On the list of products for which the pandemic has made me especially thankful — a sweat jumpsuit that I live in now, five dice for Yahtzee tournaments and a pour-over coffee pot — the product I’m perhaps most thankful for is my period cup.
In 2017, I purchased my first period cup for the same reason I made most of my sustainable purchases: I had realized that it was a greener and cheaper option. Single-use tampons, pads and panty liners result in much landfill waste, in terms of the products themselves, the packaging, and, in tampons’ case, the plastic applicators. In the lifetime of a person who menstruates, they’ll use 5,000 to 15,000 single-use menstruation products, National Geographic reports, of which the plastic may take hundreds of years to decompose. (Plastic isn’t just in the packaging; there’s often thin plastic in tampons and pads themselves.) Meanwhile, most period cups on the market are made with eco-friendly materials. For example, Lunette, a menstrual cup brand founded in Finland, boasts on their website that their cups are waste-free and don’t include latex or chemicals.
For the environmentally conscious consumer, there are single-use products made with eco-friendlier materials, but reusable menstruation products still result in a reduction of products used during one’s lifetime. On average, menstruation occurs for 40 years of a person’s life. A period cup can last up to 10 years, meaning one could potentially use four cups during their lifetime, as opposed to several thousand tampons. This longevity is where the period cup gets its financial edge. A menstrual cup can be purchased for under $30, which, if you purchase four during a lifetime, is about $120. Meanwhile, one estimate finds the cost of a lifetime supply of tampons is over $1,700.
Of course, period cups aren’t the only sustainable option. If you’re looking for an insertion-free product, there’s period underwear and reusable pads, the latter of which I purchased at the end of last year. The appeal of sustainable products had largely been their being more environmentally friendly than single-use products, and often more cost-effective in the long-term, but these uncertain times have ushered in a new selling point: They relieve the consumer of recurring replenishment. Translation: You don’t have to go to the drugstore. And during a pandemic, with a virus spreading through person-to-person contact, this might be the biggest selling point of all.
If you’re curious about sustainable menstruation products, most brands offer detailed Q&A sections, suggesting that this hesitance is likely normal for the new consumer. Based on my own period cup experience, here are my responses to common questions:
Is the period cup uncomfortable? During the first few wears, I wouldn’t say it was physically uncomfortable, but more so mentally uncomfortable in that I was constantly aware of it. Now that the novelty has worn off, my period cup is incredibly comfortable.
Is it hard to insert? It can be, especially at first because it’s an unfamiliar process. Using lubrication is discouraged, as it’ll compromise the surface and cup’s effectiveness. Instead, you could wet the cup to make it easier to insert. The cup isn’t inserted in its natural form, but rather folded into a more workable shape. There are several insertion folds from which to choose. (C-fold, in which the middle bends in to make a C shape, works best for me.) When inside, it’ll open into its cup form and you’re good to go.
How will I know if it’s inserted correctly? Much like tampons, the more you wear a cup, the more familiar you’ll become with what it feels like when it’s inserted correctly. Almost all cups have small holes near the mouth that create suction between the product and your vagina, making cups mostly leak-free. If you’re having a leak, it may be a sign that the cup has been inserted wrong or didn’t open.
Is it hard to extract? Extraction isn’t difficult, but it’s always intimate and sometimes messy. The first few wears, it’s best to engage in this process very, very slowly so as to avoid a mess. The intimacy of extraction, however, is unavoidable and can be off-putting for the squeamish. My only advice in that regard is that menstruation is a normal bodily function and period stigma is often internalized due to a lifetime of external messaging.
How often do I need to empty the period cup? Every 12 hours. In most cases, you can time your usage to exclusively manage the cup from the privacy of your own bathroom.
I’m scared of a leak. How do I prevent that? I’ve found the likelihood of leaks, something I dealt with frequently while using tampons, to be so minuscule that I’m mad at myself for not making the switch sooner. If you currently use tampons, you might also be surprised by how effective the cup is. And if you’re still worried, you could wear a reusable pad for peace of mind.
Can you sleep with it in? Yes, as long as you’re sleeping less than 12 hours.
Can you go swimming with it in? Absolutely! You can also run, practice yoga, do jumping jacks and breakdance with it in. That is, if you want to.
How much does the period cup cost? Most cups are under $50. The Lena Cup is $24.90. The DivaCup costs $39.99, as does the Lunette Menstrual Cup.
How often do I need to replace it? Many companies recommend replacing your cup every one to two years, but some claim a cup can last 10 years. The life of a cup relies largely on how well you care for and cleanse it. You should replace a cup when the material is stretched, ripped or has tears in it.
What other sustainable period products are there besides the period cup? There are reusable pads, menstrual discs and period underwear. In terms of single-use products, there are organic, biodegradable options to choose from.
To be clear, you can switch to more sustainable menstruation products while keeping single-use items in your rotation. Many period cup users will still opt for tampons when their period is lighter, when they require the ease of the less-hands-on option, or simply whenever they don’t exactly feel like using a cup. I have a box of tampons under my bathroom sink for these occasions, as well as the occasion of a friend in need.
The pandemic has already sparked an increased interest in sustainability. Particularly, the shortage of toilet paper resulted in a surge in bidet purchases. And sure, there was no shortage of single-use menstruation products to incite a massive reconsideration of our reliance on these specific items, but perhaps one shouldn’t wait for a shortage to consider these, and really all, single-use products. What I’m saying is that in these uncertain times, during which I’ve traded my neighbor a steak for bread, it’s a relief to, at the very least, be certain about how I’ll manage my next period.