Are Menstrual Cups Sanitary & Safe? 10 Things To Know About Using Them Hygienically

We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual and women's health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous. This week’s topic: how to keep your menstrual cup safe, sanitary, and hygienic

Q: I’m tired of using tampons and pads — it’s so much waste. I’m an environmentalist! I’ve been thinking about getting a menstrual cup, but honestly, I’m a little wary of it. I'm kind of a clean freak. I like how tampons and pads come all pre-wrapped and sanitized, which is bad for the environment, but feels more secure that I won't get an infection. How do I make sure that my menstrual cup is safe and sanitary when I’m using it? Is it actually going to be clean?

A: There are many different brand names of menstrual cups to choose from — The DivaCup, The Keeper, The Moon Cup (my personal favorite, because it’s just so hippy mama goddess) — the list goes on. But what all of these menstrual cup products have in common is that they are little reusable cups that you put up your pussy to catch your menstrual flow. That’s right: it’s a vagina cup (or let’s go with vagina chalice; it’s classier). Menstrual cups are small silicone, rubber, or latex cups. They are about the size of a shot glass — but the shape of a wine glass with the stem cut off — that you put up your vagina. The rubbery material creates a seal against the walls of your vagina and collects your monthly flow, usually leak-free. When it's full, you just dump out the fluid and pop it right back in.

Menstrual cups are a great option for humans who deal with a monthly flow and who don't want to have to buy new products each month. But because they are reusable, they do require some maintenance and thought to keep them — and you — healthy and clean. Here's what you need to know about keeping your menstrual cup sanitary and safe

1. How Do I Insert It Hygienically?

It's important to wash your hands before you handle your menstrual cup. Your fingers go all over this thing in the insertion process, because you have to fold it up so it fits easily inside you. Whatever you have on your hands when you do that will hitch a ride into your vaginal canal, and you probably don't want that. So before you touch your cup — whether you're getting ready to insert or remove it — give your hands a rinse with warm water and (non-perfumed!) soap.

2. What Should I Do With The Collected Fluid?

Most people pour their collected menstrual fluid down the toilet or sink. Some people use it in their art. I had a friend in college who would use it to water her plants, because apparently it made them grow really tall. So basically, get rid of it however you like!

3. Is It Bad To Get Blood On My Hands When I'm Removing It?

Chances are you're going to touch some menstrual fluid when you remove your cup. And if you're not careful, you can even spill some on yourself — because the cup is super flexible, so if you squeeze it, you can imagine what might happen. If this grosses you out, the menstrual cup may not be the best option for you (or it may be a good way to confront that fear!). 

But it's good to know that touching your own menstrual fluid isn’t dangerous — it’s just your own cells that your body didn’t end up using. Just make sure to wash your hands after, so your coworkers don't think you murdered someone in the company bathroom.

4. Can I Leave It In When I Pee Or Poop?

Unlike tampons, which have a long string that can get messy, or pads, which can also end up with unwanted materials on them, you can totally keep wearing your cup when you go to the bathroom without any worry that you’ll end up with bodily fluids in your vagina. Some people have noticed that it’s a bit harder for them to pee or poop while wearing their cups, though. Messing around with positioning of the cup appears to fix this problem for most users.

5. Am I At Higher Risk for Vaginal Infection If I Use A Cup?

Any time you're putting a foreign object in your vagina, there's a chance you're introducing some unwanted bacteria up there too. This is why it's important to wash your hands before you touch your menstrual cup. Using a clean cup will ensure that you don't end up with unbalanced pH, which can cause vaginal infection. 

Some folks do get more urinary tract infections (UTIs) when they use menstrual cups. Professionals think this happens when the cup is situated so that it pushes on your urethra a bit through your vaginal walls, trapping your urine in your urethra or bladder. A UTI occurs when you get bacteria trapped in your urinary tract; usually your body takes care of this by flushing it out when you pee, but if your urine is trapped by the pressure from your cup, the bacteria has more time to make its way up into your bladder and set up shop. If you're getting recurrent UTIs, consider trying a different cup, since a different size or shape may not push on your urethra as much. If it's really becoming a problem, the cup might not be the best solution for you. 

6. Is It Dangerous To Use A Cup With An IUD?

Some companies say it's not a good idea to use a menstrual cup if you use an IUD for your birth control method. This is because the cup may mess with the string that comes off the bottom of your IUD and out into your vaginal canal, and you really don't want to dislodge your IUD by accident. 

It's worth noting, however, that those companies might just be covering their asses. A 2012 study found there's actually no evidence of this happening, so you should be fine using a menstrual cup with an IUD. But just in case, let your gyno know that you are using a cup, and be aware of your IUD strings — know where they are before you insert your cup, try to get the string inside the cup and not to the side, and don't accidentally grab your string when you're trying to pull the base of your cup out. (Though, honestly, your string might be short enough that this is barely relevant.)

7. Can I Wear It During Sex?

Having sex when you're wearing your cup is totally safe, although you should try it to see how it feels for you and your partner, because that's a lot of objects in a tight space! If you want to get it on during your period but don't want to deal with the mess, try rocking a cup when you're knocking boots. It might leak a bit, but the amount will be way less than flying free. Also, if you're planning to have sex with your cup in often, you may want to look into which brands have the best shape for it. Some are even designed so that your partner won't be able to feel them.

8. How Do I Clean It?

During your period, maintaining your cup is super easy — just rinse it out with warm water after you’ve dumped out your menstrual fluid, and insert it back in there. Don’t use soaps with perfume or fragrance to wash your cup out, because these mess up the pH of your vagina and can land you with an unpleasant vaginal infection.

One note: If you choose a menstrual cup as your period catcher of choice, there will come a time when you have to rinse it in a public restroom. If this squidges you out, just carry a water bottle so you can give your cup a rinse over the toilet and wipe it dry with toilet paper. That way, none of the bathroom strangers will know what you're up to.

Cleaning gets a little more in-depth when your period ends for the month. Before you store your menstrual cup, you have to give it a full clean. You can boil it like you would your vibrator (around five minutes will do it), or if you like you can use sterilizing solution or special menstrual cup cleaner

9. How Often Should I Clean It?

You can leave your cup in for up to 12 hours at a time, or until you notice it leaking. When it's time, just remove it, empty it out, rinse it off, and pop it right back in for continued protection. And again, remember to give it a thorough sanitizing after you stop using it for the month.

10. How Should I Store It Between Cycles?

Most cups come with a little satchel made of breathable material. Once you’ve sterilized your cup, make sure it’s dry and put it in the satchel so it stays clean. If you lose your satchel, don’t worry! You can wrap your cup nicely in a cotton shirt or really any breathable material — just don’t put it in a tupperware or anything air-tight, because your cup needs to breathe. (Etsy also sells a bunch of cute custom pouches.)

The Bottom Line

Menstrual cups are a great option for humans with periods who are concerned for the environment, don't want to buy new stuff every month, or don't want to have to change their flow catcher so often (menstrual cups only need to be changed every 12 hours and hold twice the amount as a super tampon or pad). If this option excites you, do some research into the brand and size that will fit you best. Then celebrate yourself — you and your vagina are collaborating to minimize waste!

Want more women's health coverage? Check out Bustle's new podcast, Honestly Though, which tackles all the questions you're afraid to ask. 

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Images: Divacup; Giphy 

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