Yet something may be shifting, and it might be thanks to menstrual cups – as in a silicone cup you insert into your vagina to capture your menstrual blood. You can leave it in for up to 12 hours, then rinse it out and use it again.
If you've heard of them, you're probably picturing nymph-like hippies cultivating their inner goddess around a campfire and bleeding in unison. But the fact that a recent Kickstarter campaign for a collapsible menstrual cup for women-on-the-go reached 40 times its goal, that women are writing odes to their DivaCups online (DivaCups were described by Slate as "a brand that is to menstrual cups what Kleenex is to tissues") and that there's been an increase in sales of menstrual cups (several brands are making them) shows that if the cups aren't yet mainstream (given that they've been around since 1937), they've definitely captured a growing market.
For Brenda Tootell, owner and director of JuJu – an Australian company that sells medical-grade silicone menstrual cups online and in selected stockists – there are plenty of factors behind the growing popularity of menstrual cups including convenience (it can be worn two to three times longer than a tampon or pad) and cost (a menstrual cup can last up to 10 years, saving women around $90 a year in tampon and pad costs – put that in a letter to Joe Hockey about the tampon tax maybe?).
There are also environmental reasons: according to Tootell, switching to a menstrual cup will save around 10,000 feminine hygiene products from waterways and landfill over the course of a lifetime.
Tootell has seen sales of her product double year on year, mostly, she says, due to word of mouth. "Women trust other women's opinions, especially when it comes to something as intimate as trying a new feminine hygiene product. Recommendation remains the most valuable referral we have, and we have our customers to thank for our increase in sales."
It's the same situation for Katherine Maslen, a naturopath, nutritionist and the author of Get Well, Stay Well: Reclaim Your Health And Get Back To Living, who recommends menstrual cups to many of her clients. Some, she says, would never go back to regular feminine hygiene products. This includes Penny, 27, who started using a menstrual cup before trying for a baby with her husband.
"I liked using them because I felt a lot more in tune with my body and particularly my menstrual cycle, which inevitably led me to falling pregnant," she says. "I do believe they help women connect with their cycles much more than using tampons."
But are they safe? And will they ever hit the mainstream?
Dr Sophia Berkemeier, a specialist trainee in obstetrics and gynaecology in Sydney, says little research has been done into menstrual cups so far, but, generally, they've been well-accepted. "I would be happy to support them as long as the woman is well-informed about their use, how to keep them clean and that they're aware they do not offer protection against sexually transmitted diseases or act as a form of contraception," says Berkemeier. However, she would like to see more research into them to fully examine their safety and acceptability.
A focus for Berkemeier, who sees a lot of women for menstrual issues such as irregular, painful and heavy periods, is educating women on the facts and myths surrounding toxic shock syndrome (TSS) – a fear causing many women to switch from tampons to a menstrual cup. This reaction reached fever pitch earlier this year when Vice published a story about a model who was suing a tampon manufacturer after she had her leg amputated as a result of TSS.
According to Berkemeier, TSS caused by tampon use is extremely rare in Australia, as is TSS associated with menstruation generally. "One misconception is that TSS is caused by tampons themselves, which is not true," she says. "TSS is caused by bacteria entering the bloodstream, causing sepsis, circulatory collapse and, in severe cases, death."
For Berkemeier and others working in women's health, tackling the taboo that still surrounds periods is important. Yet judging by the celebratory Amazon reviews for menstrual cups from a range of women, the taboo is being chipped away at.
What's more, because menstrual cups force women to not be squeamish about their periods and to confront them head-on (a cup of your own blood will do that), they are something of a feminist issue, notes Jane Hu in Slate.
"By encouraging users to engage with their bodies during menses, the cup plays a subtle but pivotal role in normalising periods," she says.