Opening scene: It is my first postpartum period. I am trying to put in my menstrual cup (more on that later) and it WILL NOT pop open. I’m doing this by flashlight balanced on the counter because we haven’t had power in 25 hours (thanks to a hurricane). My 10-month-old pulls to stand on my knees wailing because literally the ONLY thing she wants is for me to hold her, while the 5-year-old brings me a chem light (glow stick) and almost drops it in the toilet in between my legs.
Motherhood is the opposite of glamorous and private.
So, on that note, I’ve taken it upon myself to do a little research and provide pros and cons on tampons, menstrual cups and menstrual discs. Perhaps you’re pregnant or you’ve recently had a baby and are looking to change it up once your period starts back up, or perhaps you’re just curious. Or, perhaps you just have a sick sense of humor. Regardless, read on.
Lastly, I’ll be honest, I’m not really touching on the benefits of pads because I hate them and can’t think of many positives to them, aside from an option for young girls who aren’t ready to try tampons yet, postpartum bleeding, and those who cannot use tampons or other options for various reasons.
Pros: Easy to find, relatively inexpensive, and user-friendly. They are the easiest to dispose of. (Though I bet I’m not alone that I am still trying to unlearn “just flush it!” That’s a bad idea. Don’t flush them. Same goes for those “flushable wipes.” Just because it can be flushed doesn’t mean it should. They will clog your pipes and if it doesn’t cost you personally to pay a plumber, eventually your taxes will go up because the water treatment plants are getting all jacked up.
Cons: Tampons and pads are terrible for the environment. Think about how long they take to decompose. Consider the volume of waste: Let’s say you change your tampon every 4 hours (minus sleeping) so maybe 4-5 a day; multiply that by 3-7 days, multiplied by 12 months a year, for 40+ years of menstruating…math is not my strongest subject but that adds up to a lot. Even eliminating applicators doesn’t mean there is no waste.
Aside from the environmental impact, the cost adds up as well. Sure, it may be about (I am generalizing) $10 a month, but that’s $100 a year that I could be spending on donuts, new shoes, or dinners that someone else cooks for me.
There also has been recent concern about chemicals/bleaching in tampons and whether they are safe. There are organic options out there which I am preferring to currently use, even if it may all be over nothing.
What the heck is a menstrual cup, anyway? That is what I asked about two years ago when a friend told me she used one. It is a silicone cup inserted into the vagina to catch menstrual flow.
Pros: They range from $10-$30 and are reusable. I have asked longtime users, and they report replacing them every two years or so. They can be worn for longer than tampons (up to 12 hours.) Granted, this won’t work for all women depending on how heavy your flow is, but in general you will need to change it less frequently than a tampon. Many women report they are more comfortable than tampons.
Cons: There are a lot of brands, and you may need to buy a few before you find the right one that fits most comfortably. There is a learning curve.
I know we all like to think that we have cute, petite vaginas. (I don’t have the licensing rights to insert the gif from Mean Girls about a heavy flow and wide-set vagina.) But guys, them things are cavernous.
I mean, we push babies outta there. Hence, my challenge and frustration in the opening scene when I was trying to put a menstrual cup in. I was thinking, what the heck is going on? How big is my vagina? Doesn’t it shrink back down after childbirth to a slim, sexy vagina? NO. You have a big fat Mom Vagina and when your menstrual cup (which you fold in order to fit inside) won’t pop open, you will be shocked and appalled at how many fingers you can still cram up there trying to play the worst game of Tetris in history. Don’t you judge me, I said YOU.
WE ARE IN THIS UNSEXY MOM VAGINA GAME TOGETHER.
Another con: Be prepared for the sound it makes when you remove it. It’s similar to a wet fart, so again, privacy is ideal.
Another con: Emptying the cup.
Note on emptying the cup: First things first: PEE FIRST. I cannot stress this enough. You might think “I don’t need to go that badly,” but you are wrong. The muscles all work together and when you want them to loosen for the cup to come out, they will also loosen to let the pee come out. It only took peeing on my own hand once to learn that messy lesson. Anyway, you pinch the tip of the cup to break the seal it has with your cervix, and then pull it out. Then it looks like a horror film in the toilet. You should either definitely look or definitely not look, depending on what your level of sick fascination with gross/bar for decorum is.
But here’s where it (literally) gets messy: You have to rinse it. You could just wipe it off with toilet paper or a wet wipe (don’t flush!), but it’s not really going to do a thorough job. You need to rinse it in the sink. So if you are in a public bathroom, you really can’t/shouldn’t change your cup. It’s just gross and no one wants or needs to see that. You WILL scar a young child accompanying her mother to the bathroom at Target.
So this is another con: You can’t really change it in public unless you have a private bathroom. However, due to the 12-hour ability to wear it, you shouldn’t need to. Anyway so then you are rinsing it, the sink is no longer clean. Anything you drop in there (contact lens, toothbrush) is now dead to you.
Also, your hands will get blood on them, though it will vary, again, depending on your flow. It is possible to pull it out from the bottom of the cup and generally mange to keep yourself clean-ish. However, you are going to be spelunking up in that lady cave to get it back in place, so, again, you want a private sink so you don’t have to face strangers with your shamefully bloody fingers.
I was also recently told that menstrual cups may create a higher risk of Toxic Shock Synrdome than tampons; they should actually be sterilized each time you take them out and before reinserting to prevent bacterial growth. “Biofilm” and all that. (Don’t worry, I have survived reinserting multiple times over a few months without infection. However it does make me think I should buy a second, or rotate between a cup and other methods rather than reinserting.)
In the name of researching for this post, I decided to try out a menstrual disc. This is sort of a hybrid of a tampon and a cup. It is a disposable disc not unlike a diaphragm (which, to be honest, I had to google how they work because I thought they were only used in the 50s…) that you insert and it collects the blood in a little “cup” of sorts. Like the cup, it can be worn for up to 12 hours. Unlike the cup, it is not reusable, so it’s not eco-friendly. (You can apparently also have intercourse with them in, but I refuse to try.
Pros: These are so comfortable once they are in. I didn’t feel it at all. They are easy to insert and get in the right place. There was a bit of blood when I wiped and in the toilet, but apparently that is normal. I still wear black underwear (Side note: I came up with this trick when I was in my mid twenties. Thanks for nothing, Seventeen Magazine, Mom, friends, and Family Life Education classes. No more concerns about stains!). I also still use a pantyliner, which I use with all of these options because it seems that nothing is leak free 100% of the time.
Cons: More trash. Not only is it in a plastic wrapper, but the entire thing is plastic. The ring (think sort of like a hair tie) and then the cup (like thick plastic wrap?) are all going to take a LONG time to rot away in a landfill.
I hated changing them. I got more blood on my hands than with the cup because it’s sort of like pulling a cookie sheet full of water out of the oven, rather than pulling a bucket full of water off of an overhead shelf. It’s not as easily contained. When your small child walks in on you in the bathroom he/she will be horrified. Part of the problem was that when you pull it out (correctly, mind you,) it breaks the seal as you are pulling it out, so then it squirts some of the blood out of it and onto your hands. Once I wrapped my finger in toilet paper before pulling it out and that reduced the mess to a degree. Then you can either dump it in the toilet or just wrap the whole thing in toilet paper or the new wrapper and throw it away.
Pro Tip: Open the new one BEFORE you take out the old one. In a pinch, it can be opened with your teeth. It’s definitely a more delicate maneuver to get this out, cleaned up, and put away without making a huge mess than the other two. My box also only came with eight discs, so I had enough for one every morning and every night for four days. My period lasted longer than that, so I had to switch methods on day four, which was incidentally my heaviest day.
Finally, they cost more per month than the menstrual disc or a box of tampons; one box of eight discs cost me $15. It looks like there is another brand that costs less (and comes with more per box), so I will probably try those out next month to see what I think.
Speaking of think, there are also period panties called THINX.
They absorb “up to three tampons worth” of blood. However, this makes me think they would work exactly like a pad. I personally abhor the feeling of stuff leaking out of me (ahem, ever) so I don’t think I would be on board with wearing underwear all day and just letting it soak into a pair of super absorbent underwear.
On the positive side, they are probably the most environmentally and wallet-friendly choice out there. But as much as I love the environment and saving money (if you knew who I was, you would know this speaks to my soul,) I just cannot get on board with the slow drip all day long. ::shudder:: But go for it, if you think it may be your jam. Maybe I’ll buy a few pair so that I can quit using pantyliners; baby steps to being Green.
There are also reusable pads out there. You do you, boo.
Overall, this endeavor has just made me angry that women must endure this, month after month for decades. Sadly, I did not come out with a favorite product that didn’t have obvious drawbacks, but hopefully my recon will help guide you to a less miserable period next month.
Note: This post is written anonymously to preserve some of my dignity.