Menstrual Disc vs. Cup: Which One Do You Need?

Embarking on the journey of womanhood brings with it approximately 2,280 days of menstruation over a lifetime. That's over 400 periods and a staggering 10,000 disposable menstrual products used. Enter menstrual cups and discs — sleek, innovative alternatives resembling contraceptive cervical caps and diaphragms. Offering a number of benefits including heightened convenience, cost-effectiveness, and environmental friendliness, these modern solutions are paving the way for a more sustainable period experience. But with the sea of options, navigating menstrual products can be daunting. By delving into the pros and cons of each, you can confidently choose the perfect menstrual companion for your needs.

Menstrual cups

Menstrual cup

Menstrual cups consist of a reservoir for collecting period blood with a rim. Some menstrual cups may have additional features, such as suction-release holes to help break the seal for easier cup removal. They are also reusable, can typically be worn for up to 12 hours, and tend to hold more blood than tampons.

Menstrual cups are typically made from safe materials like medical-grade silicone, rubber, latex, or elastomer. While they're generally considered safe, there's a very low risk of bacterial infections. However, the risk of adverse effects with menstrual cups is much lower than with high-absorbency tampons or pads.

In terms of cost, menstrual cups have a higher upfront price. However, they offer significant long-term savings. A single menstrual cup can save you roughly $50–100 per year on tampons and pads.

The cups can even present some advantages over the popular period panties. Some period panties may be wearable for the whole day, and maintenance is similar to that of other common clothing items. On the other hand, after getting used to the cups, many users end do not even 'feel' the product once inside. Additionally, while you typically need more than one period panty, each of which costs similar to a single cup and lasts up to two years, one cup may support your menstrual needs for up to 10 years.

Menstrual discs

Menstrual disc

Menstrual discs feature a rim and a wide, shallow collection basin made of flexible plastic or silicone. Similar to menstrual cups, reusable discs can last up to 10 years and can be worn for up to 12 hours, holding significantly more blood than a single tampon — some brands claim up to 5 or 6 times more. While disposable discs may be more expensive than tampons or pads (roughly double the cost), reusable menstrual discs typically range from $15 to $40.

Discs also happen to have what's referred to as an 'auto-dumping' feature, where the disc is displaced by vaginal muscle contractions as you use the bathroom, causing the spillage of some period blood. However, auto-dumping doesn't happen for every user, and the disc tends to go back into place afterward for the ones who experience it. In addition, many consider this self-emptying feature a pro for extending the timeline for removing their disc, and it has become a major selling point for disc companies.

As with menstrual cups, menstrual discs may prove more convenient and cost-effective than tampons or even period panties, once the disc is properly cared for and maintained during and in between use.

Menstrual disc vs. cup

Both menstrual discs and cups can be great alternatives to traditional menstrual products. If you're starting to consider these reusable alternatives, the table below on menstrual cups vs. discs will provide a helpful snapshot of how these two types of period products compare.

Menstrual cupMenstrual disc
Comfort while wearingComfortable; although initial discomfort has been reported, this tends to go awayVery comfortable; appears to have improved flexibility compared to cups
Wear time
4–12 hours, depending on menstrual flow and type of cup
4–12 hours, depending on menstrual flow and type of disc
Blood capacity
Similar to heavy/ultra tampons and pads (20–50 mL)30–79 mL, which is higher than cups, tampons, and pads
LeakageVacuum seal provides similar or lower leakage than disposable pads or tampons once proper fit is usedNo suction, but leakage is still lower than for tampons or pads
Mess-free removalLess messy than a disc, as the cup is designed to hold liquid once properly removed More messy than a cup and requires removal over a toilet or in the shower
Exercising Yes with the right fit, firmness, and capacityYes
Nighttime wearabilityYes, good for 12 hoursYes, good for 12 hours
Sexual intercourseNo
Yes
Urinating
Yes; no issues, unless cup is too largeYes, which also allows for 'auto dumping' for some users
Available for teensYesYes
Size variation~31–55 mm in diameter (rim); ~31–78 mm in length (body only)~53–80 mm in diameter (rim)
Infection riskRare and equal to or lower risks for bacterial infections compared with traditional productsNo risks yet associated with discs
DurabilityUp to 10 years (when well cared for)Up to 10 years (when well cared for)

Insertion and removal techniques

While menstrual cups and discs are often considered more convenient than tampons and pads, there is a slight learning curve on properly inserting or removing them. Using the proper techniques will help to eliminate pain and discomfort, ensure leak-free protection, and reduce potential messes.

How to insert a menstrual cup

Here's how to properly use, insert, and remove your menstrual cup.

  1. Ensure you have the right-sized cup. The best fit depends on your cervix position, menstrual flow, and whether or not you've previously had a baby. An ill-fitting cup could lead to pain during removal (if too large) or obstruct urine flow, while a cup that is too soft will not properly open and lead to leaks.
  2. Thoroughly clean both your hands and cup.
  3. Decide on the best fold method for insertion, and only insert while experiencing your menstrual flow. While there are various folds you can use to insert the cup, the punch-down method is the most recommended fold for first-time users. This fold provides the narrowest insertion point, making it a perfect option for new beginners.
  4. Squat down or elevate one of your legs on a surface such as the top of a tub, angling your hips forward, and gently insert the folded cup at a downward angle past your pubic bone and towards your tailbone.
  5. Once the cup is in position, ensure it has opened up and initiated the vacuum seal, and press down on the base to help release the fold if needed. Then, run your fingers along the rim to ensure it is completely open to provide leak-free protection. Gently tugging on the stem (if available) can help you check to ensure a good fit.

When first learning to use the cup, practicing insertion and removal in a comfortable place, like at home, will help you find the best method for you. Consider removing the cup over the toilet or in the shower to catch any spillage. Also, until you've gotten used to ensuring a proper seal, consider wearing a backup product, like a panty liner or period panty, to catch any leaks.

How to insert a menstrual disc

Here's how to properly use, insert, and remove your menstrual disc.

  1. Ensure you have the right-sized disc, and thoroughly clean both the disc and your hands.
  2. Fold the menstrual disc by pinching the sides of the cup together to resemble a tampon, ensuring the "top" of the basin faces upwards towards you for the entire insertion process.
  3. Assume a comfortable standing, sitting, or squatting position, insert the disk horizontally toward your tailbone, and then scoop it into your cervix by pointing slightly down before easing it further back.
  4. Assess the fit by running your fingers along the bottom of the bowl and then along the sides of the rim to check for gaps.

Like with the cups, practice using the disc at home. Get familiar with your needs regarding your menstrual flow, how often you need to empty your disc.

Vaginal health consideration

Menstrual cups are considered safe and hygienic for use, having been shown to have no adverse effects on vaginal flora. In comparison to using tampons or pads, one study showed a decrease in candidiasis and a lower prevalence of bacterial infections when using a menstrual cup.

However, the risk of infection is possible, mainly if the cup is not properly cleaned, stored, or used beyond recommended timelines. For example, along with TSS, urinary tract infections (UTIs) and other bacterial infections may be possible. However, TSS is very rare, and the cups have not been shown to increase occurrences compared with tampons and pads, especially with proper use and care. Also, there is a potential association between menstrual cup use and the expulsion of intrauterine devices (IUDs) which will require some considerations, such as cutting IUD strings or delaying menstrual cup usage for some time after IUD insertion. If one has IUD device, it is best to discuss with a doctor before implementing menstrual cups and discs into one's routine.

While the disc is much newer on the market, it has also been shown to be a very safe alternative for people who menstruate. Plus, unlike menstrual cups, no serious risks have yet been associated with discs. Either way, both products are considered very safe for use, and deciding which to choose will often be more of a matter of personal preference.

Cleaning menstrual cups and discs

Any risks associated with menstrual cups and discs are exceptionally rare, and proper use or maintenance of these products further decreases risks. Understanding how to appropriately plan for emptying the cup and maintaining sanitation throughout its use can help. Also, always refer to the manufacturer's guidance on how best to care for your product.

In general, a new menstrual cup or disc has to be sterilized once it is removed from its original box and before its first use.

  • To sterilize your new menstrual cup or disc, wash it with warm water and mild, unscented soap. Boil it in water for 5–10 minutes.
  • During the first use, remove your cup or disc every 4 hours to monitor your flow.
  • After removal, empty and rinse your cup or disc with water and soap. If water isn't available, wipe it with clean toilet paper but thoroughly clean it later.
  • At the end of your period, clean your cup with warm, soapy water, air dry it, and store it in a breathable pouch.

Additional accessories may be purchased for your convenience, such as additional storage bags, collapsible containers, or wipes and products to help clean the item on the go, or even cup applicator and removal devices. However, other than a safe storage solution and access to soap and clean water for rinsing and boiling between cycles, all other accessories are optional. Some experts do recommend purchasing a backup cup or disc just in case the product gets dropped during insertion or removal while you are away from home.

Which one to choose?

Deciding whether to use the menstrual cup or disc depends on multiple factors. For menstrual cups, the larger design can provide more surface area to hold onto to maneuver into the vagina. Compared to discs, cups provide a much more mess-free removal. However, the large variety of sizes and other considerations may make it challenging to figure out the best fit, and an ill-fitting cup can cause pain, leakage, or other complications.

Many beginners may find using the vaginal disc easier for a few reasons. Unlike cups, discs often come in one size or a limited range of sizes, requiring less trial and error to select the best fit. Due to their wider, flatter shape, and relatively higher positioning (which means no pressure on vaginal walls), discs may feel comfortable for new users. The generally higher capacity of the disc can make it an excellent option for users who experience heavy periods.

Overall, those who are used to inserting and removing items from their vagina and prefer a relatively mess-free removal option may choose the cup. Someone with a heavier period, lower cervix, discomfort at introducing items into the vagina, or interested in mess-free sexual intercourse may prefer the disc.

When to avoid these products?

Individuals with known allergies to any materials in the products, such as silicone, latex, or rubber, should avoid trying ones that contain that same material. However, in some cases, you may not realize you're allergic to a product. Always pay close attention to how your body reacts after use, and immediately remove and avoid re-inserting if you experience symptoms such as burning, irritation, rashes, redness and swelling, or an unusual discharge.

In addition, users experiencing certain vaginal abnormalities or health conditions, such as endometriosis, may have to avoid these products. Either way, it is always best to consult with your health provider if you have concerns about whether the menstrual cup or disc is right for you.

While menstrual cups and discs require some learning and practice for safe, effective use, the products can be a convenient alternative to traditional menstrual products and even compared to period panties. It is necessary to understand how to select the right cup or disc, the correct insertion and removal techniques, and the recommended guidance for sanitation and maintenance of your menstrual care product. By following proper guidance, many individuals can safely use either the menstrual cup, disc, or both to support their menstrual health needs.

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