Meghna* started using menstrual cups two months back. To curb the expenses of sanitary pads and skin rashes, hesitantly yet curious enough, she decided to give it a try.
“I have been using it for a month. So once, I guess. But my experience was really good. I started with a medium cup but realised I needed a large size cup. I started using menstrual cups to lower my expense of sanitary pads and invest in something that is useful for a longer time,” Meghna told FinancialExpress.com.
The 25-year-old has been looking for the ideal and economical option for quite sometime now. “I have used tampons once but stopped using them as they were not appropriate for me,” she said.
Meghna has been mostly using pads till now however they used to make her “uncomfortable”. “Pads feel too uncomfortable. I am always intrigued by market-told “better” pads but ultimately all work similar for me. Though most of all, after reading about the environmental impact of using pads and the expense it incurs, I moved to menstrual cups.”
She has now decided to completely switch to cups. Now, the question remains- whether this switch is feasible for all menstruating individuals especially in countries like India?
What are menstrual cups?
A menstrual cup is a reusable feminine hygiene product. The funnel-like, flexible cup is either made up of silicon or rubber and it is inserted into the vagina to collect period blood and discharge. These cups are an eco-friendly alternative to pads and tampons. Once inserted, a menstrual cup can hold blood up to 12 hours, thus sparing one of the worries of changing pads and tampons at regular intervals.
“A menstrual cup is made of medical grade silicone and thus can be washed, sterilized and reused again and again for up to 10 years, making it an eco-friendly and cost effective product for managing periods. A menstrual cup can be used for up to 8 hours, offers leak proof and rash free protection. The cup can be cleaned easily by boiling it in water or using a Menstrual Cup Sterilizer,” co-founder and CEO, Deep Bajaj, Sirona, told FinancialExpress.com.
According to experts, although these cups have been around since the 1980s, menstruating individuals are still not much aware of this or hesitant to use them.
“Menstrual cups can be a one-time investment for almost the entirety of some users’ menstrual lives, becoming a rash-free, cash-free, and trash-free alternative. It gives them the mobility to work, cycle, and have leak-proof, clean periods with no worries of disposal or re-stocking,” he added.
Pad and Tampon Vs Menstrual Cups: Which One is Better?
According to a study published in The Lancet in 2019, there are 199 identified brands of menstrual cups, and available in 99 countries with prices ranging from US$0·72–46·72, however, the awareness is still poor. Like Tampons, these cups are inserted into the vagina and can hold 10–38 mL of blood. Moreover, disposable single-use menstrual cups are also available in various countries.
“A menstruator, in totality, uses about 16,000 pads in their lifetime. Each sanitary napkin takes about 500 years to decompose, so they mount on the already existing non-biodegradable landfill once discarded. Moreover, pads restrict movement and can cause rashes as well due to friction. While tampons offer freedom of movement they too take years to decompose. Both products need to be bought monthly,” Bajaj said.
According to data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5), of the 77.6 percent of Indian women who use hygienic methods of menstrual protection, 64.4 percent aged 15-24 years use sanitary napkins while 49.6 percent use cloth, 15 percent locally prepared napkins and 1.7 percent tampons. Only a minuscule 0.3 percent use menstrual cups.
“Menstrual cups are ideal for period protection as they are financially viable, easy to use, and good for the environment as well. They can also collect more flow at a time than pads and tampons. There is no downside to menstrual cups, the only thing is that they require a couple of tries to get used to. Once you get used to insertion and removal, using menstrual cups is life-changing,” Bajaj added.
Unlike sanitary pads and tampons, menstrual cups do less damage to the environment. According to a study from the European Commission, menstrual products are the fifth most common plastic product found in the oceans. A 2007 study estimates that an urban woman will, in her lifetime, utilise anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 plastic-based disposable feminine hygiene products like pads and tampons. The Menstrual Hygiene Alliance of India (MHAI) noted that disposable sanitary pads are still the go-to period care product of nearly 121 million women and girls. The time it takes for a tampon or pad to degrade in a landfill is a staggering 600–800 years! Besides, should these products ever catch fire, which is very common in a landfill or in areas where the waste management is a challenge, they will emit toxic gases into the atmosphere.
Menstrual Cups in India
‘Period Poverty’ which is a serious concern in many countries, especially in countries like India involves a lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual education, and hygiene and sanitation facilities necessary to properly manage menstruation. Several health experts told Financial Express.com that in countries like India those who cannot afford menstrual products resort to unsafe alternatives such as “rags, hay, sand, and ash,” which can lead to infections. According to a report published by BMC Women’s Health in 2021, ‘Period Poverty’ affects an estimated 500 million people worldwide.
According to the findings from the fifth National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5), in India, 64.4 percent of women aged 15-24 use sanitary napkins, 49.6 percent use cloth, 15 percent use locally prepared napkins and only 0.3 percent use menstrual cups. Moreover, there is still a lot of stigma and taboos associated with periods.
“It is a shocking reality that in India, hardly 23 percent of menstruators in India use sanitary products. Out of that, 95 percent is dominated by pads. Remaining users rely on tampons, menstrual cups, and discs,” Bajaj revealed.
In India, inadequate access to menstrual products often forces young girls to drop out of school, especially in rural parts of the country. Meanwhile, India has the lowest penetration of sanitary napkins in the world. According to reports, an average 5-7 day period costs an average of ₹88, a significant chunk of the daily minimum average wage rate at ₹180.
According to a joint report by WaterAid India and the Menstrual Hygiene Alliance of India, depending on the materials used in the manufacture of sanitary pads, it could take up to 800 years to decompose a single sanitary napkin. To deal with menstruation in a healthy and hygienic manner, sustainability is the only way forward.
Data from the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation shows that 28 percent of pads are thrown in mixed waste and end in the landfill, 28 percent are thrown in the open, 33 percent are disposed of via burial and 15 percent are burnt, even though the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016 clearly state that waste segregation has to be practiced at the source. The rules also mandate that waste generators need to work with local administration and set up waste management systems for sanitary waste. Packaging waste also needs to be accounted for by the companies.
“More than 60-65% of women in India do not use sanitary products like pads, tampons, or cups. In rural areas and urban slums, unhygienic cloth, newspapers, and other unhygienic items are used by menstruators, which is unsafe and can cause health problems. Disposal of sanitary products also becomes an issue for several women who travel farther from their homes to dispose of the pads. Underprivileged women prefer buying a packet of milk for the price of a commercially-available pack of pads, thus further neglecting their menstrual health,” Bajaj said.
Growing Market of Menstrual Cups in India
Meanwhile, experts told FinancialExpress.com that despite the challenges, menstrual cups are the future of menstrual hygiene in India.
“The menstrual cup is the future of menstrual hygiene. After its launch in the Indian market, we can see the growth. The reason is menstruators are educating themselves and becoming aware of menstrual waste. Due to this, they are ready to experiment and shift to the period cup. That doesn’t mean that the pad market is shrinking, it still holds a major part of menstrual hygiene but we can say that after 5 – 10 years we will see huge growth in the menstrual cup market because of menstrual hygiene education,” Monica Bindra, Founder and CEO of Laiqa told FinancialExpress.com.
According to Bindra, there are two reasons for growing consumption of menstrual cups: affordability and sustainability.
“The harsh truth is that there is still a huge percentage of menstruators in India who are still untouched by basic menstrual hygiene products. But brands, governments, and NGOs are taking steps to make underprivileged menstruators have access to these basic hygiene products through programmes and schemes,” she pointed out.
“Menstrual cups can be a big breakthrough in the menstrual hygiene market as it is reusable, affordable, and lasts up to 5 years. So, to answer this question, it’s true that menstrual cups are the future of period care and it’s not going to be easy to replace pads or tampons in a country like India but certainly, it will be about a decade later,” Bindra added.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Menstrual Cups
Menstrual cups are viewed as a more environmentally friendly alternative to sanitary napkins and tampons. Moreover, experts have also highlighted that it is fairly priced and safe to use.
“Menstrual cups are eco-friendly and more cost-effective than pads or tampons. They can be worn for up to 8 hours versus a tampon or a pad that needs to be changed more frequently. Cups also offer more freedom of movement and no intimate area rashes. Menstrual cups also don’t contain any chemicals like bleach and dioxin, often found in pads and tampons. The cups also keep period odour away as the blood doesn’t come in contact with air,” Bajaj said.
He also emphasised that although there are no disadvantages to using cups however a number of myths and concerns inhibit menstruators from using the cup.
“Some menstruators also shy away from trying the cup because they believe it can get lost in the body, which is impossible. After all, the cervix obstructs further entry into the body. Even for women with a high cervix, the cup comes lower as the flow collection makes it heavier. A silicon stem at the end of the cup makes the product easier to locate. Some women feel the cup can make their vaginal canal wider and then ”loose”, which is a myth because the vagina is elastic and returns to its natural shape after cup removal. Fear of insertion is also a common roadblock to its use,” Bajaj added.
Meanwhile, Laiqa founder informed that other menstrual products like tampons and pads cannot hold as much blood as menstrual cups.
“They are reported to be twice as absorbent as sanitary napkins and tampons. They can be handy on days when the flow is high. The disadvantage of the period cups can be finding the right fit. It may be tricky for first-time users. Also, they may face difficulties inserting and removing but with regular use, this will turn out to be a piece of cake for them,” Monica Bindra told FinancialExpress.com.
She also highlighted some women experience irritation when using pads or vaginal dryness when using tampons which is not the case with menstrual cups. An individual doesn’t have to deal with that when using the menstrual cup.
“Most women find menstrual cups very convenient and hygienic to use, once they are familiar with the removal process. Since the blood isn’t exposed to the air, like it is in a pad, most women experience less odor associated with their period. Fewer leaks, when inserted correctly, the menstrual cup forms a seal, significantly reducing your chances of a leak. Longer wear time, menstrual cups can be worn for up to 12 hours, while tampons can be worn for a maximum of eight hours. Despite so many benefits, still, menstruators shy away from using menstrual cups because it is a taboo in India. We feel that women are mostly misinformed, many women believe that using a menstrual cup might break hymen or injure one. This information is a product of a lack of knowledge. The good news is that gradually people are getting educated, breaking the taboo, and shifting to the new age of menstrual hygiene products like period cups,” Bindra added.
‘Usage of menstrual cups has increased since Pandemic’
Although menstrual cups have been around for decades now, several industry experts told FinancialExpress.com that the consumption of menstrual cups have tremendously increased since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The consumption of menstrual cups has surely increased since the pandemic. Menstruators probably had the space and time to try new products. Another factor that has surely contributed to the increase in the adoption of cups is the information being shared on social media; from getting the knowledge to understanding the proper usage, every piece of information has been instrumental in busting myths and driving adoption of the product. Menstrual cups also increased the sales of allied products like cup wash, sterilisers, etc.,” the Sirona founder told FinancialExpress.com.
Meanwhile, Bindra informed that as more and more people switched to online platforms due to unavailability of offline stores, they started doing more research and investing in better menstrual hygiene products.
“Pandemic has influenced the menstrual products sale as buying from an offline store was not possible at that time, people moved to online platforms. They researched and started investing more in the best quality menstrual hygiene products and became more self-aware. Rather than shopping only from the major brands, menstruators also shopped from growing DTC brands. Consumers started trusting them because of the DTC brand’s sustainable approach and the best quality products. We as a DTC brand also experienced a good response from the menstruators during a pandemic and still, we are. The more consumers are coming to us, the more it becomes our responsibility to provide the best quality menstrual hygiene products to customers which are sustainable and free from toxins that we have been doing since day one of Laiqa,” Bindra said.
Can it replace conventional menstrual products like pads in India?
Although many women across the country are struggling with ‘Period Poverty’, experts believe that in the coming years things might change. Moreover, Deep Bajaj, Co-Founder and CEO, Sirona explained that ‘Period poverty’ is not just the lack of menstrual resources but also includes lack of sanitation, water and proper disposal.
“In India, procurement of pads is a problem as it’s not financially viable for them. Even if they buy pads or use those that are donated to them, hygiene and disposal are an issue. Most of them end up using old rags and clothes which can impact menstrual health. In this situation of period poverty, menstrual cups are a boon for underprivileged menstruators. A menstrual cup lasts for almost 10 years making them a financially viable option for them. It is also very easy to use, maintain and reuse a menstrual cup by following basic hygiene practices especially keeping in mind they may not have the best sanitary conditions available to them,” Bajaj said.
Meanwhile, Bajaj also informed that Sirona Hygiene Foundation is working towards helping underprivileged menstruators in transitioning to menstrual cups which will help in reducing ‘Period Poverty.’
“We believe that constant education, awareness and conversation by new-age brands like ours can bring the desired change. Be it for financial viability or environmental consciousness, eventually a majority of menstruators are likely to switch to the cup, or atleast adopt sustainable menstruation practices that will help keep the environment clean and green,” he added.
Bajaj also said that the next generation is also de-stigmatising virginity and insertion, which will further help in wider acceptance of menstrual cups.
“We cannot deny the fact that in India, womens are still struggling with period poverty in some parts of the country. More than poverty womens are not aware about menstrual products which is the major reason. Majority of womens in rural India are still dependent on unsafe material like sand,ash, cotton cloth which leads to UTI and other infections. Where in urban areas womens are using pads, cups, tampons to maintain their menstrual hygiene. While the choice between menstrual cups, tampons, and pads is an everyday conversation, the majority of the womens in India neither have the means nor the luxury to pick and choose,” Bindra said.
She also claimed that in the coming years 60 percent of women can rely on cups rather than using pads or tampons as the cups are durable for a long time as compared to pads or tampons. “Where in rural areas women need to be aware of menstrual products they can use according to their comfort,” she added.
Meanwhile, doctors have also opined that using Menstrual Cups can be liberating.
“Menstrual cups can be the key to liberation and access to all sorts of wonderful things — education and a livelihood for instance — by freeing women in developing countries from being confined to their homes during their period,” Dr. Bhagya Lakshmi S, Consultant Obstetrics, Gynaecologist & Laparoscopic Surgeon, Yashoda Hospitals Hyderabad told Financial Express.com.
How to Use a Menstrual Cup?
A menstrual cup is easier to use than it seems. There are a few steps that you can keep in mind while using the period cup. Wash your hands. Apply water or water-based lube to the rim of the cup for comfortable insertion. Fold the period cup in half, Insert the cup into your vagina and rotate it, It will spring open to create an airtight seal for a leak-free experience.
There is a pop sound when the cup is fully open and inserted, but you can further check it by feeling around in case of any folds or if the cup has not opened fully. The cup may feel un-inserted at first, but it adjusts into the canal eventually. One can re-insert it if it doesn’t fit and if one can still feel it.
While removing, one must be sure to be near a drain and have water access to clean oneself and any spillage if it happens. It is not advisable to pull from the stem, but pinch the base of the cup to remove it gently. The cup can be cleaned with soap and water or a cup wash and re-inserted.
Before and after every cycle, the menstrual cup should be sterilised in boiling water or using an electric steriliser which kills 99% germs in just 3 mins with no hassles of boiling water.
“For the first-timers, I would recommend doing little research about the sizes of the period cup. After finding the perfect fit, use period cup lube for easy & comfortable vaginal insertion. Laiqa has period cups in three different sizes; Small, medium and large. The cups are free from harmful chemicals, and toxins, Dyes, BPA, Latex, Phthalates, or Plastic,” Bindra said.
What Should be the cup size?
According to experts, the key to using a menstrual cup is being relaxed and stress-free. This loosens the vaginal muscles and makes insertion easy. A couple of deep breaths and parking away anxious thoughts, helps.
“The small size is typically for people under the age of 30 who have not given birth to children. The medium size is for above 30 years with a history of childbirth. The larger size is usually for people over the age of 30 or who have a very heavy flow and have given birth. The sizes also have different capacities,” Bajaj informed.
*Name changed on request