Tampons, pads, period panties — there are quite a few period products to choose from, but few hold a candle to the best menstrual cups when it comes to efficacy and sustainability. In comparison to the bulkier pads and cardboard tampon applicators of yesteryear (we’re talking as recently as the early aughts), menstrual cups are great reusable alternatives that will help you safely manage your period, no matter whether you typically experience light or heavy flows.
While there is a bit of a learning curve when it comes to inserting and removing menstrual cups, the mechanics of it are actually quite simple. These insertable cups sit in your vaginal canal to collect menstrual blood from your cervix, rather than absorbing it the way other cotton tampons, pads, and underwear do. They come in different sizes for heavier and lighter flow days, and smaller sizes generally for beginners or those of you with narrower vaginal canals. Not to mention, most of these cups (and all of the ones on this list) are made of medical-grade silicone that’s safe to insert into your body, just like your favorite sex toys.
According to Ana Cepin, MD — board-certified gynecologist and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City — you usually can wear these cups longer than other single-use cotton-based period products (between six to 12 hours, depending on how heavy your flow is and the cup’s size). With that being said, a 2020 study published in the European Journal of Case Reports in Internal Medicine notes that you can still experience toxic shock syndrome (or TSS, for short) — a dangerous and sometimes fatal infection caused by an overgrowth of staph bacteria — when using period cups. So, make sure you never wear your cup for more than 12 hours at a time and cleanse it properly (which we’ll get to in a second).
Cepin adds that you may also experience fewer leakage issues in comparison to other period products like tampons, pads, and period panties. “Lastly, menstrual cups may protect the vaginal pH and flora which can translate to fewer bacterial or yeast infections,” she says.
You’ve probably noticed that menstrual cups come in a variety of sizes, depending on the brand’s offerings. If you’re confused about which size you need, Portland-based board-certified ob-gyn Jennifer Lincoln, MD says that sizing usually depends on quite a few factors, including the amount of flow, how low your cervix is in your vaginal canal, and if you’ve had a baby before.
“Unfortunately this tends to be trial and error,” she says. “It’s best to see what the company’s guide recommends based on some or all of these factors to see which size is right for you.” Those of you who’d rather take a one-size-fits-all approach to period-protection products can also try period discs, which are circular, reusable silicone discs that sit in your vaginal canal similarly to period cups to block menstrual fluid from leaking out. Dr. Lincoln says these discs usually come in one size, which makes the sizing conundrum much simpler.
Considering the fact that a menstrual cup is, well, a cup filled with period blood, removal can easily get very messy if you haphazardly yank it out. According to Dr. Lincoln, newbies should practice insertion and removal when they’re not on their period to get used to the mechanics of a cup without making a mess in the process. “Feel free to use lube to make it easier to insert and remove when not on your period,” she adds. “Then, practice at home when you are on your period, starting when your flow is less, so any spills will be smaller.”
Dr. Lincoln adds that you can also stand in the shower when you’re still learning so any spills are easily washed away. As you feel more comfortable, you can start using it while out and about. “You still may want to wear a pad [or panty liner] the first time you wear it with your full flow so you can make sure the fit is correct and doesn’t allow leaks,” she recommends.
Since these cups are reusable, cleaning them regularly is non-negotiable. Dr. Lincoln says you should sterilize your cup when you first purchase it and after every cycle. Though each cup comes with cleaning instructions, she notes that generally you can put it in a pot of boiling water for up to 10 minutes and then let it cool and air-dry before storing it. As for cleaning your cup during your period, Dr. Lincoln says you can clean it with fragrance-free soap and water, “and if you’re out and about, it’s okay to do a quick rinse with water in the sink and re-insert.” Some cup companies also sell their own cleansers to try as well, like Flex’s Foaming Cup Wash.
Switching over to reusable menstrual cups, which can last anywhere between six months and 10 years, can also help you save money in comparison to buying single-use tampons and pads on a monthly basis. That’s a pretty wide time range, so when it comes to the length of use, Dr. Lincoln says to look out for any tears or holes to get an idea of when your product needs to be replaced.
Now, time to put your newfound period cup knowledge to good use. If you’re a beginner, the following reusable menstrual products might just convince you to break up with your tampons for good. Below, check out some of the best menstrual cups on the market that’ll help you out the next time Aunt Flow comes into town.