TMI, But How Often Should I Really Be Deep-Cleaning My Menstrual Cup?
An OB-GYN and a menstrual cycle coach explain how to keep yours looking and feeling their freshest.
When it comes to period care, gone are the days of enormous, bulky pads that felt like diapers and ill-fitting tampons that had you wincing in pain. Thankfully, there are now so many reusable products that will help keep your periods stress- and mess-free, with options to suit all ages, preferences, and cycles — whether your tween or teen is dealing with their first periods or you're in the midst of the unpredictable postpartum period.
Among the many solid options available out there right now: period underwear (some of which are specifically designed to help support bladder leaks and/or postpartum discharge), menstrual cups and discs, and reusable menstrual pads, all of which are receiving big bonus points for being much more eco-friendly than their single-use counterparts.
Whether you made the switch years ago or are newly discovering the wonders of reusable period products, you might be wondering how, exactly, to keep them clean. Scary Mommy got the scoop from an OB-GYN and a menstrual cycle coach, both of whom shared their tips for ensuring a super-long lifespan on your menstrual cup, period panties, and reusable pads.
How do reusable period products work?
First, a quick refresher on how these products actually help absorb blood and any other vaginal discharge, since it's understandable if you're not sure. Though it varies by brand and product, period underwear typically contain layers of fabric (either embedded or removable) that help absorb blood and other bodily fluids and discharge, also wicking away moisture and reducing odors. Cloth menstrual pads work the same way, instead attaching to any underwear of your choosing and absorbing blood like your traditional sanitary napkin.
Menstrual cups and discs are insertable products typically made of medical-grade, body-safe silicone, and they're designed to safely collect period blood. Most menstrual cup manufacturers specify that they should not be used immediately postpartum, and that you should check with your doctor before resuming use after you've given birth.
Why is it so important to keep these items clean?
Though reusable period products are often more costly upfront, you can use them for years on end, making them a solid choice for the environment (less waste from packaging, applicators, and tampons/pads/pantyliners) and your wallet. But you can only get the most out of your investment if you care for them properly. Thankfully, the pros have explained the how and why of keeping period products clean.
"Just like any period product, you want your cups and period underwear to be clean before each use to reduce the risk of bacteria growth and infection," explains Leslie Draffin, a certified menstrual cycle coach. Among the two biggest health risks: genital and/or urinary tract infections, says Nita Landry, MD, FACOG, a board-certified OB-GYN and author of Dr. Nita's Crash Course for Women: Better Sex, Better Health, Better You.
"While proper cleaning is important, it's also essential that your hands are clean when you insert your cup, because germs from your bathroom can transfer onto the cup, causing infection," adds Draffin. However, she notes, "In general, risk of infection using menstrual cups and reusable products is very low."
How often should you really be deep-cleaning your menstrual cup?
Before you fret, know that most reusable period products are super easy to keep clean. Landry notes that each product should have specific guidelines to follow, but generally speaking, menstrual cups and discs should be sterilized in boiling water before first use, with Landry preferring to do so again at the end of each cycle she uses hers. Draffin recommends boiling it in hot water for 3-5 minutes, ensuring it has enough water to safely float in the pot without sticking to the bottom.
If boiling your period products feels a little too weird for you, no sweat. "The easy option is rinsing your cup with warm to hot water (as hot as you can stand it) and a vagina-safe soap like Lunette Cup Cleanser," says Draffin. "You could also opt for a gentle soap that's free of additives, fragrances, and harsh dyes, which will be safer for the gentle skin of the vaginal canal. Gently rub the cup with the soap, making sure to clean any grip ridges or suction holes. If you're at home, you could also use a soft bristle toothbrush to provide extra cleaning power. Rinse with warm water and replace — or if you don't need it, you can let it air dry until the next use."
"In public restrooms, you can opt to clean your cup by simply emptying the blood into the toilet and then wiping it down with toilet paper or a specially designed cup wipe," she adds, noting that it's best “not to use the soap in public restrooms since it's hard to know what's in it and it would be better to simply replace the cup and then wash it when you get home."
What’s the best way to keep other reusable period products fresh and clean?
Reusable pads and period underwear are equally easy-breezy to keep clean. Most manufacturers (like Modibodi) recommend hand-washing or laundering on a gentle/delicate cycle with cold water prior to first use and then every time after you use them, being sure to keep each pair in a mesh laundry bag for safekeeping. Some manufacturers recommend doing a pre-wash soak (say, in cold water and white vinegar), but it's typically not necessary. "When washing, I opt for a fragrance-free detergent without bleach or fabric softener, which can cause the material to break down faster," says Draffin. (Charlie's Soap is a great hypoallergenic option.)
"Lastly, air-dry your period panties and reusable pads," suggests Draffin. "This will help them last longer. If looked after correctly, these products can last anywhere from 2-5 years."
Postpartum mamas will want to take extra care when it comes to keeping reusable products sanitized, says Landry, with Draffin noting you'll want to check frequently and change based on your flow at any given time. "You would clean the pads and underwear in the exact same way you'd clean them post-period," she says, adding, "Cleaning these products effectively will keep bacteria from growing and lessen the chance of negative side effects like infections."
When do you know it’s time to say goodbye?
They are reusable, but they won't last forever. So how do you know when it's time to replace yours? "Your frequency of use will determine how long your reusable period products will last," says Landry. "If you notice anything out of the ordinary, like a foul odor, for example, change the product even if it's before the timeframe suggested in the instructions."
"You should replace your menstrual cup when it shows signs of wear and tear, like splitting or cracking or if it develops a chalky residue that may signal a deterioration of the body-safe material," says Draffin. "Period underwear can be replaced when the elastic goes out or holes begin to form, much like you'd replace your other underwear."