking.
As for cloth pads, there are a zillion brands–it’s a fascinating industry, with a lot of small businesses run by women working at home–so what I did was pick a few that looked good and try one or two of each. When I was buying cloth diapers, if a store also sold cloth pads I added one to my order. Yes, I did use cloth pads postpartum. They were wonderful! These are some brands I particularly recommend:
- New Moon Pads are available in several sizes, with or without wings, in “elemental” style and also in a style that unfolds for more thorough washing. I have one of each (with wings). I find that the “elemental” pad gets clean just fine, and I appreciate its built-in leak-resistant layer. The foldable one is better for light flow or with added layers. Another thing I like about New Moon is the huge selection of fabric patterns–you can choose a colorful print that makes you happy every time you see it!
- Mimi’s Dreams makes extremely comfortable, flexible pads with excellent snaps. They have two lines of stitching that seem to help the flow soak into the middle of the pad instead of running off the edge. For just 65c more, I got the hemp soaker, which is astoundingly absorbent yet retains no odor, even though these pads don’t unfold for washing.
More cloth pad companies are listed at the end of my other article.
Don’t you get infections from using dirty used stuff in your sensitive places?
No. In fact, I had recurring urinary tract infections when I was using tampons, and I stopped having them when I switched to a cup. I’ve never been prone to yeast infections myself, but I’ve heard that many women have reduced yeast problems by switching from disposable to reusable feminine gear.
The thing is, disposable products aren’t sterile. Most of them are made with synthetic materials and chemicals that may irritate skin and make it more vulnerable to infection. (Personally, I find it hard to believe that anyone’s labia can tolerate contact with Always Dri-Weave. It feels like screen-wire to me!) The vagina has its own natural cleansing system, so absorbent products can screw it up.
How exactly do you soak and wash cloth pads?
My way is not the only way, but this is what I do:
- Remove/unfold any interior layers. Place all bloody components in a container with tight-fitting lid. (I use a quart-size plastic yogurt bucket.) Fill with cold water. Place out of the way. (I put it in a little-noticed corner of the bathroom floor.)
- Let soak for at least an hour; if using pads one after another, it’s easiest to let this one soak until time to soak the next one.
- Pour water down sink drain. Rinse pad, maybe washing a few spots with soap if they are really persistent. Wring out as much water as possible. Clean up any splatters on sink edges.
- Hang pad on edge of laundry basket in my closet. This allows it to dry while it is waiting to be washed–so it doesn’t develop an odor–without getting my other laundry damp.
- When ready to do laundry, place pads in zippered mesh bag. Wash with regular laundry; for best results, wash two loads in a row and simply toss the bag of pads in with both loads. Hang pads on clothesline or drying rack. (I line-dry all my laundry, so I’ve never tried putting them in the dryer. I also wash all my laundry in cold water, so I’m not sure if warm water increases the odds of stains on pads.)
- When pads are dry, stretch and crumple them a bit to make them feel softer and to fluff the layers for better absorbency.
- If pads have an unpleasant odor after washing and drying or have visible stains that bother me, I soak them with Bac-Out Stain & Odor Eliminator or oxygen bleach for a few hours, then run them through the washing machine again.
How exactly do you empty the cup in a public restroom?
Wash your hands before you go into the stall–you don’t want whatever random germs are on your hands to get all up in your most intimate parts, do you? Remove the cup. Pour the flow into the toilet. If any spilled onto the outside of the cup, wipe it off with toilet paper. Reinsert. Use toilet paper to clean yourself below the cup. Wash your hands again.
You do not have to wash the cup every time. You really don’t. Your own menstrual flow will not hurt you. Inside the cup, away from the air, it has no odor. I just make sure to wash it thoroughly (with ordinary bath soap) at least once a day and at the end of my period.
Why would you empty it in a public restroom, if it really lasts 12 hours?
I’m willing to believe that there are women whose flow takes 12 hours to fill a reusable cup. I am not one of them, at least not on the first two days. I just empty it every few hours, whenever I’m using the restroom anyway and I’m not in a big hurry. It’s usually not full, but that’s not a problem–unlike tampons, I’m not wasting anything if I catch it early!
To give some basis for comparison, when I used regular, original-recipe Tampax, each one lasted approximately 2 hours at full flow, usually a little less, before it was completely saturated and began to leak dramatically, such that I could be staining my socks an hour later if I had no replacement supplies. (What a nerve-wracking walk home from school that was!) The Diva Cup lasts me 4 to 5 hours at full flow and then leaks only a few drops at a time–often, I can feel something, but if I keep my legs together it doesn’t actually get onto my clothes–for up to an hour. I don’t know how long it would take to really overwhelm it because that hasn’t happened to me. I did manage to overwhelm the Keeper a couple of times when I stood up in the morning after using it all night.
What about the Softcups?
Softcups, previously marketed under the name Instead, are different from the reusable cups: You can reuse the same one only for one period (the version designed for just one use, which has been on the market longer, actually can be rinsed and reused several times) and it’s a very different shape. Personally, I find it uncomfortable (the ring is very wide), difficult to get in place reliably, impossible to remove without dumping the contents on my wrist, leaky (especially if I sneeze!!!), and just aesthetically unpleasant because it is so crinkly. It’s actually worse for the environment than tampons because no part of it is biodegradable.
As for the claim that you can have sexual intercourse while wearing a Softcup, well, let me quote Daniel: “I don’t know who they’re having sex with! This thing is fucking huge! And that edge is hard!” Your mileage may vary.
All that said, I bought a box of Softcups out of curiosity many years ago, and this is how I’m using them: I keep them wherever I might be when my period starts, as something to use until I get home to my real cup.
What about sea sponge tampons?
Dude, sea sponges are animals. From the open sea. I am not sticking a dead animal in my vagina. Especially not one that spent its life sogging in unknown ocean pollutants. (If you are interested, check out Arwyn’s detailed review of sea sponge tampons.)
What about reusable tampons crocheted from cotton yarn, or made by rolling up a baby’s sock?
Seems to me that if women get Toxic Shock Syndrome from using disposable tampons, it must be even more risky to use a tampon over and over again. You’d have to be really careful to prevent bacteria from growing in it. Sounds like too much work and worry to me. (Although there is a theoretical risk of TSS from a menstrual cup, there’s never been a reported case. Because the cup is not absorbent, it’s not as good an environment for the bacteria.)
Can young girls use reusable menstrual cups?
I’ve heard that some do, but I’d think it would be difficult for girls who haven’t reached adult size and/or are virgins with the type of hymen that partially blocks the opening. The cups are pretty big, and I guess they have to be to make an adequate seal inside the vagina. I don’t think I could have used one when I was 12 and struggling with even the narrowest tampons. But if a girl wants to try a cup, and then it doesn’t work for her, she can always save it to try again later. (See the comment below about which brands make smaller cups for young girls or very petite women.)
Which is better for the environment, a reusable menstrual cup or cloth pads?
The cup. Cloth pads are less wasteful than disposable pads, but you need to have several and they have to be washed after every use. I like to pre-soak mine, which uses more water. With a cup, you can have just one (less manufacturing, fewer resources used) and you can wash it in a small amount of water, as infrequently as every 24 hours. Both choices are low in environmental impact, but I think the cup must be lower.
If you have a question that’s not answered here, or if you have a similar raving article you’d like me to link to, please post a comment or e-mail becca[at]earthlingshandbook[dot]org and I’ll update the article.