The cup should not leak. Period. A well-chosen cup does not leak at all and may be used for up to 12 hours, depending on the intensity of menstruation An interview with Sylwia Sikorska, author of the blog "On the way to zero waste", co-founder of the Polish Zero Waste Association
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Two Germans recently had an idea for a business: they invented pink latex gloves for women so that they don’t get their hands dirty with blood when changing their pad or tampon.

The only thing missing is for them to have a manicure print on their tips. Absolutely disgusting and uncomfortable. Why would I even put gloves in the bathroom? We’re taught that blood is awful. Even in commercials, it is constantly shown in blue. Of course, in the advertising of menstrual products during your period you can wear white pants, feel fresh, fragrant, and flowers fly through the air. Men see a picture like this and then think that the worst part of menstruation is getting our fingers dirty. And they make up these pink gloves for us.

This shows how taboo our menstruation is.

Menstrual taboos do us harm in ways that I never imagined they could. When I was doing the EkoOkres campaign on Instagram, I asked women why they use reusable hygiene products. I’ve been discussing this topic for a year and a half now, but once in a while I ask this question again because at the beginning of the campaign, I was shocked that 90 percent of my followers do not use organic menstrual products at all. Among those that said they opted for reusable solutions, most cited two reasons: environmental protection and convenience. I was very surprised that the third most frequent answer was the question of health. They wrote about chafing, abrasions and that disposables are inconvenient or even harmful to them. I also talked to a person running an organic pharmacy, and she told me that in May and June they have the highest sales of reusable products because we start to feel chafing when the temperature rises. It terrified me that this is such a common problem that is not talked about.

Is there an even greater taboo around organic products related to menstruation than around disposable ones?

The menstrual taboo is a barrier when it comes to using, for example, reusable sanitary pads. That sanitary pad must be lying somewhere before you wash it. Girls are afraid that someone might see it. Even before I found out what zero waste is, I started using a cup. I remember that it grossed me out. Would it be filled with my blood and I am to pour it out myself? Would it fit at all? And then I bought a cup, fell in love right away and didn’t know why anyone would use anything else. Despite this, I thought for a long time that a reusable sanitary pad was a disgusting thing. It changed after my second delivery when I stopped getting along with my first cup. I fully understand girls who are afraid to try.

In recent years, cups have appeared in popular pharmacies and can be bought at every corner. Unfortunately, this is a bit of a double-edged sword – girls stopped paying attention to the fact that the menstrual cup must fit. There are no bad cups, they are just wrongly matched. You should remember that they are different, and you can’t expect that each one will be right for you.

Persuading other women to use a menstrual cup is a word-of-mouth style of marketing.

On the one hand, it’s great, and on the other – the problem is that we don’t know that we have different vaginas, different muscles and different builds. A friend will advise you: "Look, this cup is great, go buy it!" You will do it, spend PLN 40 and get discouraged because the cup is constantly leaking. Or someone tells you that there are S, M and L sizes – S is for virgins, M is for women before their labour and L is for women who have given birth. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. That is why I created the EkoOkres campaign. I try to talk as much as possible about choosing cups. When my followers ask me what cup I have used, I always say that this is absolutely no determinant for them.

How should you start choosing your own menstrual cup?

From measuring the height of the cervix during your period. If someone is a little scared of the cup itself, measuring the cervix probably scares them even more. Meanwhile, it is very simple – during the first three days of your period, just crouch, insert a finger into the vagina and check how much of this finger enters the cervix. And this is what tells you how tall your cup can be, and they can vary greatly in height. The cup should not protrude from the vagina and must fit inside under the cervix. Sometimes the cervix may penetrate the cup a bit, but it’s important that it does not go inside too much, because it can hurt, be uncomfortable and unpleasant.

This is also a way of checking if a cup is for us at all because the only contraindication is that we have a very low cervix, and if there is no room for this cup inside, it may be a bit like tilting at windmills. There are few girls who have a cervix that low, but there are times when those who have tried a lot of cups write to me, that none of them worked out, and in fact they never measured their cervix. If the cup is too low, it may simply move up during the day. It’s not a big problem, but then girls are terrified that they will not be able to reach and get the cup out. There are ways of doing that too. Singing, dancing and a warm shower help a lot.

The second thing that is helpful when choosing a cup is to assess how strong your muscles are. This is influenced by several factors. Firstly, your lifestyle. If someone sits all day, does not exercise, then only soft cups can really be used. On the other hand, there are girls who go pole dancing regularly, cycle a lot and have pelvic floor muscles so strong that they are capable of cracking nuts. I have a friend who has been looking for a cup for a long time. She is the mother of two children, but her muscles are so strong that she needs a hard cup. Due to the fact that cups are broken down depending on whether the woman has given birth or not, it took her a long time to choose the right one.

Apart from the discomfort that may arise, how do we know that the cup is wrong and we should change it?

When it leaks, i.e., it does not fulfil its function. The cup should not leak. Period. A well-chosen cup should not leak and may be used for up to 12 hours, depending on the intensity of menstruation. If your cup leaks, you should look into it and consider why it’s doing that. In most cases it’s not obvious. The cup may be too large and won’t unfold completely. It is too small if it doesn’t have enough suction and you are able to remove it easily by just pulling it down gently. The cup must be sucked out when you take it out – this is also important and you have to be careful with this suction.

Of course, the cup may also leak when it is full. And then it is also good to check the height of the cervix because sometimes you may have a cup that is a bit too high for you, and when you move, the cervix enters it and then it starts to leak. It may also be the case that if the cup is too soft, then with effort, when you tighten your muscles, it may bend and cease to fulfil its function.

This contact with blood in reusable products is a little scary, especially since the world is not adapted to the fact that people menstruate. Women are worried about what it will be like when using a cup, they have to empty it and rinse it in a public toilet, where there is no wash basin in the cubicle.

I went through campsites twice with a cup and I must honestly admit that actually using the public toilet in such a situation is not the most comfortable, but it is possible. I dealt with this by taking a bottle of water with me and rinsing the cup over the toilet. But here technology comes to aid a bit and there are cup sterilisers. When going to the bathroom, pour water into it and close it. In the toilet, place the dirty cup in the steriliser, squeeze it several times to rinse it with water inside, and pour out the dirty water through a special additional hole, and then remove the clean cup. This is actually the description of a device invented by a Polish woman. Interestingly, although this steriliser can be purchased in Poland, the target market is the West because there the environmental awareness is greater and the use of cups is also incomparable to that in Poland. Such a steriliser serves us not only when we are out in the city, but with its help we can also sterilise the cup in a microwave or oven.

How can you take care of reusable menstrual products?

When it comes to the cup, you need to sterilise it before and after your period. And it doesn’t matter if you do it after your period and it’s lying in a place where it has no contact with anything for three weeks. This is such a sensitive place that you have to boil it for at least five minutes, so that the high temperature is maintained, and not just pour boiling water over it. Simply wash it with water between applications during your period. It’s best not to wash it with detergents because you may not rinse the cup thoroughly enough afterwards. Even if there is some blood left, nothing will happen, but if some soap is left, that’s a recipe for an intimate infection.

When it comes to reusable sanitary pads, you have to rinse them with running water. You don’t have to do it immediately after use, you can leave the pad to dry and, for example, soak them all at once for an hour before washing. It’s a good idea to do this to rinse out most of the blood from them. Then we wash at 40-60 degrees. Do not use any fabric softeners so as not to clog the fibres of the sanitary pads.

The same applies to menstrual underwear. You can wash it all with your clothes, which is something everyone often asks. It won’t stain anything else. A washed sanitary pad is much more hygienic and much cleaner than disposable solutions because disposable pads, despite how the manufacturers try to present them, are not sterile. This is a product packed in a huge factory and it will never be sterile – not with this packaging, not with this technology and not at that cost.

Speaking of substances in sanitary pads and tampons, girls often say that when they started using a cup, their period changes after a few months. Mostly for the better. And it’s not a matter of the cup, but the fact that once a month we don’t spend a few days attacking ourselves in such a very sensitive place with chemicals that undoubtedly work on us. Most conventional menstrual products are made of plastic. On the other hand, cotton, which is there in a small amount – but producers like to emphasise that it is there – is usually conventional cotton, which is treated with pesticides and chemicals in such a way that it is not good for us.

In the case of the cup, we are dealing either with medical silicone, or with a material called TPE, or with natural rubber – and these materials are safe for us.

We are talking about comfort, health and safety, but the conversation about reusable menstrual products started with zero waste and concern for the planet.

Apparently, the production of the annual supply of tampons for one woman involves the emission of as much as 5.26 kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In the case of a cup, it is 0.04 kg. In 2019, Break Free from Plastic did a study that showed that menstruating people in Europe annually produce 590,000 tons of waste. According to this report, if only 20 percent of these people switched to reusable products, the amount of waste could be reduced by almost 100 thousand tons per year.

These are crazy amounts that local governments should take a look at. I dream of a programme to support women in using reusable alternatives because it would be profitable for every city if its inhabitants would use such products, taking into account how it affects the cost of waste management.

The problem, however, is the relatively large economic barrier to entry. Few people are able to spend PLN 100 to try something new. It is safer to spend PLN 5 a month because we are simply afraid. In fact, the cup can be used for 10 years and in the long run it is the cheapest solution. On the other hand, period poverty in Poland, unfortunately, exists and there are women who cannot afford such solutions. These are women for whom it is impossible to spend PLN 100 just like that.

When it comes to period poverty, we should also realise that reusable products will not solve the problem one hundred percent because it is a solution for people who have a home, access to a washing machine and conditions to sterilise the cup.

If there were to be a system that guarantees every girl a free menstrual cup, the selection of cups would also be a problem because not all of them will be good. The Akcja Menstruacja campaign provides cups if someone wants to try this solution out, but it could also be approached by sex education classes, after which the local government would provide each girl with a 100-zloty voucher either for reusable sanitary pads or a cup.

In social media, you write about the resistance this topic raises, even from the media.

The very fact that we are talking now shows that the situation is changing a lot. EkoOkres came about due to the fact that I am the co-founder of the Polish Zero Waste Association and one of my campaigns is HelloWielo, which promotes reusable nappies among parents. We started in 2018 and during the first edition we conducted almost 30 workshops throughout the country. I decided that since half of these parents will have daughters, it is also worth mentioning the topic of menstruation. Eco-parents are a group that already knows about health issues and also knows why we don’t use disposables, they are absolutely not afraid of washing because if someone is already trained in washing nappies, they will not even bat an eye at washing pads. Besides, mothers who use reusable nappies often switch to reusable pads themselves after some time.

That is why, during the second edition, we extended the campaign to include the topic of menstruation. It turned out that many media were interested in the HelloWielo campaign, I was contacted by three TV stations, there were a lot of publications, but there was silence as far as menstruation was concerned. Nobody wanted to talk about it. This shocked me.

There was also a situation where we organised a workshop on menstruation. We had a cupfitter, we had every possible cup on site that you could take a look at. We had a nurse with us who specialises in reusable solutions, so there was also talk about health issues. I thought people would come in droves because this topic generated crazy reaches on the Internet. A dozen or so people came to the meeting. There were even girls who wrote that they wanted to go, but their friend changed their mind and they were ashamed to come alone.

Is it easier to ask a question about menstruation on the Internet than to talk about your period live?

Absolutely. I stopped combining these topics – I understood that everyone wants to talk about nappies, but not about menstruation. This taboo bothers us a lot because if we don’t talk about periods, we also skip all the related problems. We do not discuss health issues, the fact that there are people who cannot afford sanitary pads. Sometimes parents don’t want to talk to their girls about their periods at all, or there is a single dad who is afraid of this conversation like fire.

This girl has nowhere to go, she doesn’t know what to do, she is left to fend for herself. Any conversation about periods is good, and we should talk about menstruation for the sake of these girls.

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