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First scientific review of menstrual cups finds they're safe - and leak the same as other sanitary products

Results from 13 studies suggest that 70% of women wanted to continue using menstrual cups once they knew how to use them.

Image: Shutterstock/nito

THE FIRST SYSTEMATIC review and meta-analysis of the international use of menstrual cups suggests they are safe and result in similar, or lower, leakage than disposable pads or tampons.

The analysis, published in The Lancet Public Health journal, includes 43 studies and data from 3,300 women and girls. Four studies found that levels of leakage were similar between menstrual cups and pads and tampons, while one found that leakage was significantly less with menstrual cups.

Globally, menstruation can affect girls’ schooling and women’s experience of work, and increase their disposition to infections if they use poor quality sanitary products.

There are an increasing number of initiatives in both high- and low-income countries to combat ‘period poverty’, so it is essential that policy makers know which sanitary products to include in menstrual health programmes and puberty education materials.

“Despite the fact that 1.9 billion women globally are of menstruating age – spending on average 65 days a year dealing with menstrual blood flow, few good quality studies exist that compare sanitary products,” says senior author Professor Penelope Phillips-Howard from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, UK.

We aimed to address this by summarising current knowledge about leakage, safety, and acceptability of menstrual cups, comparing them to other products where possible.

What is a menstrual cup?

Menstrual cups collect blood flow, rather than absorbing it as with pads and tampons. Like tampons, they are inserted into the vagina, before being emptied every 4-12 hours.

There are currently two types: a vaginal cup which is generally bell-shaped, and a cervical cup which is placed around the cervix high in the vagina. The materials used to make them are medical grade silicone, rubber, latex or elastomer and can last up to 10 years.

The current review identifies the products usually used in low and middle-income countries, which include cloths, cotton wool, tissue paper and other pieces of material, as well as disposable pads. Leakage and chafing are a common concern.

Four studies in the review, involving 293 participants, made direct comparisons of leakage between menstrual cups and disposable pads or tampons. Leakage was similar in three studies and significantly less among menstrual cups for one study.

In some studies, leaking was associated with abnormally heavy bleeding, unusual anatomy of the uterus, need of a larger cup size, incorrect placement of the cup, and the cup becoming full.

Results from 13 studies suggest that around 70% of women wanted to continue using menstrual cups once they were familiar with how to do so.

In six qualitative studies, participants suggested that adopting the menstrual cup required a familiarisation phase over several menstrual cycles. The authors note that information and follow-up on correct use might need to form a part of menstrual health programmes.

The review suggests that awareness of menstrual cups as an option is low. Three studies in high-income countries found that only 11-33% of women are aware of them.

Risks

There was no increased risk of infection associated with using menstrual cups among European, North American, and African women and girls. There were five reported cases of toxic shock syndrome following their use, but the overall number of menstrual cup users is unknown, so it is not possible to make comparisons of the risk of toxic shock syndrome between menstrual cups and other products.

In four studies involving a total of 507 women, use of the menstrual cup showed no adverse effects on vaginal flora. In studies that examined the vagina and cervix during follow-up, no tissue damage was identified from use of a menstrual cup.

Difficulty in removing cups, requiring professional assistance, was reported twice for vaginal cups and 47 times for cervical cups. Some women use them in combination with intrauterine devices and, in 13 cases, removing the cup was associated with an IUD becoming dislodged.

They suggest that the combination of an IUD and use of a menstrual cup might need further study. The authors identified five women who reported pain, three who reported vaginal wounds, six who reported an allergy or rash and nine who reported urinary tract complaints. 

Methodology

The study combines data from medical studies and grey literature – such as conference abstracts, reports and theses – for which participants reported their experiences of menstrual cups or their willingness to use them.

The authors selected 43 studies involving 3,319 participants in both low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) (15 studies) and high-income countries (28 studies).

They also compiled global information on the availability and costs of menstrual cups, conducted preliminary estimates on waste savings, and examined puberty education materials to assess the extent to which menstrual cups are referred to as an option.

The authors note that the quality of the studies included was low, and call for more, quality research in this area, and note that further studies are needed on cost-effectiveness and environmental effects between different menstrual products.

In the review, some of the information was taken from reports not published in peer-reviewed journals and the focus of some studies was to evaluate other topics.

Some data were from older studies, when reporting requirements were less stringent, or with menstrual cups that are no longer available. Most of the studies depended on self-reporting, which might have overestimated use of the menstrual cup.

Given the limited number of reports on the use of menstrual cups, the authors also caution that other potential issues cannot be excluded, including use of menstrual cups in combination with IUDs.

Further international research will be needed to provide more information on acceptability, to monitor adverse events, to assess best practice to shorten the familiarisation phase, and to more reliably assess cost-effectiveness and environmental effects.

Dr Julie Hennegan from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, USA, said: “For consumers purchasing menstrual products, the results highlight cups as a safe and cost-effective option. Critically, findings indicate that menstrual education resources are not providing a comprehensive overview of products to support informed choices. Authors found that awareness of menstrual cups was low, and that only 30% of websites with educational materials on menarche included information about menstrual cups.”

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