A better understanding of period products available today

As menstrual cups get a Rs 10 crore push in the state budget, TNIE takes a look at the eco-friendly sanitary product and the other options    
Illustration: Sourav Roy
Illustration: Sourav Roy

KOCHI:  One of the bright spots in the grim Kerala budget presented last Friday was the Rs 10 crore allocation to promote eco-friendly menstrual cups in the state. Awareness programmes on the same will be conducted across schools, colleges, and workspaces in the coming days said Finance Minister K N Balagopal.  

There have been several period discussions and campaigns of late. Though menstrual cups have got a push recently, there remains a sense of ambiguity over the relatively new entrant in the period scene. 
Here, we speak to some experts, activists and common women to get a better understanding of period products available today.  

Sustainability and sexual rights consultant Kavya ‘Ecofeminist’ (she prefers using the tag as her surname) was one of the first to hold awareness campaigns on menstrual cups in Kerala. She has been using them for the past 12 years.  

“At that time, menstrual cups weren’t available in India,” she says. “I was studying environmental engineering at IIT Madras. I wanted to check out sustainable period products since disposable pads were a big environmental concern.” 

Kavya heard about menstrual cups from her friends in Germany and asked them to send some over. “It was very difficult to use it the first time,” she says. “There was fear, especially since the vagina and vaginal health are not things that were openly discussed. In fact, I hid the cups from my parents.” 
For the past few years, Kavya has been using cloth pads as well. “I use cups or cloth pads, depending on the situation,” she adds.  

‘Quality of silicone matters’
Subsequently, Kavya set out to teach Kerala about safe and healthy menstrual practices and sustainable products like cups. “I even set up a YouTube channel in 2017. At that time, however, I got more abuse than positive comments for speaking about the period,” she recalls. 

The situation is now far better, Kavya adds. For the past two years, cups have been marketed heavily. “Especially since people are increasingly using the internet, subjects linked to menstruation have become a talking point,” she notes.

“However, there is one issue with campaigns and the free distribution of cups. Many brands have come up, but not all of them use medical-grade silicone. And the free cups distributed during campaigns are often substandard.” 

A good-quality menstrualwould cost at least Rs 700, and last about 10 years. There are some cheaper ones available in the market, but the quality may be substandard. Experts also flag cheap models imported from China or Taiwan, warning that they may not be of optimum quality.  

“If people go for these cheaper models – without paying attention to silicone quality – the cup might cause inconvenience, and they will be put off by the idea,” says Kavya. “Campaigns by the government and NGOs should focus on such details.”

‘More comfortable’

While Kavya switched to cups for environmental reasons, Thiruvananthapuram-based gender and sexuality researcher Dinta Suresh, 36, as she found them more comfortable than sanitary napkins. 
“At times, the pads cause itchiness and rashes. But there was no other option earlier. Most discussions over menstrual health would revolve around sanitary pads back then,” she says.

“A few years ago, I heard about menstrual cups. There were initial difficulties. Like the majority of women in Kerala, I had initial hiccups about inserting something into the vagina. However, after a couple of months, I got comfortable with them. The cup can be used for up to 10 hours a day.” 
Cups, Dinta adds, may be cumbersome during long journeys. “You need clean public bathrooms to remove and reuse them,” she says.  

Dinta finds cloth pads, too, “very comfortable”. “However, depending on one’s flow, they will have to be frequently changed,” she says. “Reusable cloth pads are available now. I use the cup and cloth pads, based on the situation and comfort.”

In association with NGOs, Dinta has been taking awareness classes for women. “There are various products available in the market, including tampons and discs. We can also make cloth pads at home,” she says. “The most important thing is comfort. During awareness sessions, I elaborate on all the available options so that people can make informed choices.”

‘Bad bout of infection’
Parvathy P, 29, of Kochi, also says comfort is paramount. “I came to know about cups through social media and friends. I was never comfortable with sanitary napkins,” she says.

“I used a menstrual cup for about six months. As advertised, it was hassle-free in many ways. It took me about two to three cycles to find the right fit and get used to it. However, using it for long hours for six days at a stretch made me feel like my vagina couldn’t breathe. I would wake up in the morning feeling uncomfortable.” 

Subsequently, she suffered a bad bout of infection. “I finally switched back to pads, after consulting gynaecologists,” she adds. Parvathy, however, stresses that her’s might have been a rare case. 

Doc talk

Gynecologist Dr Madhuja Gopishyam, of Kinder Hospital, says many women have been approaching her for advice about period products. “Menstrual cups — something I, too, have been using — can be comfortable for many. One has to get the right size and insert it the correct way; you won’t feel its presence,” she says. 

“For women who are not sexually active, the small size would be great. For those that have given birth or are older (about 40 or above), a larger size may be needed.” Madhuja adds cups cause the least health problems, provided one finds the right fit. “I would recommend cups for anyone above the age of 14,” she says. 

The doctor says she has not come across any case of allergic reactions to the cups. “But a couple of women came to the hospital when they had trouble removing the cup,” says Madhuja. She also advises that it is better to sanitise the cup after each use. “So keep a pair of cups with you,” she says. “After each use, sterilize by leaving it in boiling water for a few minutes.” 

While wrapping up the discussion, Madhuja stresses that girls or women should, in no way, be compelled to use cups. “The decision is an intimate, personal process, and the choice should be left to them,” she says. 

Dr J S Veena, an assistant professor in forensics, echoes the same. She also highlights that there would be women who are uncomfortable with anything being inserted into the vagina. She also cautions that women using intrauterine contraceptive devices should check with their docs before using cups. “The suction from the cup may dislodge the IUD,” she adds.  

There are also social stigmas associated with menstrual cups, discs and tampons — three products that are inserted into the vagina. “Women generally lack awareness of their own body, anatomy. Periods and words such as vagina are still associated with shame. Also, many parents are reluctant to let their daughters use menstrual cups,” says Veena. “They have the misconception that cups may affect virginity. No, they don’t!”

Different choices

Disposable pads: Harmful to the environment

Menstrual cups: Reusable for up to 10 years. Sustainable. 

Cloth pads: Can be used for up to four years. Need frequent changes. 

Period panties: Look and feel like regular panties.

Discs: Reusable. More complex than cups. 

Tampons: Popular than pads in many Western countries. Disposable. 

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