Learming that more women are using menstrual cups in lieu of tampons convinced me to explore this period alternative. Although I've heard that they're more cost-efficient and eco-friendly than traditional tampons, the main draw for me was that menstrual cups were supposedly much safer for the body. Especially after hearing so many horror stories about toxic shock syndrome (TSS), I was eager to learn more about it. But before officially making the shift myself, I needed to know whether or not menstrual cups were indeed the safer option. To settle the debate once and for all, I spoke with women's health expert Jennifer Wider, MD.
Contrary to popular beliefs about the safety of menstrual cups, Dr. Wider explained that it is still possible to get TSS. Though menstrual cups can be left inserted for longer than tampons (12 hours vs. eight hours), you should still remove it promptly by the time it reaches its maximum cycle.
"Staphylococcus aureus, or the toxin-producing bacteria that causes TSS, can grow in an accumulation of menstrual blood (absorbed by a tampon or collected and not emptied in a cup) — there have been several case studies reported in women using menstrual cups," Dr. Wider said.
In addition, women who wear menstrual cups could actually be more prone to infection. But the potential health risks all have to do with personal hygiene.
"There is some evidence that women who use a menstrual cup may be putting themselves at higher risk of getting an infection, or at the very least more of a risk of irritation," Dr. Wider said. "This is because if women don't take the time to clean them afterward or their hands, the chances go up for bacteria and other germs contaminating the cup."
According to Dr. Wider, studies have also shown that vaginal irritation is more common in women who use cups than those who use tampons. Not only should you be inserting and removing the cup with clean hands, but proper sanitation requires you to thoroughly rinse it after each use and then deep clean in a pot of boiling water in between periods. Not everyone follows these practices, which can result in infection or irritation.
So, are menstrual cups really that much safer than tampons?
Dr. Wider said "not necessarily." Although the menstrual cup definitely has its pros, including less odour and being workout-friendly, it really depends.
"It all depends on the user — if the user sanitises it properly, changes it diligently, and washes her hands, it has a high safety record, but so do tampons (of course, there is some discussion about the materials used in tampons and their safety)," Dr. Wider said. "But both methods need a vigilant and responsible user."