Are Menstrual Cups the Holy Grail?

Damn near every article and blog post I’ve read about menstrual cups apologizes in advance for the “ick factor”.

I’m not going to apologize.

In this regard, both men and women need to get the fuck over themselves. Menstrual blood is the stuff of our lives, quite literally. It’s the medium of our conception and the scarlet downbeat of one of nature’s great rhythms.

Yet, I have met women – grown-up lesbian women – who are so culturally ingrained with shame about their bodies that they can’t say “tampon” out loud. I sure they’ll think there’s an “ick factor” to this post. One woman I knew considered words like “uterus” or “vagina” grounds for a relationship dissolution. (Seriously, if you can’t love your parts, how can I expect you to love mine?)

I’m old enough now that I can say I’ve been bleeding monthly for at least three-quarters of my life. I’ve used a good portion of the 16,800 tampons it’s estimated I’ll use in my lifetime. My period’s not a trauma, it’s just a fact. I buy a box of tampons, take some Advil, and get on with my life.

Until recently.

When O.B. tampons stopped distributing some of the brand’s higher absorbency tampons, I had a little panic attack. For years I relied on them for their reliability, portability, and eco-conscious lack of applicator. So, like a dog looking for a lost tennis ball, I kept checking one drug store after another for my favorite ones with the purple label, to no avail.

My search for an alternative led me to the DivaCup, a soft silicone cup that collects, rather than absorbs, menstrual flow.  My biggest concern was that the cup would leak, a nuisance high-absorbency tampons had helped protect me from since my teens. I read the company’s website, and learned that I fit the profile for size #2: I’m over 30 and I’ve had a child. (This is when I started to think the cup’s developers might know what they’re doing. I’ve been around long enough to know women really do come in different sizes.)

One of my friends found the name hysterically funny and kept telling me things like, “You can’t just buy a DivaCup. First you have to win the local competition, and then the regionals, then the state pageant, until finally you work your way up to winning the cup.”  The drag queen name not withstanding, I decided to give the DivaCup a try.

I bought my cup at Whole Foods and put in on the shelf in the bathroom. It came with a little flowered bag and inexplicably, a “Diva” lapel pin. We joked that it was a “labial pin,” in case I liked the cup so much I was willing to get a labia piercing to flaunt it. I admit I felt a little excited, like I did as an adolescent girl with an unopened box of Kotex – each pad the size of a pound of butter – under the bathroom sink in preparation for My Big Day. I was waiting… waiting. (Are you there God? It’s Me, Margaret.)

Finally, one day late according to my iPeriod app, I started. The cup was a cinch to fold and insert. I quickly figured out that what works well for me is to insert it part way, rotate it 360 degrees so it is fully unfurled and feels round to the touch, and then to insert it the rest of the way. The first day I wore a pad, just in case it leaked. It didn’t.  It never did, even overnight. And thanks to the ounce markings on the side of the cup, I learned that I am a fairly heavy bleeder. (Over the course of a period, averaging somewhere between 3-7 days for most women, the average flow is 1/3 to 2 ounces, in total. (It’s amazing how such a tiny amount can sometimes feel like a flood!)

The cup only has to be emptied and rinsed every 12 hours. I admit, I emptied it more often than that, mostly because I was completely fascinated by the process. This happened less often as my period progressed. I couldn’t feel it. In fact, I often forgot it was there.

There was one unexpected side-effect of the DivaCup. Wearing it, I felt deliciously subversive in an “I’ve got a secret” sort of way. I don’t want to mislead you when I say using it feels erotic, but it sort of does, in the way that wearing naughty underwear under proper clothes feels erotic. I think this is because there’s eroticism in empowerment. And that was something the DivaCup gave me – a sense of being really in charge of my own menstrual cycle for the first time in my life.

Variations of menstrual cups have been on and off the U.S. market since the 1970s, including disposable ones and ones made of natural rubber. There are choices besides the DivaCup, including The Moon Cup and The Keeper, the disposable Instead Softcup, and others. Menstrual cups, in one form or another, have existed for at least 75 years, according to the Museum of Menstruation.

Menstrual cups are a money-saving and green solution. It’s estimated, that in the U.S. and Canada, more than 12 billion pads and tampons are thrown away or flushed down toilets annually. A menstrual cup will last at least a  year. But beyond personal finance and good ecology, they may offer more global health solutions.

As it turns out, menstrual blood contains embryonic stem cell markers, which have the potential to differentiate into at least nine different types of cells. Stem cell research is offering hope for a cure to a multitude of injuries and disease, from spinal cord and brain injuries, to heart disease and stroke, cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and depression. Several companies have developed systems for collecting menstrual blood (basically menstrual cups), like the Mademoicell, a colorful “silicone tampon”. A company called Cryo-Cell is offering a service called Célle, a collection kit and personal cryo-banking account for your menstrual blood, the idea being that your stem cells can be stored for your use when/if the technology becomes available.

In the past decade, there has been much discussion in the media about potential sources for embryonic stem cells. More and more pregnant women are making arrangements to bank their babies’ umbilical cord blood as a safeguard against future health concerns. Conservative politicians have opposed stem cell research, equating all new cell sources with abortion. And yet, the U.S. has 73 million women of menstruating age, all sloughing off, and throwing out, a rich source of stem cells every month. (Menstrual stem cells are even more powerful than those collected from bone marrow.)

Forward-thinking scientists realize that what the world needs is not expensive personal stem cell accounts, but rather global banking. Treating genetic diseases requires a stem cell match from a donor who doesn’t have the genetic code for that disease. In other words, genetic diseases can’t be treated with self-banked cells. The good news: Public stem cell banking is already happening in some countries.

So, it seems that the future of global health care may be in our collective menstrual flow. And, if that’s not enough to get everyone over the “ick factor,” I don’t know what is.

If you’re new to Geek Porn Girl, you might want to check out other stories in the “Body” category. I’ve written posts about gender, sexual lubrication, the iPeriod app, and the connection between chocolate and masturbation, among other things...

20 responses to “Are Menstrual Cups the Holy Grail?

  1. I’m so glad you’ve joined the ranks of Diva Cup users! One thing to note- they last much long then a year. I’ve had mine for 5 and it’s still going strong. There was a debacle where the FDA required them to list a short lifespan on the package, but I think the actual lifespan is more like 10 years. Even if you decide you don’t like the fact that it gets stained after a couple years though, it’s still a huge improvement over disposables.

  2. I used a Keeper for about five years, before the Diva Cup won me over with its smooth silicone and lapel pin. I’ve liked it better from the start, though I was always a fan of the Keeper too! I try and persuade every woman I know. I just can’t imagine going back to all that waste, when it’s so unnecessary. It does get discolored over time, but I have found that scrubbing it out with baking soda after I finish bleeding, and then throwing it in with the laundry, keeps it pretty clean and un-stinky. Enjoy!!

  3. BEST MENSTRUAL CUP MOST EVAR! I’ve been using one for over a year now and I couldn’t be happier. 🙂

  4. Wow. That’s a lot of information to take in. First about the menstrual cup, then the stem cell information…Thanks for the tip! 🙂

  5. Hi!
    Congratulations on discovering the menstrual cup. It truly is “the bomb” as my auntie would say. 🙂 I have been using a Keeper for a little over a year and I totally agree with you, it is so much better than any pad or tampon ever, though I do like to use cloth pads on my light days. It doesn’t leak, I mean AT ALL, and it is so comfortable that except for the crampy days, I forget about my period. And goodbye irritation from paper pads.
    Truly a wonderful discovery!
    Enjoy.

  6. You are not supposed to put your divacup in the laundry you wash it out by hand (Sarah). I am also thinking the baking soda is not a good idea.

    • Here’s the thing: I know we need to care for menstrual cups appropriately so they have a long life. But unlike a diaphragm or a condom, improper care won’t result in an unplanned pregnancy, just the possibility of a menstrual accident (far less messy!).

  7. It’s pure silicone… I can’t see how either baking soda, or a run through the washer, could hurt it. I can tell you from years of experience that if you only wash it out with soap by hand, it will get very discolored and pretty stinky over time… Just sharing my tips to minimize those things. 🙂

  8. I’ve taken it one step further and use Lunapads (www.lunapads.com) for those days when my Diva Cup just might runneth over. Lunapads’ mission is “to create a more positive and informed relationship between women, their bodies and the Earth.” Through their Pads4Girls project, they’re also donating reusable menstrual products to girls and women in developing countries who can’t afford pads or tampons and are missing school and work because of that. A great women-owned and -run company… check ’em out.

  9. I’m totally in love with my MoonCup, I thinks the handling is better because it’s greener, (aka packaging, etc) that’s it. It’s a great idea for women everywhere, especially down here in Central America. I like to use a reusable natural cotton pad over the night so I feel my menstruation flow out of my body. So my MoonCup doesn’t get so stained, I just rinse it after every 8hrs (I’m a really heavy bleeder…) and I boil it with plain clear water every morning before using it. Some women who don’t know about the cell thingy (or live in developing countries with out the banks) just use the rinsing water on their plants, they’ll grow beautifully!!!! I don’t think it’s a good idea to wash your cup with the rest of your clothing, basically getting regular soap into your vagina isn’t the best of the ideas, healthwise.

    Thanks for the great info!!!

  10. Spread the love!!! I am so in love with my Diva Cup that I tell everyone I can about it. I have converted at least 1 person, who happens to agree that it’s one of the greatest inventions ever. I’ve been using mine for 4 years (!!!) and am on my second one only because I celebrated my 30th birthday with a new cup in the larger size. I used my first one for 3 years & this one it has been just over a year.

    As a PP mentioned, back it up with reusable cloth pads (Lunapads is a great brand, but there are others – or you could make your own!). I will never go back to disposable menstrual products.

  11. Michelle Halpern

    Thank you so much for not apologizing! I think that far too many women won’t talk about it because they are ashamed of their bodies. But we need to teach everyone that periods are one of the most natural things we can do, and as you point out it’s vital (no pun intended) to the continuation of our species.

    I found the DivaCup close to a year ago, ironically in a post on the ubykotex site. I never liked tampons, and I hated the chafing and messiness of pads. To me, the DivaCup was a wonderful revelation. Definitely a power trip, and when I remember that I have it in (almost never, during the day) I totally smile at my little secret. Such a change from the days when I was embarrassed by my little secret, that I was menstruating!

  12. I have used ‘mama cloth’ (washable/reusable menstrual cloths) for many years. When I bought my first set, I got excited about the advent of my period for the first time in 15 years. I even recently made my own mama cloth pads using old clothes and the snaps from some stained onesies that once belonged to my children. I also happen to be one of the ‘conservatives’ who opposes stem cell research done on human embryos–but we donated our 2nd child’s cord blood for stem cell research and I have been TRYING for years to find some research facility that will take my menstrual blood. If you hear of any place needing donors, please post! A study was done in Japan years ago with donated menstrual blood. I hope I can be part of one of these studies one day. Loved your post! Yes, indeed, get over the ick factor. Kudos.

  13. Congratulation on winning the Diva Cup. LOL I have been using it for the past 3 years and it has saved my life. I have endometriosis which causes a very heavy flow. I have never been able to use tampons and the endo caused me to have to stay home at least two days of the month. With a DivaCup I got my life back. I use the Diva Cup and a Lunapad on my heaviest days and I can get out of my house and get things done.

  14. Fucking amazing. Thank you for this! Posted link over @http://www.facebook.com/PurpleLotusDoulas

  15. I started using one 2 periods ago because after the birth of my first child a little over a year ago tampons hurt and since I refuse to wear pads I had to deal with it. I was a little hesitant at first because about 6 years ago I tried the Instead cup and that thing emptied itself out whenever it felt like it! What a mess. So far I really like the Diva but sometimes it takes a few tries still to get it right. And I can only do it in the shower still. Maybe one of these times I will get good at it and be able to not have to get in the shower. =)
    I still only will use it for a year, despite previous comments. It weirds me out to keep it any longer… I’m sure bacteria could build up on it – no matter how well and often you clean it.

  16. Thank you for this awesome post. I luuurrvvve my Diva Cup!

  17. ok, ok, you just may have won me over to the Diva side of life!

  18. FOLLOW UP:

    In the months that I’ve been using the DivaCup (three cycles now), I’ve discovered a couple of things:

    1. On my heaviest days, I really need to empty it about every 4-6 hours. I also wear a back-up pad on these days, in case my cup runneth over. Most other days, I can go the full 12 hours. But, when that cup is at capacity – say, when waking up after a heavy night – try to not sneeze or cough. Really. (The rest of the time coughing and sneezing is no problem. Neither is yoga, nor orgasm.)

    2. While disposable, individually packaged feminine wipes or baby wipes aren’t an ecological solution, they make public changes (maybe 1 or 2 a month, total) more comfortable, and they’re easy to carry, even in a pocket or wallet. Dickinson’s also makes individually wrapped witch hazel wipes that don’t have chemical ingredients and perfumes, etc.

    3. Experimenting with some of the tighter folds (folding video here) will help if you have problems getting the cup completely open after insertion. A tighter fold makes it open with more “spring”. It also helps to just insert it a little bit, let it fully open, and then insert it the rest of the way. Grabbing it by the stem and rotating it 360º does help, but doesn’t always do the trick, so try all the options to find your own best practice.

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