For a woman on her period, tampons and pads are the only options, right? Turns out, there’s a third— the menstrual cup.
One company making the little-known product, Intimina, has launched a Kickstarter and raised over $252,000 from over 6,600 backers, exceeding their initial goal of $7,800.
But what is a menstrual cup, anyway?
“A menstrual cup is a device, often made of silicone, shaped as a cup, bell or fluted vase, that is worn inside the vagina during menstruation to collect menstrual blood,” Dr. Bob Barbieri, chair of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Brigham and Women's Hospital, told FoxNews.com. “It was first patented in 1867; it’s not a new idea, but what’s made it much more possibly practical is there’s new materials that make them much more comfortable, easier to insert and remove.”
Unlike a tampon, which is inserted with an applicator, and expands slightly to absorb fluid -- a menstrual cup is made of soft medical-grade silicone that can be squeezed into a smaller shape to be inserted into the body, where it reopens.
A menstrual cup is designed to be worn for up to 10 to 12 hours, after which it should be emptied, cleaned with soap and water, and reinserted.
Safety and benefits of menstrual cups
While the concept of reusing a feminine product may seem unhygienic, according to Barbieri, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t received any reports of adverse effects from menstrual cups.
“Probably pads are technically the safest thing because they’re not in the body, but I would think the cup is the next safest because it’s made out of inert material,” Barbieri said. “Any time you put something in your body that’s not totally inert, you could be a little concerned.”
The silicone used is resilient and doesn't tend to pick up bacteria in microcracks and is therefore safe, Barbieri said.
In the ’70s and ’80s, some tampon materials used at the time promoted the growth of bacteria, leading to cases of and concerns about Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), but because menstrual cups are made of non-absorbent inert material, it is not a concern.
“TSS went out years ago… [we] really don’t see it much anymore,” said Dr. Taraneh Shirazian, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive science at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, told FoxNews.com.
Because the vagina naturally contains bacteria such as yeast, as long as a product is kept clean, it’s safe to use.
“I will say that overall, the vagina is not a clean space so things don’t have to be sterile to be introduced … which is why we can use tampons— they’re not sterile, but they’re kept clean,” Shirazian said, noting that a user does need to be sure to keep her cup clean between uses.
When worn correctly, the capacity and design of menstrual cups make them less likely to leak than tampons. In a 2011 study of the Softcup brand product, a disposable menstrual cup, researchers found that leakage occurred in fewer than half of the 406 participants, and when it did, the rate was equivalent with that of their prior method.
“[A cup] sits around the mouth of a cervix, where essentially the blood is coming directly from,” Shirazian said. “In theory, it goes right up to the cervix and captures that blood flow.” Tampons can leak because they do not capture flow as exactly.
While inserting a cup to the cervix would be ideal for leak protection, Barberi said that the distance between women’s vaginal openings and cervixes vary in length, which may affect where the cup sits. He noted that the Softcup has a shallower design— more like a diaphragm contraceptive— compared to other brands that are more of a fluted glass shape with more depth, which may incur less leakage than the Softcup.
In the same SoftCup study, most women found the menstrual cup to be superior to pads and tampons, except for disposal. They reported they had better comfort, odor, ability to be active and slightly better wear length, compared to tampons. Another 2011 study, FLOW (finding lasting options for women), found that overall satisfaction for participants who tested using The DivaCup menstrual cup was higher than those who used tampons— about 91 percent of women in the menstrual cup group said they would continue to use the cup and recommend it to others.
Most menstrual cups have a life cycle of up to 10 years, depending on the make, suggesting the option is environmentally conscious and budget-friendly, as a user no longer has to purchase and dispose of tampons and pads.
Lack of awareness, but usage will likely increase
Both Barbieri and Shirazian noted that very few women in the U.S. use menstrual cups— Shirazian only knew of one or two of her thousands of patients— suggesting that lack of marketing or the fact that American mothers who teach their daughters about feminine care products may not be as aware of the product as moms in other countries. Canada and Europe seem to have more use than the U.S., Barbieri said.
“I think one of the barriers is that you probably have to become facile with insertion and removal with the device,” Barbieri said, who added that it takes one to two months to become familiar and suggested women practice using it before they menstruate, as was common practice with diaphragms. Women who use tampons are likely to be more comfortable transitioning to a cup than those who only use pads, he said.
There are several popular brands available, including The DivaCup, The Keeper, The Moon Cup, and Softcup. Intimina’s Lily Cup Compact, the product being promoted in a Kickstarter campaign, is unique because it is a collapsible cup that is meant to be easily stored for convenience. Traditional cups to not collapse but retain their shape.
Intimina launched its Kickstarter to increase awareness of menstrual cups, including their product. Company representatives said they are overwhelmed by the success of their campaign, which has garnered supporters from around the globe, including people familiar with menstrual cups and those who’ve never heard of it before.
“We wanted to create awareness about a healthier and more eco-friendly option,” Angie Brierly, marketing specialist for Intimina, told FoxNews.com. “What we’ve done by showing the response is that there is a demand for it. We want to be able to make this product a mainstream product,” she said, noting that currently menstrual cups are only available at specialty health stores and online.
For many women who switch to menstrual cups, there’s no going back to tampons. Some have called them “life-changing.”
“[Users] are like a community … there are so many people who are pro-cup, tried it and will never go back, so it’s like word of mouth,” she said. “I guess it takes time so people are aware, but for the Lily Cup Classic, we almost doubled sales from 2013 to 2014.”
Both Barbieri and Shirazian agreed that use of a menstrual cup may help women become more aware of their body’s cycles and anatomy.
“I think [menstrual cups] are an underutilized option that will become more popular over time,” Barbieri said.