Article by Claire McFarlane
Claire McFarlane is a South-African born Australian and founder of Footsteps To Inspire. She is currently on a mission to run over 3500 kilometres of beach across 230 countries to support survivors of sexual violence. It is a world first, both as an expedition and social cause. Claire knows how hard it is to be a survivor because she is one. Through peaceful outreach and sharing her own personal story, Claire is fast becoming a voice of hope and inspiration to many. Read more about her extraordinary story here (https://www.nutreats.co.za/footsteps-to-inspire/). Find her on instagram @footstepstoinspire
‘I had no idea it would be so hard to find tampons in some countries’, I said to Zissy during our interview. ‘I really need to face my fear and try out a menstrual cup’. Next thing I knew, I set off with a bunch of menstrual cups in stow and a mission to find the best cup in South Africa.
The idea of using something that is good for my body, helps the world and saves me money definitely makes sense, so why aren’t we all rushing out to buy one? If you are like me, there is a certain ick factor to getting up close and personal with my own menstrual flow, and none of my female friends have tried one to give me a straight-up honest opinion.
So, what is this menstrual cup buzz all about?
Otherwise known as a period cup, moon cup and a plethora of other names depending on the brands commonly available. A menstrual cup is a bell-shaped, silicon or rubber-based form of reusable period protection. It’s worn internally and collects flow, rather than absorb it. It has the advantage of being environmentally-friendly, affordable, comfortable and super discreet (no soggy strings hanging out of your vagina or awkward padding).
Surprisingly, menstrual cups have been around since the 1930’s, when tampons were first developed, but have only started gaining popularity with women of the world in recent years.
My first encounter with a menstrual cup was about six years ago. I’m a rape survivor and had just come through an extremely difficult legal proceeding linked to the assault. I was seeking alternative therapies to support my healing process and I heard that using a menstrual cup was a gentle way of rediscovering and learning to love my body. I found the experience challenging and gave up on it after the first few days. It was only until recently that I have been reminded of how beneficial a menstrual cup can be.
My personal story of survival, and subsequent healing, has led me onto quite an extraordinary path. I’m currently running 16 kilometers of beach in every country of the world with the vision to create a sports movement to peacefully end sexual violence. It’s called Footsteps To Inspire (www.footstepstoinspire.org) and I’ve already run in 40 countries. I have traveled solo across most regions of the world and seen firsthand how hard it is for women and girls to have sexual rights or even just access to sanitary protection. In many countries, girls are forced to skip school when they have their period (4 days every month is a lot of school missed and this even happens here in South Africa). I was also stunned to see that some countries ban the sale of tampons because a woman might ‘lose’ her virginity using them (this is a complete myth and watch this TEDx talk to learn why the hymen has nothing to do with virginity).
It will take me five years to run in all 230 countries and that’s moving countries every 7 to 10 days. With such an intense travel and running program, I really needed to find an easy-to-use, compact form of period protection, and so began my venture into the world of menstrual cups.
With the global rise in popularity of this nifty invention, more and more brands are becoming available and we have quite a selection in South Africa. Finding the right menstrual cup, or even understanding how to use one, can be daunting. To make your experience a little bit easier, I’ve spent the past three months getting very intimate with my menstrual flow and putting some of these brands to the test.
Menstrual cups have pros and cons when it comes to making a decision to switch across from ‘regular’ forms of period protection. Some of us will love using a menstrual cup and some of us just can’t cope with seeing so much menstrual blood (yes, will see and touch lots of it). We are all different and there is no right or wrong choice.
Before I get into the nitty gritty of each menstrual cup and how they held up through testing, here are a few tips on why a menstrual cup may or may not be for you, what to consider when choosing your cup and how to use it.
Why a menstrual cup is for you
Convenient and discreet: really easy to use once you get a hang of the insertion technique. The best part is going to the pool or beach and not worrying if that nasty pink or blue tampon string is hanging out of your swimsuit. And no risk of a tampon or pad popping out of your bag in public.
Body safe and odour free: menstrual cups are made from non-toxic silicone or rubber. A cup collects menstrual flow rather than absorb it so leaves your vaginal PH and bacteria intact. Blood doesn’t get exposed to the air like with tampons and pads so there is way less odour, nor is there that strong perfume smell that comes with regular sanitary products.
Cheaper and environmentally friendly: one menstrual cup can be used for up to 5 years. Of course there is the initial cost but after that you reduce your monthly sanitary bill to almost to zero. On average, a woman will use 14,000 tampons during her life. That’s a lot of money saved and a lot less waste in our landfills. Not to mention the reduction in cotton and paper usage or all the bleaching that happens to make those tampons and pads look white.
Capacity and changing: a cup can hold more menstrual flow than regular sanity protection so you can go 8 to 12 hours before needing to empty the cup. That’s a big part of the day not worrying about leaks or finding a bathroom to change your tampon or pad. No stress when it comes to disposing of your menstrual blood, you just pour it into the toilet.
Comfortable and fitness ready: menstrual cups are made to be comfortable and when you have found the cup that suits your body, you won’t even know it’s there. A cup also makes living an active lifestyle so much easier and will hold up with most sporting and fitness activities (I tested the cups out with long distance running, CrossFit, swimming, cycling, hiking and yoga).
Self love and respect: using a menstrual cup requires you to get intimate with your own body. It gives you a strong understanding of your menstrual flow and how your period varies during your cycle. As a rape survivor, it has also helped me reconnect with my body and sexuality.
Why a menstrual cup might not be for you
Blood flow: you will touch, see and smell your menstrual blood…and often. If this freaks you out, then a menstrual cup is not ideal. My recommendation would be to try it out for a few months and make your period a ritual – it’s deeply empowering as a woman.
Insertion and removal: learning to insert the menstrual cup and not tensing up all of your muscles can be challenging. First time users to sanity products may also find inserting the cup a little difficult in the beginning. Removal can also feel a bit strange and until the vacuum seal breaks, you can feel a slight pressure as you pull. I haven’t figured out how to get around this yet, but the benefits of the menstrual cup outweigh this discomfort for me. If you wear an IUD, check with your GP about how a menstrual cup might affect the string of the IUD to avoid dislodging it.
Mess and emptying the cup: the first few months of using the cup are definitely a learning curve and emptying it can be messy. By month 3, it becomes a breeze. Be prepared to use a lot of toilet paper and getting blood on your hands in the beginning. If your flow allows for it, some people suggest emptying less frequently and in the shower.
What should you consider when choosing the right menstrual cup for you?
Size / Capacity: Size is usually the length and diameter of the cup. Capacity is how much blood flow it will hold. Something important to note, and I only realized after using the cup a few times, there are 2 small holes on either side of the cup. These are needed to create a seal so the cup stays in place and helps with removal. Capacity is definitely below these holes. Once flow goes past these, leakage is almost guaranteed.
Material / Firmness: most cups in South Africa seem to be made by the same manufacturer who uses medical-grade silicone and is a soft cup (flexible and easy to fold). The firmer the cup, the easier they pop open but also harder to insert. I’ve concluded that a firmer cup is better for very active women. Strong pelvic floor muscles can squeeze on the cup and break the seal causing leakage. I also noticed that because my pelvic floor muscles are strong, when I had PMS cramping, the cup leaked. I would definitely like to try a firmer cup at some stage.
Shape: different manufacturers offer different cup shapes. Some are longer and narrow, others are more round. In South Africa, the variety tends to be the same and the cups are quite narrow. The larger the cup capacity, the longer it is. Shape can be important when it comes to the position of your cervix. Ask your GP or your gynecologist next time you get a checkup. The third cup I tested was a larger cup (longer) which I preferred, especially being active. I felt like it was going to hold more flow and it just seemed to fit me better.
Tips on how to have a happy and lasting experience with your menstrual cup
Be patient: definitely try your menstrual cup for 2 or 3 period cycles. Our bodies are fragile and sensitive during our periods which means inserting a different type of period protection can feel a little uncomfortable in the beginning. I promise this gets so much easier.
Folding your cup for insertion: check out this great video with lots of different techniques for folding your cup. I referred to it quite a few times and now use two different styles of fold depending on how sensitive I feel: the punch down fold and the triangle fold. Both create quite a small point for initial insertion.
Learn about your cycle: Nutreats has already featured the period tracking App Clue. I highly recommend it and use it every month to keep track of my period and how it changes through the cycle. What I love about Clue is that it explains the science behind your period and why you get the symptoms you get – makes period time more interesting.
Leakage: no cup is 100% leak proof all the time. This is usually because of not getting insertion right, it’s full and needs emptying, or the cup is too soft and your muscles are super strong. Don’t panic. Try a different kind of fold, wiggle the cup around when it is inserted (you can usually feel a slight suction when it seals) and empty the cup if it’s full. Day 2 of my period is the heaviest and I struggle to get through a full night of sleep without some small leakage (nothing as bad as a saturated tampon). To avoid mess, I use a panty liner on night 2 along with the menstrual cup. I’ve not had any leaks where the blood has soaked through to my clothes or sheets (this has happened before with tampons and pads).
Tampons and pads: I keep a few of these in supply. I’ve noticed that some days my body is just too sensitive and doesn’t want anything inserted. Or sometimes I know I’m heading out for a long day and may not be able to empty the cup, I’ll keep a pantyliner handy in case a small leak happens.
Being upside-down with a cup: I’ve concluded that out of the 3 menstrual cups tested, none of them held up to handstands or yoga inversions. Leakage happened every time. There is lots of discussion on whether inversions are good to do while having a period. Personally, I have no concerns being inverted while menstruating but I think I need to find a firmer cup.
Cleaning your cup: this is very important! Always sterilize your cup before using it the first time. This can be done in boiling water on the stove or in the microwave (I prefer the stove). You should also sterilize your cup when your period is finished for the month and store it in the container it came in. Between empties there are a few ways to keep your cup clean. If you have access to water, you can rinse it before reinserting. If you don’t have any access to water, just wipe it out with toilet paper and reinsert. You can then clean properly at the next empty.
The websites for all 3 of the menstrual cups tested explain clearly how to maintain and clean your cup – definitely take time to read through these.
It turns out that all 3 cups I tested are the same in shape, colour, material and design. The realisation happened in month 2 when I was holding the first and second cup next to each other. They looked identical. I then compared them to the third cup and except for the size (cup 3 is a large), I wasn’t able to distinguish any differences. A little bit confused, I decided to hold off on my final verdict until I tested all 3 cups. I’ve concluded that all 3 brands are identical, the only difference is that the third cup is larger in size and a different experience to use once inserted.
In the end, this means the comparison of these 3 menstrual cups relies more on the price, where you can buy them, packaging and any feel good factors, for example, donating cups to girls who can’t access sanitary products.
Cup 1: My Own Cup
Stockists: Mostly online – click here for stockists
Material: Medical Grade Silicon
Size: Medium (available in small, medium, large)
Packaging: Comes in a see-through plastic container with a screw top lid. Great for storing the cup between uses. The transparent container is not ideal for transporting the cup without someone seeing what is inside. There is an instruction pamphlet included that answers some of the basics about menstrual cups. For some fun and in-depth tips, I recommend checking out this youtube channel.
The Cup: My Own Cup has a translucent white colour, is flexible and easy to fold for insertion. The stem is flat with ribbing for grip but this is used more for position. For removing the cup, it is better to pinch the base and pull it out. I struggled the first few times to insert the cup – more to do with my lack of experience. Getting the cup to seal took a few tries and minutes, so leave yourself some time in the beginning. On average I needed to empty the My Own Cup every 6 to 8 hours. My flow is not particularly heavy so I thought a medium would be sufficient but I had leakage during the night on day 2 of my period. I would size up in this model next time. I also noticed that when I was PMS cramping, the cup would start to leak. This is because I’m very physically active and my pelvic floor muscles are strong. They squeeze on the cup and break the seal which causes leaking. To fix this, I needed to find a bathroom so I could wiggle the cup to seal again.
Feel Good Factor: In South Africa some girls are missing up to 50 days of school because they don’t have access to sanitary products. My Own Cup has started a give back project and is aiming to provide girls in vulnerable areas with menstrual cups and basic education on feminine hygiene. The project goal is to eventually support girls across 1000 schools in South Africa.
Cup 2: Smart Cup
Stockists: Only available on the Smart Cup website
Material: Medical Grade Silicon
Size: Medium (available in small, medium, large)
Packaging: Smart Cup comes in a hard plastic, white and pink, capsule that opens by pulling it apart. It’s good for storing the cup but you will have to know how to fold the cup to fit it back into the capsule. I prefer the size of this capsule over the containers for the other two brands because it is a little more streamline and fits into my smallish handbag. There is also no way of seeing inside the capsule without opening it so perfect for keeping things discreet.
The Cup: after comparing the Smart Cup and My Own Cup side by side, they appear to be identical, and it turns out that using the Smart Cup is the same experience as well.
The cup is flexible and easy to fold. I was a little more practiced by the second month so certainly easier to insert. Just like My Own Cup, the Smart Cup medium size wasn’t adequate for my flow, especially on day 2. I found I was emptying every 6 hours and had leakage during the night. I also had leakage when I was PMS cramping and would have to find a bathroom to reseal the cup. Both cups are very comfortable to wear and if you don’t have strong pelvic floor muscles, this leakage wouldn’t be an issue.
Feel Good Factor: Smart Cup offers a sponsorship program where you can buy 2 cups with a small discount and 1 of the cups goes to a woman in education. There isn’t a lot of information about this program so unsure how successful it is or who exactly is the recipient of the cup.
Cup 3: Goddess Cup by Faithful To Nature
Price: R255 (cup currently discounted by 20% at the time of writing this review – R204)
Stockists: Online here at Faithful To Nature
Material: Medical Grade Silicon
Size: Large (available in small, medium, large)
Packaging: The Goddess Cup comes in a see-through container with a screw top lid which resembles the My Own Cup. The container is perfect for storing the cup between cycles but not ideal for carrying the cup in a handbag, mostly because you can see right into the container. There is a pamphlet that explains the basics for using the cup.
The Cup: Everything about this cup is identical to My Own Cup and Smart Cup except for the size. I tested the large Goddess Cup and the size definitely made the experience different. The large cup is longer than the other 2 mediums and made insertion a little bit harder. However, once I managed a good fold, the cup opened up perfectly and sealed almost instantly. For my body, this cup is the perfect fit and felt much better than the medium. Being that little bit larger meant that I could go for 10 to 12 hours before emptying the cup. I had no leaks during the night of my heaviest flow day. I also enjoyed wearing this cup during sport and it did feel more secure than the medium sizes (I crossfitted, swam, cycled and hiked). The cup did leak a little when I was PMS cramping but a lot less than with the medium sizes.
Feel Good Factor: None
Verdict: I would definitely be using the large size out of these 3 cups. Given that all 3 cups are identical in material, style and usability picking the best brand comes down to price, accessibility, packaging and feel good factor. Just like the menstrual cup, it’s a personal choice and you would be the best person to decide.
I noticed on some of the online products reviews that other women struggled with the cups being soft and leaking, especially if they have strong pelvic floor muscles. It would be ideal if these 3 brands considered adding a firmer cup to their range.
Enjoy your journey with your menstrual cup and let us know how it goes.