Menstruation or women’s reproductive health is a topic that is still considered a social taboo across various cultures all over the world. The process itself is perceived as something too ‘unclean’, ’embarrassing’ or ‘unholy’, which is why womxn still have to talk about it in hushed voices, or not at all. In India especially, menstruation is not treated as a natural and healthy biological function; menstruating womxn are often treated as ‘untouchables’—they are not allowed to enter kitchens or temples, touch male members of the family (let alone have sex), or lead normal lives. In rural areas especially, womxn are not even allowed to stay inside their homes, and often have to retreat to small, unclean huts or animal sheds.
Only 36% of menstruating people in India use sanitary napkins. The rest resort to shocking alternatives like unsanitised cloth, ashes and husk sand. Almost 23% of girls drop out of school every year after attaining menarche and 71% remain uneducated and unaware of the process of menstruation until it happens to them.
An average person with a vagina undergoes around 40 years of menstruation and uses between 12,000 to 15,000 sanitary pads or tampons during their lifetime. Although these products may seem to be an absolute necessity, we need to understand why they aren’t as good as they appear.
1. Toxic Ingredients
These sanitary products may often contain harmful ingredients such as unwanted dioxins, pesticide residues, fragrances, dyes and unknown toxic components that may be potential carcinogens. According to Chem Fatale, a 2013 report published by Women’s Voices for the Earth, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Missoula, MT:
“Chemicals of concern such as carcinogens, reproductive toxins, endocrine disruptors, and allergens are being used on, or even in, the extremely permeable mucous membranes of the vaginal area.”
“We have so little research on how chemicals affect vaginal health,” says Alexandra Scranton, author of “Chem Fatale… The basic science just isn’t there.” An article by HuffPost talks about how feminine hygiene products may be ‘ticking time bombs’.
2. Exorbitant Prices and Inaccessibility
According to a good old Wikipedia article, Tampon Tax is the value-added tax that is imposed on sanitary products such as tampons and pads, unlike the tax exemption status granted to other products considered basic necessities. Let’s face it: pads are expensive, but they’re still available to us for use. If we look beyond our privilege, it is pretty evident that people from low-income households or rural areas do not have access to sanitary products, and even if they do, they cannot afford it.
3. A Big NO-NO For The Environment
The most common menstrual products are a veritable cornucopia of plastic. Tampons come wrapped in plastic, encased in plastic applicators, with plastic strings dangling from one end, and many even include a thin layer of plastic in the absorbent part. Pads generally incorporate even more plastic, from the leak-proof base to the synthetics that soak up fluid to the packaging. As a result, almost all of the used sanitary napkins or tampons end up in landfills, or worse, in the ocean. In both cases, it creates a lot of health hazards as well as sustainability issues. Although the plastic can be recycled, it is not accepted due to sanitary reasons.
4. Life-Threatening Conditions
Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a dangerous, life-threatening condition caused by the build-up of Staphylococcus aureus (Staph bacteria) in sanitary napkins and tampons worn for prolonged periods of time. Superabsorbent pads and tampons (no matter how convenient they are for us) pose a huge threat of Toxic Shock Syndrome to menstruating womxn of any age.
A menstrual cup is a reusable, flexible, funnel-shaped menstrual hygiene product that is made of rubber or silicone. It is inserted into the vaginal canal where it collects the period blood during menstruation. It can hold more blood than a regular pad or tampon and is an eco-friendly solution to all the problems posed by sanitary pads and tampons.
Menstrual Cups: A Better Alternative
Menstrual cups are made of rubber or silicone, which is why they can be reused for prolonged periods of time. After every cycle, wash the cup thoroughly with soap and sterilize it in boiling water. Some menstrual cups can be used for up to 10 years at a time.
Since cups can be reused, it saves you a lot of money. A menstrual cup costs, on an average, somewhere between Rs 350 to 500. The same menstrual cup can be used for years on end, and even if you decide to replace it every year, it will save you a lot of trips to the pharmacy.
3. Less Frequency
Since menstrual cups come in different sizes to fit your unique needs, you get to choose how large a cup you want for yourself. A menstrual cup can hold around 20-40 ml of menstrual fluid (depending on the size you choose), which in turn means that you can go for hours without changing and replacing the cup.
4. Maintenance of Vaginal pH
Menstrual cups do not change the pH of your vagina or kill the harmful bacteria, as the ingredients or chemicals in tampons and pads do. This means a healthier vagina and in turn, fewer yeast infections or UTIs.
5. Eco-friendly and Sustainable
Since menstrual cups can be reused, it means less landfill waste as opposed to pads or tampons; and fewer trees are cut down to make paper-based alternatives. This means that you can do your part in saving the environment.
6. No Pad-Rash/Irritation
Napkin dermatitis, or pad rash, is a very common condition which affects most people who wear pads during their periods. The skin around your intimate area becomes inflamed, sore or itchy due to the friction caused on the skin by sanitary napkins. Using a menstrual cup solves this problem easily.
7. No Embarrassing Odour!
Using a menstrual cup ensures that you do not have to go through the horrid smell wafting from your pad or tampon every time you sit down to pee or change it.
STEP 1: Fold your menstrual cup. A menstrual cup can be folded in various ways. Personally, I prefer the punch-down fold, which is shown in the picture below:
STEP 2: After this, you have to spread apart your labia with one hand, and insert the cup inside your vaginal canal using the other. If it seems difficult, you can use water-based lube for smooth insertion. The process might sound tedious and scary to some, but do not worry! It only takes a couple of times to master this process.
STEP 3: You can try to contract the muscles of your vagina after inserting it so as to create a tight vacuum inside your vagina. You can tug lightly at the stem attached to the menstrual cup to ensure that it is snugly fit in place.
It is important to remember that once a menstrual cup is inserted properly, you will not be able to feel it inside you. The endometrial lining continues to shed while blood and mucus collect inside the cup. Watch this YouTube video which demonstrates how you can use a cup properly.
Wash your hands with soap and sit comfortably on the toilet. Insert your thumb and pointer finger inside the vagina and tug gently at the stem of the cup. Once it is accessible properly, break the vacuum by pinching the cup and pull it out.
Drain the blood inside the toilet and wash the cup with water and soap. When it is clean enough, you can re-insert it inside your vagina, following the steps given above.
1. Quite Messy
Using the cup can get a little messy and you might get some blood on your fingers. If you’re squeamish about blood, it might be a little bit of a problem. You can try not to look while inserting or removing the cup and wash your hands immediately. Otherwise, you’re good to go.
2. Difficult Insertion
The process of inserting or removing the cup might be a little difficult to some, especially younger children, people with IUDs and those who have their hymens intact. You may want to consult your gynaecologist in these cases.
If you want to use your cup for a few months or years, you need to sterilize it after each cycle. This might seem a bit tedious but taking care of a single cup is more rational than spending hundreds on sanitary pads.
Q. How long can I wear a menstrual cup?
Depending on the brand you are using and your flow, you can wear a cup for up to 12 hours.
Q. Does it hurt to insert the cup inside the vagina?
It does not really hurt to insert the cup inside the vagina, but the pain is relative. If you have vaginismus, it might be impossible to insert the cup. Take a good look at your vagina in front of your mirror. Once you are comfortable with looking at or touching your own body, it takes no effort at all. Regular tampon users should not have any issues using the cup.
Q. How do I figure out my size?
Usually, brands provide a size guide on their website or at the bottom of the pack. Cups come in three different sizes: small (for people who are not sexually active or have a small build), medium (for people who are sexually active but have not given birth vaginally), and large (for people who have given birth vaginally).
Q. Could I get an allergy from the cup?
If you have a latex or rubber allergy, make sure to get a silicone cup. Check the material of the cup before buying it.
Q. Is it safe to use?
Menstrual cups are mostly safe to use. There has been only one report of a person suffering from Toxic Shock Syndrome from using a cup, and that was caused due to the presence of a cut in the inner wall of the vagina. If you have the following conditions, refrain from using a cup or consult your gynaecologist:
Q. Does it leak?
A menstrual cup generally does not leak if you have inserted it properly. If you have a heavy flow, remember to change it every few hours, otherwise, the cup might leak due to overload of blood.
Q. Can I participate in activities like dancing/swimming/sports with the cup in?
Yes, participating in activities shouldn’t be a problem. You can go swimming with the cup in. Once the cup is inside your body inserted properly, you shouldn’t be able to feel it.
These are the three bands that I have personally tried and tested. Check the size guide before purchasing any menstrual cup. If you face any problem after using the cup, please consult your doctor.
Note: Originally published here.