The ins and outs of menstrual cups — How do they differ from tampons and pads?

Originally Published: April 16, 1999 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: June 27, 2012
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Dear Alice,

What is the deal with menstrual cups? How is it different than a diaphragm? Is it safe? Is it safe for virgins to use? Is insertion much more difficult than tampons? How do you take it out? What are the benefits? I'd like an educated opinion.

-Curious

Dear Curious,

A menstrual cup is a type of cup or barrier worn inside the vagina during menstruation to collect menstrual fluid. Unlike tampons and pads, the cup collects menstrual fluid rather than absorbing it. While insertion and removal may take some time to get used to, many women consider menstrual cups to be an innovative and safe alternative to tampons. Menstrual cups are safe for both virgins and non-virgins, and for women of all ages. Here are some of the benefits that menstrual cups provide:

  • Reduced risk of toxic shock syndrome or irritation, which may be caused by the bleaching of the absorbent fibers in tampons or the synthetic fibers themselves.
  • Can be worn for up to 12 hours on light flow days. This is almost twice as long as a tampon, so it's handy for overnight use or when a woman knows she won't have access to a bathroom.
  • Can be worn during vigorous physical activity, such as swimming, aerobics, and dance.
  • You might save money — consider how much money you spend each year on tampons and pads compared to the one-time cost of a menstrual cup.
  • More environmentally friendly — think about all the trash that tampons and pads create!

Menstrual cups differ from diaphragms in that they are not to be used for contraception, despite their similar shape and positioning to the diaphragm. In addition, menstrual cups do not protect against sexually transmitted infections. Consult a health care provider before using a menstrual cup if you have an IUD inserted, just had a baby, a miscarriage or an abortion, you have a tilted uterus, if you've been advised to avoid tampons after a surgical procedure, or have other medical conditions you feel may interfere with wearing the cup.

There are a few different varieties of menstrual cups on the market. If you choose to try one out, make sure to read the manufacturer's directions and recommendations, as each product differs. Most are washable and reusable, but there are disposable menstrual cups, too. The cups look similar to a cervical cap with small flexible rods connected to the base to aid in their removal (kind of like a tiny plunger). With proper care, some menstrual cups can be used for up to ten years! The cups are made from a few different types of materials such as medical grade silicone (non-latex) or natural gum rubber.

Insertion and removal of menstrual cups takes practice, just as tampons and diaphragms do. The more knowledgeable and comfortable a woman is about and with her body, and the more she practices insertion, the easier it will be. To insert the cup, squeeze and fold the sides of the cup, then push it into the vagina. As it opens up inside, it creates a very gentle seal with the vaginal wall. The cup is held in by the muscles of your vagina, and if put in properly, you shouldn't feel it after it's been in for a few minutes. To remove the cup, pull on the stem, and gently squeeze the base of the cup. This releases the seal. Gently remove it, empty it out, then rinse it out or wipe it (this can be tricky in public restrooms). With practice, privacy, and persistence, a woman can learn to avoid and/or minimize spills.

All types of menstrual cups are safe for virgins to use, although insertion can lead to hymen breakage if the hymen is intact. Remember, the hymen can stretch or tear for reasons other than sexual intercourse or vaginal penetration — sometimes just from bicycle or horseback riding, gymnastics, or dancing. If you are considering using menstrual cups but are worried about hymen breakage, it may be helpful to consider your priorities, cultural values, and what you feel comfortable with. If you use tampons, then you'll probably be able to use menstrual cups, too. Now that you are informed, feel free to give this method a try!

Alice

December 3, 2007

21287

Hi Alice,

I've been using a Diva Cup now for several months. It's just like a Keeper, only it's made from medical-grade silicone, since some women have an allergy to latex. It's WONDERFUL...

Hi Alice,

I've been using a Diva Cup now for several months. It's just like a Keeper, only it's made from medical-grade silicone, since some women have an allergy to latex. It's WONDERFUL!! You wouldn't believe the money I've saved from not using pads or tampons. And both the Keeper and Diva Cup can be steralized by boiling for a few minutes in water. I keep trying to get my Mom to start using one, but she's too fixed on her 'pull & flush.' I tell all my girfriends about menstrual cups, it's a conspiracy they aren't sold at drugstores!

June 30, 2004

20758
Dear Alice,

I have been using the Keeper (now DivaCup, apparently) for over three years. It is not enough to say that I am satisfied with it. It has changed my life; it made me comfortable with...

Dear Alice,

I have been using the Keeper (now DivaCup, apparently) for over three years. It is not enough to say that I am satisfied with it. It has changed my life; it made me comfortable with being a woman.

Before the Keeper, I intensely resented having periods. The mess and the smell of my body disgusted me, and I couldn't accept having to buy and throw away menstrual supplies for most of my life. It seemed to me that the female body was built wrong and could not be fully civilized.

But using the Keeper showed me that there is nothing inherently "icky" about periods or about my body. The smell and the wastefulness are created by pads and tampons; they have nothing to do with me! I finally appreciate being female and having menstrual cycles. I've actually caught myself thinking that men are deprived.

Menstrual cups have their pros and cons, but I'm sure there are many women, like me, who would benefit immensely from them. I find it depressing that no one I've talked to has even heard about them before.

Thank you, Alice, for getting the word out.

June 28, 2002

20436
Dear Alice, I got my period during an international trip, and the only tampons available were so badly made that I was afraid to use them. I am sure I could have found something else, but I didn't...
Dear Alice, I got my period during an international trip, and the only tampons available were so badly made that I was afraid to use them. I am sure I could have found something else, but I didn't have any idea who to ask — I was staying in budget hotels and I was embarrassed to be so unprepared. I wound up wearing pads the whole time, which I hated. The next time I was traveling internationally, I was so glad to have the Keeper with me. It was just one little thing to carry, not supplies to last three months. I didn't have to panic if I was caught in the rain, wondering if my tampons were too close to the edge of my pack. Because you can leave it in all day, I didn't have to try to change it in public restrooms, and could wait until I had some privacy. It made a world of difference.