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It took me forever to try a menstrual cup, and for the life of me, I don't know why. I was afraid. I thought they'd be gross and hard to use. Now I'm obsessed! It was the single most life-changing zero waste switch I made. Dysmenorrhea, hypermenorrhea, amenhorrhea- you name it, I had it all. With the cup, my period regulated itself. Cramps went away. Each cycle was lighter and shorter. Instead of doubling up on super-plus pads and tampons to prevent leaks, I can swim, wear light colors, and function normally. I only wish I started sooner.
In the US, around 19 billion pads and tampons are thrown away annually. Feminine hygiene products sent to wastewater treatment facilities require hours of costly, energy-intensive processing, after which they end up on beaches or in landfills anyway. Disposable options don't biodegrade in septic systems, and landfill conditions preserve them. The average woman may use up to 16,800 tampons in her lifetime! That's a lot of trash, pesticides, dioxin, and potential toxicity to deal with, even at ultra-low levels of exposure.
Researching non-disposable options led me down an eye-opening rabbit hole. There are natural sponges, period panties, crocheted hemp and cotton tampons, and reusable pads ranging from Glad Rags to Luna Pads to homemade, organic fleece styles. Despite my initial misgivings, I decided it was better to collect, not absorb, and purchased a clear, medical-grade silicone Moon Cup- certified vegan, with a fair-trade, organic cotton storage pouch in renewable-energy powered, 100% post-consumer recycled packaging. Designed to last a decade, the $35 investment offers significant savings over pricey (and often ineffective) pads and tampons. I immediately loved the convenience of not having to schlep to a store every time I had my period, or ask a friend or co-worker for a tampon in emergency situations.
Some women report needing several cycles to get used to a menstrual cup. Others try various models before finding a good fit. The Moon Cup size B, for women under 30 who haven't given birth yet, worked perfectly right away. I trimmed a few centimeters off the stem for comfort, folded it in half, and couldn't feel a thing. Rinsing the cup with water first aids insertion. There were no leaks, even while sleeping, and compared to tampons, removal was a breeze. With a capacity of 28 ml, you may not need to empty during the workday- on average, heavy bleeders lose about 80 ml blood per cycle. In public restrooms, simply pull the stem to empty and A) re-insert as is, B) bring drinking water into the stall with you, or C) wipe with toilet paper. Just wash hands before and after handling, clean the cup when you get home, and don't drop it. Sounds overwhelming, but the cup seems a lot more sanitary and convenient than tampons or pads, without any foul odors to boot.
Silicone usage is controversial among zero waste, plastic-free folk. Silicone is a synthetic rubber composed of alternating silicon and oxygen atoms. It is non-toxic to aquatic or animal life, nor does it negatively impact soil and water. However, medical grade silicone is derived from petrochemical resources and often tested on animals. I know this seems hypocritical, since I'm all "down with microfiber" and staunchly anti-synthetics, but I feel comfortable using silicone because it's highly durable and, though non-compostable, fully recyclable. Toxicity databases and longitudinal studies indicate silicones are inert and unlikely to pose hazardous health threats. From what I've read, claims of cyclic and linear polysiloxane toxicity, carcinogenicity, and inflammation occur infrequently, in the presence of other toxins and infections. Of course, this is a personal choice, and everyone should do their own research before making a decision. Fully biodegradable rubber cups, such as the Keeper, are one option for women without latex allergies. I read online that menstrual cups are compatible with intrauterine devices, but found only one study about expulsion, so consult a gynecologist before use (UPDATE: I've used these with an IUD with no problems).
The main factors to consider in choosing a cup are flow (determines cup size), how high or low your cervix sits (determines cup length), firmness (depends on bladder strength), color (I prefer dye-free, but some people want color to hide stains, or express their personality or something), handle type (not everyone likes the stem), and ethics. For instance, you may want to purchase from a company with a buy one, give one program. Don't stress too much about the other stuff- differences between cups are fairly nominal. Use vinegar or boiling water to sterilize; reusable pads and tampons can be tossed in the wash. Not quite ready for reusables? NatraCare disposable pads and tampons are organic, biodegradable and unbleached. To me, a single reusable cup made the most sense economically and environmentally, considering the cost of disposables and energy inputs needed to harvest and process plant cellulose.