Afew years ago, I was having dinner with a group of girlfriends when one of them suddenly began raving about menstrual cups. A longtime devotee, she lit up describing how this one little product had changed her life.
I’d never heard about it before, but her enthusiasm piqued my interest. Menstrual cups are reusable, medical-grade silicone devices that collect period blood, an idea I initially cringed at, since, like most people I know, I was taught menstruation was something filthy, repulsive, even. Yet my friend was persistent; curiosity got the best of me.
After some online research to figure out my size, I bought a medium-sized cup that fit nicely. Using it was similar to using a tampon, except I had to fold it before inserting it. Unlike my experience with tampons, I was able to forget about it for 12 hours at a time, only emptying it in the morning and at night. Soap and hot water were all I needed to sanitize it monthly, and I’ve been successfully reusing the same one for over four years now.
Switching to menstrual cups was more comfortable and easier than I thought. But the shift quickly made me realize something else – I was saving a significant amount of cash. Before menstrual cups, I had never thought about the money spent on period products, because I saw them as unwaveringly necessary. And yet menstrual cups have been around just as long as modern pads and tampons. Why had I never considered this option before?
By 2025, the feminine hygiene market is projected to reach a valuation of $37bn. This should come as no surprise, since the average woman will use between 5,000 and 15,000 menstrual pads and tampons over a lifetime.
Certainly, there are advantages to these products. They make our lives easier and it goes without saying that they have been hugely emancipatory. For centuries, people who menstruate dealt with their periods using all sorts of makeshift objects. Some repurposed old rags and others crafted tampon-like devices out of wool or vegetable fibers. In any case, these rudimentary alternatives kept many people on their periods alienated from public life.
In the early 20th century, all of this began to change. In the first world war, nurses realized cellucotton, a material originally used for bandages, was ideal for sanitary napkins, and in 1921, Kotex, the first mass-marketed menstrual pad, hit American shelves. Tampax followed a decade later, as did a myriad of other less popular products including douches, sanitary aprons, sponges and menstrual cups. Commercial period products afforded women options and facilitated freedom.
But there’s a reason tampons won out over menstrual cups.
Companies were successful at branding periods as something that should be secret and shameful. Elizabeth Kissling, author of the book Capitalizing on the Curse: The Business of Menstruation, explained how this showed up in ads promoting items designed to be less readily identifiable as menstrual products, take up less space, or even packaged in “crinkle-free” wrappers that could be silently opened.
Menstrual cups entail an entirely different kind of relationship to one’s body.
“Inserting it requires the user to frequently touch their vulva and may often involve touching their own menstrual blood,” Kissling said . “Those demands are hard to reconcile with the pervasive cultural messages that menstruation is a dirty, contaminating force one must eliminate with the illusion of perpetual freshness.”
This newfound intimacy with my body has been educative and liberating. Seeing the color, volume and consistency of my blood when disposing of it has allowed me to understand a lot more about my health – an intimate knowledge of myself I never considered important and couldn’t access when using disposable products.
As for the concerns of disgust I once had, it’s been freeing to no longer feel shame about a normal process of my body. What’s more, I’ve replaced this apprehension with self-admiration for what my organism is capable of.
And still, one of the most striking factors has been how much money I’ve saved because of the switch.
The menstrual cup I purchased four years ago was about $25. Previously, I spent about $20 on tampons and pads monthly, since I favored (and could afford) a toxin-free version. Cheaper options cost about $10 a month – and even next to those, the menstrual cup is still a more cost-effective option.
I did the math, and over 10 years, the lifetime of the average cup, the switch guarantees more than $1,000 in savings. Because of the products I favored, I’ll save over $2,300. If only I’d learned about this sooner.
Feminine care companies, especially the ones that sell pads and tampons, rely on the message that people who get periods absolutely need their products, and that the other options out there could be shameful; this is the familiar and unsurprising role of marketing. . Using menstrual cups for me has been a small act of resistance against that messaging. I’ve learned that I can find comfort and freedom without having to live in shame, or break the bank, for that matter.