What Is a Menstrual Disc, and How Do You Use One?
Flexible and reusable menstrual discs are giving tampons a run for their money in the period product aisle. Here's what you need to know about how and why you might want to use one.
Options for period care have grown beyond the simple decision of tampons or pads — and it's about damn time. There are period panties, menstrual cups, heck, some people are even exploring the world of free bleeding. A perhaps lesser-known option that's gaining popularity is the menstrual disc, which is similar to a menstrual cup in that it is inserted in the vagina to collect blood, but there are specific qualities that make for a different user experience. (Related: Your Guide to the Latest Period Products Available.)
Whether you're considering making the switch from, say tampons to a menstrual disc, for environmental or comfortability reasons, here are some pros and cons of menstrual discs to consider in order to decide what method is right for you.
What's the Difference Between a Menstrual Disc Vs. Menstrual Cup?
There are two main categories of period care: absorbent options, such as tampons or pads, and collection items, such as menstrual cups or menstrual discs, says Sharon Thompson, M.D., obstetrician-gynecologist and managing director at Central Phoenix Obstetrics and Gynecology. To make matters more confusing, some companies use the terms menstrual cup and menstrual disc interchangeably, but there are notable differences.
To point out the obvious: a menstrual cup is shaped like a cup and a menstrual disc is shaped like, yep, a disc. A menstrual disc is made of two parts: a thicker silicone rim and an attached plastic or silicone reservoir, which looks like a clear plastic bag in the disposable versions. Beyond the shape variations, menstrual cups sit in the vaginal canal to collect blood, while menstrual discs sit higher at the base of the cervix, says Dana Elborno, M.D., an obstetrician-gynecologist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital.
In terms of positioning, a menstrual cup is like a tampon in that both sit in the vaginal canal. "Whereas the menstrual disc is placed above that in the vaginal fornix, i.e. the crevice at the base of the cervix, and collects menstrual blood before it ever enters the vaginal canal," explains Dr. Elborno. Because menstrual discs sit in the upper vagina and are at an angle, they may be more challenging to put into place initially, says Dr. Thompson. Menstrual discs and cups both create a seal against the vaginal walls. However, menstrual cups use suction to remain in place, while a menstrual disc is held in place behind the pubic bone. (See also: All the Questions You Definitely Have About How to Use a Menstrual Cup.)
When it comes to sustainability, menstrual cups have an edge over discs because cups are able to be sanitized and reused for your next cycle. Most menstrual discs, on the other hand, are one-time use and thrown away after removal, including Softdisc Menstrual Discs (Buy It, $11, amazon.com) or Flex Starter Kit (Buy It, $35, amazon.com). However, there are some menstrual discs made of silicone, including Lumma Reusable Menstrual Disc (Buy It, $45, lummacups.com) or Nixit Menstrual Cup (Buy It, $39, urbanoutfitters.com), which are reusable after cleaning.
How to Insert a Menstrual Disc
While there is a learning curve with how to insert a menstrual disc, it's less steep than with a menstrual cup, which has different folds and methods to place it properly. Whether you're using a reusable or a disposable menstrual disc, the method to insert it is the same. If you're more of a visual learner, the makers of the Flex menstrual disc have a YouTube video that helps to depict what you need to do.
Step 1: Pinch the disc's rim to fold it in half. It's smaller than a tampon when it's folded.
Step 2: Take a deep breath and play around with what position you need your body to be in — sitting over the toilet, with your leg up on the seat, or in a full squat are possibilities.
Step 3: Making sure the reservoir that collects blood is on the bottom, hold the pinched disc on the sides, insert it into the vaginal canal and begin pushing toward your tailbone as far back as you can. Once the disc is inserted, use your thumb to push (think: toward the floor), until it covers the cervix. Make sure the rim of the edge that goes in last is pushed behind your pubic bone
How to Remove a Menstrual Disc
To remove your menstrual disc, it's best to sit over the toilet and relax your muscles. Slide a finger under the front rim and pull straight down while keeping the disc parallel to the toilet bowl. FYI, this will likely be messy, hence your position over the toilet. Empty the disc into the toilet and then throw away (if disposable) or clean and reinsert (if reusable). Pro tip: You can also remove and empty in the shower to immediately wash away the blood.
Advantages of Using a Menstrual Disc
A huge pro to menstrual discs over other period products is that they hold two to four tampons worth of blood. They can therefore be safely left in place for up to 12 hours, says Dr. Elborno. And while an infection or toxic shock syndrome (TSS) isn't impossible with menstrual discs or cups, it's rare, she says.
While not all menstrual discs are reusable, using two disposable versions per day throughout a period could be more eco-friendly than changing a tampon every few hours. And that's significant, considering 12 billion pads and tampons are thrown out every year and the average person uses 11,000 tampons, pads, and pantyliners in their lifetime, according to period brand Thinx. And because menstrual discs are made of silicone or plastic, they may be a better choice for women who are sensitive to the materials in tampons and pads, such as dyes or detergents used in the cotton, says Dr. Thompson. (Related: Walmart Shoppers Love These $6 Organic Cotton Tampons)
If you've been wanting to make the switch from tampons, a menstrual disc may offer a less intimated way to make the jump since, when inserted, they are roughly the same size as the average tampon, says Dr. Elborno. In fact, some patients have said using a menstrual disc helped them feel more comfortable with their body during periods and shook the stigma of menstrual blood or vaginas being dirty or shameful, she adds. (Related: 6 Things to Know About Menstrual Cups and Exercise.)
Another big bonus for menstrual disc wearers? Period sex! Unlike other period products, you can have sex while wearing a menstrual disc because it's shallower and sits high enough in the vagina for penetration, says Dr. Thompson. Fair warning: You may want to insert a new disc prior to having sex as a full disc may shift and cause spilling. Because they can be worn for longer stretches of time, sit internally, and are virtually undetectable when inserted properly, discs are also a great option for swimming, working out, or other activities, says Dr. Elborno. (FYI, this is how to have period sex if you're curious but cringe-y.)
Concerns to Consider About Using a Menstrual Disc
There aren't many drawbacks to wearing a menstrual disc, however, there are a few considerations to make. One disadvantage is the level of care needed during insertion. You may not want or be able to insert one quickly in a public restroom if Aunt Flo arrives for a mid-week surprise visit. That learning curve can be a barrier to entry for many.
Finally, there are also a few medical or cultural circumstances where menstrual discs are not recommended. Patients with a vaginal septum or obstructed hymen may not be able to use this product, says Dr. Elborno. "I also advise that moms get cleared by their ob-gyn before using a menstrual disc when in postpartum," she says, as anything foreign in the body shortly after childbirth increases the risk for infection. What's more, because using a menstrual disc means getting comfortable with reaching fingers into your vagina, insertion may increase gender dysphoria, psychological distress that can occur in people whose gender identity doesn't match their sex assigned at birth, in trans people, say both experts.