We all have that friend who was an early-adopter of the menstrual cup. She loves her cup of choice and delights in telling you all the cool benefits: They’re sustainable, they’re comfortable, they’re easy to clean and store so you’re never caught with a near-empty tampon box on day one of a new period and, of course, they’re fairly easy and intuitive to use.
It’s that latter point that gives a lot of longtime tampon and pad-users pause. Are they really that simple to use? Easier than my go-to tampon applicator? And what about touching and cleaning the cup during the day or when your monthly visitor makes her grand exit?
I’m here to say, to ye of little faith and loads of period anxiety, they really are. While no period product is one-size-fits-all and there’s no guarantee that what works for your cup-loving pals will work for you, demystifying the menstrual cup is a great way to shake off the nerves before giving it a whirl. So here’s a shame-free, no stupid questions guide to using your menstrual cup as intended and getting the most out of it.
Before we get going, here’s a good rule of thumb/blanket disclaimer for all things menstrual health: If you aren’t sure if a cup is right for you, have more personal or specific questions about comfort, cleanliness or anything at all about wearing a cup, your OB-GYN is such a great resource. They’ve seen and heard it all before and only care about you and your vulva’s health and happiness, so don’t hesitate to drop your probing questions at your next appointment.
Now, let’s talk cups!
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Selecting your cup
Per the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG): “Menstrual cups are made of plastic or rubber. They are inserted into the vagina to catch the menstrual flow. You remove and empty the cup every 8–12 hours. Some cups are used only once and thrown away. Others can be washed and reused.”
The menstrual cup market is low-key booming these days with models (often made of medical-grade silicone or latex rubber). More and more folks are getting down with the cup and given the diverse experiences of different people with different periods (from old pros with heavy flows to newer menstruators to lighter bleeders to people living with conditions like fibroids or endometriosis) there are tons of brands designing special cups that suit different bodies. Again, if you are a bit overwhelmed by the choices available, your doctor may have some advice for you and your particular period situation. As you shop, read up on the brand and check out reviews (ideally a cup that is well-loved and well taken care of can last for 1-2 years — so be picky as you need to be here!)
Most companies in this space are really cool and transparent about the specs of their products, so you’ll generally have a lot of data to work with. Intimina, for example, has cups designed to fold super thin (we’re talking tampon thin) that suit folks with a higher cervix or a heavier flow (the Lily Cup), cups that collapse for discretion on-the-go (Lily Cup Compact) and a cup that’s designed to work for period sex (Ziggy Cup), among others.
When in doubt, it’s better to know more about what you’re putting in your vagina. So really let yourself geek out and consider your lifestyle and menstrual cycle as you research.
Prepping for first use
Okay, so now you have acquired your cup. Congrats! Your first order of business is to assess it and all it comes with: Cool carrying case? Special instructions from the manufacturer? Familiarize yourself with it all.
Then, you’re going to want to sterilize it. You do it for your water bottles and you absolutely should do it for anything going inside you! Look back at your cup’s instructions or head to the manufacturer’s website for pro-tips or no-nos for your particular cup, but more often than not you’re going to want to give it the TLC you’d give a baby bottle. Experts often recommend boiling your cup when you first get it (and at the end of each period) to get it optimally sterile and you’ll want to have it boil for 5-8 minutes submerged in a pot of water (without letting the cup touch the bottoms or sides of the pot to help maintain the integrity of its material). From there, you can just drain and let it air dry somewhere safe and clean.
There are also some cup cleaning spray cleaners on the market (this one can clean pelvic floor/kegel exerciser tools too!) and even menstrual cup steamers and sterilizers — but real pros know that (provided your cup doesn’t warn you to the contrary) baby bottle sterilizing tablets are a great hack you might already have around your house.
It might seem time-consuming and a bit high maitenance at a glance, but if you love up on your cup, it’ll reward you by staying clean and reliable through many, many cycles. Plus: A thorough clean-up is actually a bit less time consuming than a last-minute tampon run, in my experience.
This is the tricky part for beginners: Figuring out how you’re going to get your cup up where it belongs. Especially if you’re accustomed to tampons or pads, it might seem intimidating since most cups are designed to hold up to 12 hours of menses and often look it. But the cups we’d recommend are soft, vulva-loving materials that work with you, so don’t be nervous!
For folks who are old enough to have used a diaphragm or birth control ring, the concept is not too different. Otherwise, think of it as folding the cup up and inserting it like a tampon sans applicator. As with many activities involving this region of your body, squatting can help give you the best access for insertion and removal of a menstrual cup. Often your cup manufacturers will have photos of different folds that work best with their design and material, but most seasoned cup-lovers will tell you that you’re going to trial and error to find the most efficient and comfortable fold for you. Some common ones:
The ‘C’ and ‘U’ Fold: A super common fold, you’re folding your cup to look like the letters C or U. Flattening the cup in half and bending it into that desired shape, you’ll want to hold it near the rim to keep the fold together and insert.
The ‘Punch Down’: Pushing down on the front rim of your cup with your pointer finger, you’ll hold it at the base to keep it folded as you insert the now-pointed tip into your vagina.
Once it’s inside and seated, your cup will open up (since it’s catching the menses instead of merely absorbing it). You might need to give it a little nudge — running a finger up the cup to pop it open, a twist or a gentle rotation — to get it sitting as comfortably as possible, but you’ll often feel when the cup seals into place. If it feels obtrusive, painful or just off, you can always take it out and try again. Sometimes I even recommend to newbies to give it a dry run ahead of your period so you’re not dealing with cramps, bleeding or high-pressure time constraints while getting to know your new cup.
If you’re struggling with inserting your cup of choice, you may want to opt for one that folds a bit thinner or revisit some other options out there (‘kiss a few frogs,’ etc.)
Once your cup is secured and sealed, you can go about your day. You did it! If you’re really nervous about leakage after first-time application (this anxiety goes away after a period or two, in my experience) you can throw on a pad or pair of trusty period-friendly undies for your maiden voyage. If you’re in an office or at school and nervous about re-insertion and removal, back-up period products might also be good for your peace of mind until you feel secure in your folding abilities.
As we’ve said, cups are designed for long-wear and ideally you won’t be caught in too many positions where you’re managing a full cup in public (at work or school or anywhere but your own bathroom). But if your cup is full or you’re experiencing a leak or have any other reason to remove your cup, you’ll want to take it out and give it a rinse and re-insert.
And in the spirit of deep transparency, you’ll want to be mindful of straining yourself while going number two. While the seal of a menstrual cup is generally pretty strong and able to handle the job of collecting menses, you do not want to pop your cup mid-toilet break! It’s not like a horrifically common occurrence and absolutely varies depending on the cup you’re using and your own vulva situation, but follow your instincts and remove your cup if you’re anticipating that kind of bathroom adventure. Peeing with your menstrual cup is totally fine and it’s fairly unlikely the force of your stream with disturb it but you can always check your seal when you’re finished to be safe.
Removing your menstrual cup during or after a day of wear is something a lot of people prefer to do in their own restroom or a single person restroom, since there is a non-zero chance of getting a bit of menstrual mess on your hands. In this house, we don’t like period stigma and operate from the baseline that it is natural, comes from your body and is nothing to be ashamed about! But it’s also okay if you’re squeamish the first few times taking your cup out and disposing of the menses.
Most menstrual cups have a little stem to make removal simpler and TBH the “if it doesn’t have a flare, don’t put it up there” instincts might kick in for folks making a stemmed cup preferable. For stemless cups, we highly recommend looking at the manufacturer’s guidance (but also squatting and pinching at the base of the cup is probably a good place to start).
“Removing and cleaning the cup can be messy, especially for new users,” as Dr. Thaïs Aliabadi, M.D., OB-GYN at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center previously SheKnows. “Doing this in a public restroom may also be difficult or embarrassing, since you need to clean it at the sink if it is reusable. As you get more experience with using the cup, removing it cleanly is possible.”
Otherwise, you’ll want to wash your hands (if you’re going up there and have been touching all kinds of surfaces, this is a must) and maybe grab a damp paper towel or a vaginal pH-friendly wipe, if you’re able to do so, to wipe down your hands or your cup if it gets a little messy. Then you’ll go in and take hold of the stem (or pinch the bottom of the cup gently) to release the seal and pull it out. Remember that your cup is holding fluid, so you probably don’t want to yank or jerk it over your underwear or the floor too forcefully. Dump the contents in the toilet and give it a wipe down or a rinse (depending on the environment and your comfort level) and reinsert at your leisure.
Safe Storage for Next Time
If you’ve come this far, you’re already a period pro in my heart. After a full period’s worth of folding, inserting, removing and cleaning a menstrual cup, you tend you get a pretty solid grip on what feels right for you and your flow.
As we mentioned, experts want you to sterilize your cup before putting it away at the end of your period because it’ll keep anything icky from sticking around or growing on her in the next few weeks. Before saying bye for a few glorious period-free weeks, give it another boil (or whatever sterilization routine you landed on) and keep it somewhere dry and safe. They often come with a storage bag but you can also score something that fits your style and bathroom organization needs pretty much anywhere (BTW some of these on Etsy are a vibe).
And there you have it! You’re now so much closer to being a menstrual cup pro. May your cup never runneth over.
We have more period products available than ever. Here’s a guide to a few of the options to consider for your next period: