Everything you wanted to know about menstrual cups and period pants, but were afraid to ask

A couple of years ago, I was sitting in a café in Byron Bay, wearing a silky, flowy green and white dress, sipping a cold beverage after a work meeting on a hot day and I felt compelled to message my friends. The message said: “never before have I felt so comfortable and secure on my period.”

Why was I disclosing this information? Because, my dear ones, on this day my period care changed… forever. This was the day that I finally ditched the disposable tampons and pad, and instead used a menstrual cup, perfectly paired with Modibodi period panties. I was 100% converted already and now, two years later, I certainly haven’t looked back.

Why you should consider reusable period products

Only this week, a friend of mine messaged me in horror – she had just found out tampons contain plastic and asked if that means they should not be thrown down the toilet. If you’re unsure what the answer is here – yes, most mainstream brands of tampons do contain plastic and no, in no situation should a tampon be thrown down the toilet. In fact, it’s only marginally a better option to throw them in the bin. Not only will they take 500 years to break down, tampons, and all mainstream sanitary products for that matter, contain nasty chemicals that will leak out in landfill and enter the biosphere.

This is a product we willingly put inside ourselves or on our skin in the most intimate of areas, and that can have an equally detrimental effect to our health.

According to Ami Zota, an assistant professor of environmental health at George Washington University, tampon chemicals are absorbed by the vaginal mucosa, and from there are able to pass almost directly into our bloodstream. This may raise a woman’s exposure to phthalates, a class of suspected endocrine disrupters which have been linked to developmental issues like lower IQs and higher rates of asthma.

Another group of chemicals are dioxins, which are by-products of the bleaching process involved in the manufacture of tampons. Dioxins are also a big concern; the World Health Organisation calls dioxins “highly toxic” and categorises them as a “known human carcinogen”. Even if your dioxin exposure from each tampon is very small, a lifetime of tampon use could theoretically increase your risks for disease.

So, you want to avoid tampons. What are your options?

Let’s start with menstrual cups

I’ll admit, I was sceptical about menstrual cups before. They looked complicated and, if I’m completely honest, they looked a little scary! I had many, many questions… How do I put it in? How do I get it out? Will it leak? Can I swim? Will it stay in? Will it fall out? What happens when I’m out in public? Turns out I’m not the only one with these questions. So, here are (possibly almost) all the answers.

Don’t feel overwhelmed by the amount of information, I wanted this article to be a one-stop-shop for all your reusable period product needs!

Everything you need to know about Menstrual Cups that you were too afraid to ask…

1. How do I use a menstrual cup?

Like any new skill, learning how to use a Menstrual Cup takes a bit of practise – like when you first learnt how to put in a tampon. But honestly, once you get the hang of it, it’s surprisingly easy. Every Menstrual Cup comes with guidelines, but the standard method is:

  • Pinch the cup together, then fold it again, so it’s folded up into a tight C shape, ready to insert.
  • Lubrication will help here – this is usually quite natural whilst on your period, but there are menstrual cup lubricants you can also buy.
  • You can do this sitting on the toilet, or you might like to have a few practice runs in the shower at first.
  • Keep your cup rolled and guide it rim first into the vagina. Insert gentle, not squeezing the cup itself to hard, as you’ll get to a point where the cup will gently unfold on its own.
  • To check that the cup has opened fully, slide a finger up to the cup bottom and feel it – it should feel round, like the base of a hard boiled egg. If you stand up and you can still feel the cup inside you, you might need to gently push it in a little further.
  • You can use a menstrual cup for up to 12 hours, and even overnight, depending on your flow. I find I generally need to change my cup three times in the day on my most heavy days, but I can leave it in for a full night’s sleep, no problem.
  • To remove, relax your muscles (top tip: jiggling your bottom jaw helps relax the muscles down there!) grasp the bottom of the cup and release the suction by squeezing the bottom of the cup – don’t just pull on the tail.  Gently and slowly remove the cup, tip the contents into the toilet, rinse and reuse.

2. Where should a menstrual cup sit?

  • Before you get started, a top tip is to get familiar with your cervix. Did you know – your cervix changes position throughout your menstrual cycle? Me neither, until I started learning about menstrual cups!
  • To check your cervix position, sit or stand comfortably and insert your index finger into your vagina. Slide it upward until you feel your cervix, which is the shape of a small doughnut and feels a bit like the tip of your nose. When you can feel your cervix, take note at which point your finger protrudes from the vaginal opening, and use the ‘knuckle rule’ test to find out your cervix position. The first knuckle of your index finger indicates a low cervix, the second knuckle a medium cervix, and the final knuckle a high cervix.
  • Understanding whether you have a low, medium or high cervix will help you understand which angle to insert your cup in at and how high to push it in.
  • Don’t make the mistake of placing the cup too high in your vagina, which can cause discomfort. Practise until you find a method and placement that works for you.

3. How to be comfortable and avoid leaks.

If your cup is the right size and correctly inserted, then you shouldn’t be able to feel it inside of you or experience any leaks. Here are some top tips to help:

  • Twist to lock. Once you have pushed your cup into the right place, give it a little twist to help prevent leaks.
  • Chop the tail. All cups come with a tail, kind of like a silicone tampon string. Trial your cup first and you might still feel this, even if the cup has been inserted correctly, particularly if you have a low cervix. If so, take the cup out and snip a few millimetres off the end of the tail with a pair of scissors.
  • Practise makes perfect! Don’t give up if you can’t get it to work the first time. It will take a bit of practise, but one day you’ll forget it was in there, take it out after an 11-hour leak-free day and be amazed by the little collection of blood in the cup, which you then simply pour down the toilet. There’s something very satisfying about this.

4. How to clean and reuse a menstrual cup.

Worried about changing your cup in public toilets? Don’t be. You don’t have to wash it every change. If you’re out and about, simply wipe the cup with toilet paper before re-inserting. Then take it out and wash it when you get home. Ultimately, you should never need to change it when you’re out and about, because it can stay in for up to 12 hours.

Now, I love cups. But no method is every 100% foolproof, so I partner my Cup with period pants from Modibodi, just in case of any naughty leaks.

Everything you need to know about period pants

  • They are not gross. I know from talking to my girlfriends, this is the biggest roadblock to trying period pants. All I can say to this is the materials used in my Modibodi period pants must be magic, because they absorb the blood better than any sanitary towel I have ever tried. And with it, they absorb the odour too. Of course, they will have their limitations, but most period pant users manage with one or two for the day and one for the night – and there is a choice of light-medium and medium-heavy flow, so you’re covered!
  • They are super, super comfy. Honestly, really, really comfy to wear. I have done reformer Pilates in mine, in super tight active wear too.
  • They are sooo much better for the environment, reducing the use of disposable pads, liners and tampons which creates a lot of waste, much of which is non-biodegradable, to go to the landfill.
  • You can look as great as you feel. If the idea of period panties makes you imagine a giant pair of ugly underwear that you’d be embarrassed to get caught wearing, then think again. Modibodi’s period pants come in all shapes, sizes, styles and colours. They even have a swimwear range.
  • The night-time pants are amazing. The internal strip to catch the blood goes all the way up your bum, so no worries about twisting and turning in the night, leak-free nights pretty much guaranteed.

Some unexpected benefits of menstrual cups

Apart from the obvious things like inflicting less waste on to the world and less toxins into your body, I discovered some other interesting benefits of switching from pads and tampons to cups.

  • No strings attached. No worries about a cheeky string poking out of your swimwear.
  • No sponge-like qualities. Ever had the ‘tampon absorbs water in the swimming pool and diluted blood runs down your leg’ moment? Yeah, you won’t get those with menstrual cups.
  • Less clots. I don’t know why, but I need to find out, but when I use my Cup, my flow is much more… flowier.
  • Tune in to your body. Interestingly, I found it really useful to understand my flow and how we bleed a lot less than we envision in our heads! It made me feel much closer to my body.
  • Less changes. Real talk: sometimes we all get that insanely heavy flow that surprises us. We are women, this happens. But in general, when I have my cup in, I can go a whole work day without having to make a trip to the loo to perform a change.
  • Never having to worry if there isn’t a bin! You don’t need a bin with your cup, the waste is only your natural blood and that is organic and can go down the loo. What do you do when there isn’t a bin for your pad or tampon in the toilet you’re using? This was a very real problem in one office I worked in. No bin in the toilet meant I ended up wrapping up my tampons in copious amounts of toilet roll and hiding them in my bag until I got home to my bin.
  • Better sleep. Expecting your period to come overnight? Pop in the cup the evening before and enjoy an uninterrupted night’s sleep!

How to choose a menstrual cup

Most brands of cup offer a couple of sizes – one for women who have had a baby or who have a typically heavier flow; and one for women who haven’t had a baby, or who have a light-medium flow. The second version is made of softer silicone and is generally suitable for teenagers also. Some cups also come in varying lengths, which will be important if you have a particularly high or low-lying cervix.

When thinking about the size of the menstrual cup that will be best for you, I suggest consulting your two digital best friends – Google and social media. Thankfully, the topic of menstrual cups generates plenty of discussion online. Brands like Lunette have this handy size guide, as well excellent FAQs and forums online, where you can uncover the answer to pretty much any question you might have.

What’s the difference between brands?

The simple answer to this is: very little. Most are made from high-quality silicone, are minimal in length and circumference and do pretty much the same job!

However, there can be some variation in shape. The main difference is the flat versus pointier stem. Some people find the flat shape more comfortable, whereas those with a particularly high cervix may want to choose a cup with a longer stem to aid in removal.

When choosing between brands, there are other factors you may want to consider. The Lunette cups have cleverly designed ridges on the stem to help grip, making for quick and easy ins and outs. Alternatively, OrganicCup menstrual cups come in 100% plastic free packaging. There is also a price point to take into consideration, with costs differing by around $10-$15 between brands.

Every women is different, so most importantly find a menstrual cup and/or a brand of period pants that work for you – the results will be worth it!

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Charli Ferrand Higgins

After a decade working for global and boutique PR and Marketing agencies in Sydney, with clients that included some of the biggest consumer brands in the world, Charli returned to her homeland of the UK in 2017 and decided the time had come to use her professional skills and experience for good. She has since split her time between supporting passionate, purpose-driven small and medium-sized businesses to grow through conscious content marketing, managing and editing the planet-positive content hub Earth Collective (weareearthcollective.com), and hosting the podcast Easy Being Green? Lessons in sustainable business for SMEs.

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