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Menstrual cup, tampons, or pads?

Let’s face it. Despite what the ads claim, the times we women have been completely comfortable and carefree during our period can probably be counted on one hand – two if you’re lucky. On an unlucky month, it can feel downright terrible. Menstrual cramps and a heavy flow combined with long days and the Philippine heat – you know what that’s like. If you don’t, we’ll spare you the details.

In the interest of finding the best option for you, perhaps it’s time to give menstrual cups a chance.

Yes, menstrual cups. They are exactly what they sound like. An alternative to sanitary pads and tampons, a menstrual cup is a small cup you put inside your vagina during your period.

Usually made from silicone or TPE (thermoplastic elastomer), it's designed to be a receptacle for your menstrual blood. In the Philippines where even tampon use is practically unheard of among many women, it’s understandable that menstrual cups can bring on a little bit of doubt and maybe even fear.

Tampons and sanitary pads or napkins work by absorbing blood. In the process, they also absorb your natural vaginal flora, or the healthy bacteria that prevents infections and the growth of yeast. What’s more, in situations where you use a napkin for a heavy flow and your period isn’t quite so heavy, the absorbent materials may even cause vaginal dryness.

On the other hand, since menstrual cups collect the blood instead of absorbing it, the other necessary fluids around your vagina are preserved and kept to a healthy level.

On a universal level, menstrual cups are a good idea because they’re reusable, thus good for the environment. In all parts of our lives we leave a carbon footprint of waste and resources – our periods are no exception. 

More often than not, sanitary napkins are non-biodegradable because of the plastic they’re partly made with. Now imagine how many napkins you’ve used over the span of your life and how big a land area it would cover. Multiply that by the thousands of women in your city, the millions of women in your country, and the billions of women in the world. The idea that our natural monthly flow can cause such mountains of trash is a little overwhelming. (READ: [Dash of SAS] Making the menstrual period eco-friendly

Menstrual cups are reusable and depending on how well you take care of them, they can last for 5 to 10 years. All you need to use is water, maybe vinegar, and mild soap to keep it clean.

If after reading all of this, you still find the idea of using a menstrual cup a little strange, below my personal account of how it was for me. Be warned that we’re talking about vaginas, blood, and the like. (READ: Why do we have to be ashamed of menstruation?

Putting the menstrual cup in its place 

When you get your first cup, it will come with a set of instructions that I advise you to read carefully. According to the prescriptions that came with my Meluna menstrual cup, I sterilized it by soaking it in boiling water before using it at all. They also recommend sterilizing it before each period. Other options I saw online was to soak your cup in a vinegar-water solution with varying rations of vinegar to water, usually 1:9.

What’s it like putting it in? Easy. Honestly, it was actually much easier than I expected. Granted, my cup is a size small. If it was much bigger, I suppose I’d have a harder time. 

How to do it exactly? With clean hands, you have to fold the cup and place it inside of your vagina, right up until you can only touch the tip of the cup. There was never any pain for me but I would say, you can expect some slight discomfort – most of it comes from the idea that you’re putting something in there, especially if it’s your first time.

Just relax and breathe. Since the walls of our vaginas are flexible, it’s pretty much easy going once you get the top part in. Everything else slides in much easier and it gently opens up into a cup shape once inside. 

There are different ways to fold the cup before placing it inside. Personally, I use the C-fold. 

Watch the video below to see two kinds of folds and how it works, plus tips on how to insert it:

 

It’s also much easier to do this sitting down and when your vagina isn’t completely dry. The first time I used it, I had just taken a shower.

Daily living with the menstrual cup

After the first few minutes or maybe hours, depending on how fast you’ll be able to relax into it, you can almost forget the menstrual cup is there. If you position it perfectly, you won’t feel it at all, even when you’re sitting down – not even when you’re peeing. You’ll only really feel it when you engage your pelvic floor muscles in daily life (aka the muscles you use to hold in your pee). 

You can keep it inside for a maximum of 8-12 hours. But for the first few times of using it, the menstrual cup provider will recommend changing it as often as you change your napkins or your tampons so you can see how often you personally need to empty it. 

I usually have to change my sanitary napkin after 2 to 3 hours so I did the same with my cup. When changing, I’d see that after 3 hours, there was still a lot of space and I probably could’ve kept it in for an hour or longer. This is good news because it means you have to empty it less often. 

Removing the cup is slightly harder than putting it in. You have to pull it downwards with the grip at the base of the cup and once part of the cup is out, you have to squeeze it with your pelvic floor muscles. What really worked for me was not the pulling but instead, squeezing my pelvic floor muscles together, guiding the cup out. 

The most uncomfortable part comes in getting the very top part of the cup out as that is the point where it’s most wide and most thick. Please note that I used the word uncomfortable instead of painful.

Since you’re pulling it downward, when it comes out, it’s still in its upright position. No blood will be spilled until you turn over the cup and dump the blood in the toilet.  You may have to flush more than once if your flow is heavy and if it’s more than just liquid. 

Perhaps the most complicated part of it all is cleaning it with mild soap before putting it back in – only certain types of comfort rooms will allow this: those with a bidet and those with a sink near the toilet as well. 

Fair warning: if you use a bidet do test out the pressure of the bidet. The last thing you want to happen is to drop your menstrual cup in the toilet bowl! 

I’ve used both napkins and tampons and I can say there are a few marked differences. 

Vs the pad 

Personally, I never felt comfortable using a sanitary napkin. The experience for me was a constantly damp feeling and I was always aware of it being there. Since the blood is absorbed and then stored for a couple of hours, napkins also felt quite dirty for me. I know I’m not alone in saying that when you change your napkin, you aren’t exactly met with the most pleasant of smells. 

Since the menstrual cup absorbed all the blood, I didn’t have to wear a napkin and I could wear my underwear just like it was any other day. No damp feeling, no feeling of sitting on something weird and squishy, and better yet, no smell. 

When I emptied the cup I was happily surprised not to be met with any off-putting odor, leading me to think that the odor really comes from the blood being stored for so long in a napkin. 

Personally, I didn’t experience any leaks but if you position it wrongly, leaks can be a possibility. If you’re unsure, for the first few times, you may still want to wear a panty liner to be safe.

Suddenly, having a period wasn’t really an ordeal. In general, I felt much cleaner and much more secure with the cup than with a sanitary napkin. 

Research shows that some sanitary napkins also contain chemicals like bleach dyes. If you stay with a sanitary pad, it’s probably a good idea to check the packaging more closely and read up on your preferred brand.

Vs the tampon?

Tampons have a little more in common with menstrual cups in how they are also placed inside your vagina and store blood from there. Both of them have the awesome advantage of allowing you to swim, hassle free. Using tampons however, I also had the same feeling of cleanliness but without the security. 

One of the worst menstruation-related nightmares you could ever have is toxic shock syndrome (TSS). In the horror stories we’ve all heard about toxic shock syndrome, it works fast and suddenly starting with a fever and at the worst, possibly causing shock, kidney and liver failure.

TSS is caused by the development of the staph bacteria, specifically staphylococcus aureaus, in the vaginal flora. Though TSS can be caused by other things and even men can get it, many TSS cases have been linked to the use of super-absorbent tampons. The staph bacteria multiply in the tampon’s material and produce the toxin that causes TSS. 

It’s much, much less likely you’ll get TSS due to menstrual cups because there’s no absorbent fibers where the staph bacteria can multiply. However, if you have been diagnosed with toxic shock syndrome before or have any other infection affecting your reproductive system, it would still be best to check with a doctor.

If you stay with tampon use, perhaps use the less absorbent ones and be sure to replace it in the amount of time specified.

Where to get it and what to get

In the Philippines, you can get a menstrual cup from Mamaway in Edsa Shangri-la and on Facebook at Mama.Baby.Love.

Out of the many brands and kinds, how do you choose?

I honestly chose mine according to looks. I was browsing through the Mama.Baby.Love Facebook page and the Meluna cup looked the most friendly and easy to use. With my research on the Meluna cup, it was as user friendly as it looked. If you’re interested in other brands, just treat your purchase how you would any other – do your research and choose what’s best for you. There’s even a menstrual cup with its own app, the Loon Cup

After choosing your brand, choose the size. The cups come in small, medium, large, and extra large. If unsure, try this quick quiz that can tell you what size is probably best for you – depending on your age, if you’ve had intercourse, if you’ve given birth, and your physique.

You can also choose the grip, which is the pointed end of the cup you use to remove it when needed. It can be either a ring, a ball, a stem, or even no grip at all. I ended up getting a size small cup with a ring, the sport variation.

Meluna’s sport cup is usually for people who hold a strong level of pelvic floor engagement daily a.k.a yogis, people who practice pilates, etc. It’s a little less soft and a little more firm. If you choose another brand but you’d like a sport cup, check out their offerings. You’ll see in the picture below how firm they are in relation to each other when pressed.

Lastly, pick a color and have fun with it!

Ultimately, the choice of how to go about your monthly period is your own. If you’ve been using sanitary napkins for years and you find yourself tired of it, it’s never too late to try something new. See what works for you and be friends with this monthly visitor we call our period. Rappler.com

Photo via Shutterstock