I hesitated a lot before writing this post, which is kinda weird when you think about it. A massive proportion of the population have periods but talking about it is still pretty taboo. I struggle a lot with my period; I suffer migraines, cramping, extremely heavy bleeding, acne, bloating, anaemia and hormonally triggered depression. When it’s that time of the month, I feel and look really ill. But if anyone asks what’s wrong with me, I tend to say I’m a bit run down, or a bit tired, or I’m feeling under the weather. I’ve no idea why I don’t feel able to say I’m in so much pain I can barely move, I’m bleeding so heavily that if I move too much I’ll “leak” and I feel completely and utterly worthless. I guess that is a bit of a conversation stopper, but I’m not usually one to shy away from the tough topics.
Everyone experiences periods differently. There will be some people reading this who have no struggle with their periods, who get a little light cramping but can still jump about on a trampoline, ride a horse and work out like they are in a tampon ad who will be rolling their eyes at this post. Fair enough, lucky you. There will be people, trans men, for example or non binary folk, who have real emotional struggles with their period because it is a physical reminder of an identity struggle I can’t begin to understand, and they’ll have their own menstruation issues. There may even be some people reading this who don’t have periods, and wish they did, or who have fibroids or PCOS and therefore have a much tougher time of it when they are bleeding, and think I should stop whining. Fair enough again. I can only speak of my own experiences.
My battle with my periods has been ongoing. I’ve tried every type of hormonal contraception to ease my symptoms, with little success. Even when I found a method that stopped me bleeding completely – the depo jab -it didn’t stop the other symptoms. If anything, without the bleeding, I felt the other symptoms – digestive issues, mood swings, dry then very oily skin, bloating, etc more keenly. It also had the downside that it turned me into an irrational, paranoid wreck. Worth a try, if you’re looking for a long acting contraceptive method you don’t need to worry about and you’d like to not bleed, but it didn’t work out well for me.
A couple of years ago I decided that being on various types of hormones from my early teens was probably not great for me, and I decided to come off hormonal contraception completely and see if my body settled itself. I’ve had mixed results.
Coming off hormones completely has made my period a lot more regular, which shocked me. One of the reasons I was drawn to the pill was that I thought it would regulate my erratic periods, but for me it just resulted in spotting throughout the month and terrible acne (again, everyone is different and it may well work for you). Since coming off of contraception, my periods have settled into a 29 day pattern, which has at least reduced the anxiety I used to suffer about unexpectedly starting to bleed in public (or when wearing nice panties).
My period now lasts 5-7 days (which, as someone who once had a 4 week long period, is so amazing), but I still bleed really heavily, particularly in the first 2 days. I’m taking full on Niagara Falls, bleeding so fast I’m clotting, getting through a super plus tampon *and* a pad in an hour heavy. During a typical period I’ll easily get through two packs of super plus tampons, a box of regular tampons (for days 3-7) and two boxes of pads. That’s a considerable chunk of my monthly income. I’m not quite sure why sanitary products are considered a luxury item and caviar, for example, is not, but you do have to pay VAT on pads and tampons. So I’m paying an extra 5%* on top for the luxury of sobbing my way through my monthlies. Our government came under pressure to scrap the tampon tax, but decided instead that they’d give the money raised to women’s charities. On the face of it, that’s hard to argue with, but then I found out that a proportion of that money goes to anti choice charities.
Nope. I’m not having that. I don’t want my money being used to dictate what other women – often desperate, vulnerable women, do with their bodies. I find organisations like that highly immoral. I know there are people that disagree with my view and that’s fine – they can donate to the charity if they so wish. But I think it is fundamentally wrong that my money was being used to fund this group without my knowledge or consent, by way of a tax on a product that I am forced to buy.
So I started looking at alternatives. There’s a fair amount out there I hadn’t heard of before, including washable pads and tampons, specially designed panties that absorb the flow, and menstrual cups.
There is maybe a certain ick factor to reusable pads and tampons, but in theory they are perfectly hygienic provided you keep them clean. I didn’t choose them however, for the same reason I didn’t use washable nappies for my babies. Although they seem a lot more eco-friendly (even when you take washing and drying into account), I have 4 children and I already do a lot of washing. I didn’t dare add anything however small, to my ever growing mountain of laundry. I’m rubbish at keeping up with it all as it is.
But while I was looking at reusables, the menstrual cup caught my eye, particularly the anecdotal claims that it makes periods lighter. Save me money and make my monthly hell more bearable??
I’ve seen it claimed – although I can’t tell you how accurate it is – that the chemicals used to bleach cotton and control odours in pads and tampons can make you bleed more heavily. It’s certainly true in my experience that tampons-being absorbent- can leave you feeling dried out and sore, because they absorb all the moisture in the vagina, not just menstrual fluid. The cup was supposed to help with both of those things. They are made from medical grade silicone, and collect the blood rather than absorb it, so they don’t suck all of the moisture out of you. I figured it was worth a try, so I started looking into buying one.
There are loads of different cups out there, that come in different sizes and different levels of firmness, but the basic idea is the same with them all – they are soft silicone, bell shaped cups that you fold and insert into the vagina, where it opens out and forms a vacuum seal to hold it in place and prevent leaks. When it’s time to empty it, you squeeze the end slightly, give it a little wiggle, the seal breaks and you pull it out to empty it. More on that later.
I was a bit bamboozled by the range of cups, and decided in the end to go for a cheap version while I test it out rather than spend around £40 on something that might not work for me. Menstrual cup users have since told me that’s really dangerous because it might not be medical grade silicone, but it was sold as that and I got it from a fairly reputable retailer, so I’m not too worried. I only ever intended on using the cheap one for a couple of cycles anyway.
They come in two standard sizes, size A is for women under 30 who have never given birth, either vaginally or by caesarean. I got the size B because I am over 30 and have given birth 4 times, including once by c-section.
It arrived in a small, pink storage bag, similar to the type you get jewellery in, which would be fairly discreet to carry in your handbag. My first thought was; “that’s enormous.” Honestly, I nearly gave up on the whole idea without trying it out. But when I folded it, I saw it was a comparable sort of size to a super plus tampon. I thought back to my first time using tampons and having that exact same thought.
The cup has markers on the side to show you how much blood you’re losing. Not really important for me, but some people might find that useful, especially if you’re trying to get to know your period and what is normal for you. All of the cup, including the stem, sits inside the vagina so you don’t have a string dangling, or wings hanging out of your panties and sticking to your leg or anything like that. If the stem on yours is too long, you can trim it. The end of the stem should be about an inch inside you, give or take.
Apparently it can ride up a little in the night and cause you to panic that you’re gonna have to go to A&E and explain to a hot doctor that you need help removing a cup of blood from your vaj, but that hasn’t happened to me yet. According to the many reviews and videos an comments I’ve read over the last couple of weeks, if that happens all you need to do is chill out, have a cuppa and sit up or walk around for a while and let gravity pull it back down again. There is no secret door in your vagina for it to escape out of, it isn’t going anywhere, and leaving it in a tiny bit longer isn’t going to hurt – you can leave a cup in for 12 hours at a time (flow permitting).
One of the advantages to the menstrual cup is that it carries no risk of TSS, so you can put it when you’re expecting your period, which is brilliant for me because I go from nothing at all to full on Carrie with no warning.
So when I started to get cramps just before bed and checked my calendar to see I was definitely due on, I decided to put the cup in before I actually started to bleed. You should never ever ever do that with a tampon-- it can give you a potentially fatal infection-- but it’s fine to do with the cup. I needn’t have worried about the size – once it’s in place, you can’t really feel it. You do need to run your finger around the edge of the cup once it’s in place, to check it has opened fully to create the seal. If you are squeamish about touching your own vagina, a cup probably isnt for you. If can feel your cervix when you run your finger around the cup, you need to take it out and try again, because it won’t catch anything like that.
I woke up the next morning expecting river of blood all over my bed and an extremely grumpy husband, but my underwear was clean. I decided I’d probably done myself a damage by leaving it in all night for no reason- I had mild cramps but I wasn’t feeling nauseous or lightheaded at all so I figured I hadn’t started yet. Then I went to the bathroom to take the cup out, and had the shock of my life to discover it was half filled with blood.
Was it gross? Well, it wasn’t exactly pretty. But I didn’t get any blood on my hands at all, so for me it was less messy than tampons, because I bleed so heavily the tampon string is often saturated. If you find the sight of blood hard to deal with, you might find emptying it into the toilet a bit gross. 20mls of fluid looks like a lot when you tip it into the toilet, and menstrual fluid is thicker than blood from a cut, and can contain clots, so it does look kinda grim. It was really easy to remove and empty though, and then you just give it a quick rinse and reinsert. Nothing to throw away, no product to flush, no fuss. At the end of your period you give it a more thorough wash, and sterilise it. You can do that by simply boiling it in water on the stove, but I have a steam steriliser I no longer have a use for, so I just chuck it in there.
The big test came straight away – my son needed a lift to school for his exam. I can’t usually drive on the first day of my period; I’m in too much pain, I’m nauseous, and I'm too clumsy. His school is 20 mins away. That’s 40 mins without access to a bathroom. I’d have soaked through my seat. My cramps were still bad, but they were bearable and – whether it’s related to the cup or not, I’m not sure, but I don’t seem as clumsy this month. I’ve not broken anything yet, anyway. So I drove him, without even a pad. It was terrifying. But when I got home, my underwear was still clean. In fact, I got through the first 24 hours without a leak at all. Unheard of.
I did have a minor – and I mean very minor – leak during the second night. I even felt/heard the seal break, but I didn’t get up to check it because I was already in bed, and I’m lazy. It was literally just a spot though, so no big deal. And I’ll know next time.
Will I carry on using it? Almost definitely. I’ve only used it for one period and already I find it less messy than tampons and pads, and more comfortable. I’ll probably invest in another one, partly because people scared me with their horror at me buying a cheap, off brand one, and partly because it’d be good to have a spare because I am clumsy when I’m on my period and I’m almost certain to drop it down the toilet at some point so it’d be good to have another for while I’m sterilising that one. I may also invest in a couple of washable pads to wear at night in case it shifts (some cups come with a couple as standard).
I’ve yet to empty it in a public toilet. You wouldn’t necessarily need to anyway, because you can leave the cup in place for 12 hours, but it may be worth carrying a small pack of flushable wipes or a small bottle of water with you if you feel you may need to. Some people have said you can just go into the disabled toilet so you can wash it in the sink without having to leave the stall, but I'm uncomfortable using disabled toilets personally, as I'd hate to make someone who really needs to use it wait. There isn’t any smell or noise with the cup, so it would be as discrete as changing a tampon, if not more so (less rustling). You don't need to remove it to go to the toilet, but if you have those fun kinds of periods that play havoc with your bowels, you may need to check the cup is still in position after.
It’s a bit early to tell if it has made a major difference to my symptoms. Could be that I feel less crampy and nauseous because I hoped to – but placebo or not, I’m just grateful I’m only dealing with anaemia, acne, and a tearful sense of worthlessness this month.
Someone pass me a giant chocolate bar and hit play on the Dirty Dancing DVD on your way out, I have a three day date with a hot water bottle and my quilt.
*Originally, I said 20% here, wrongly assuming we pay full rate VAT on sanitary products. I was then sent a link to the gov.uk page showing that sanitary products are charged a reduced VAT rate of 5% - thank you to @rosamundi on twitter for correcting me on that ☺
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