A little over a week ago, a product called Looncup appeared on Kickstarter. Touted as “the world’s first smart menstrual cup,” Looncup is an old-fashioned silicone cup with a twist: It contains a sensor that collects information about the volume and color of your menstrual fluid and an antenna that sends that information to your smartphone, which alerts you when your cup is getting full. The makers of Looncup enticed would-be backers with a video of a beautiful woman running alone, swimming alone, working out at the gym alone, and making copies alone in a dark, empty office while exchanging smug glances with her iPhone about the perfect volume and color of her menstrual fluids. A gorgeous desolation has come to the Internet of Things.
I am a woman of childbearing age who has never once wanted more information about the volume and color of my menstrual fluid. But maybe I’m missing something: After all, Looncup has raised more than $70,000 on Kickstarter so far, well in excess of its goal of $50,000. So I emailed the makers of Looncup to ask why they think women should want what they’re offering. I found out, most importantly, that the name “Looncup” is not meant to evoke birds or psychiatric problems: “LOON is a mix of moon and luna,” explained Looncup’s Kate Lee in an email. “We might switch to Lune later in the year since Loon can be seen as negative.”
The product was the brainchild of a South Korean man named Ryong Hwang, who developed a popular period-tracking app after he learned that his girlfriend suffered from bad menstrual cramps. According to an FAQ provided by Lee, “Mr. Hwang began thinking of ways to combine his app with the menstrual cup that his girlfriend was using, and that’s what ultimately lead to the development of the Looncup.” (No word on how his girlfriend felt about all this.)
I am very much in favor of men educating themselves about periods and helping the women in their lives handle cramps and other symptoms of menstruation. But I’m not convinced that putting sensors in women’s vaginas is the right way for men to do it. I’m especially concerned that menstrual cups are one of those things that must be personally experienced to be understood properly—unless you have a vagina and have put a silicone keeper inside that vagina, can you really get what makes menstrual cups appealing?
A few of the things I like best about my DivaCup are that I can’t feel it when it’s inserted properly, that it can be thoroughly disinfected after every cycle if I boil it in water for 20 minutes, and that it will last for years as long as I take care of it. The Looncup does not have any of these features. Because of the hardware inside of it, it cannot be boiled—only cleaned with soap and water, which leaves me concerned about lingering bacteria. The battery inside each Looncup has a lifespan of six months, which means users would need to buy a replacement cup twice a year. (“We are looking into wireless recharging methods which could increase the lifespan of the Looncup to well over 1 year, almost 2 years,” Lee told me.)
Worst of all is that the Looncup’s antenna only works if the stem of the Looncup rests outside your vagina. “Bluetooth energy is so low that if the stem did not extend outside of body it would not work with our app,” Looncup’s makers explain in their FAQ. But that sounds incredibly uncomfortable. DivaCup’s instructions for insertion direct users to “push the curved edge of the folded DivaCup horizontally into the vaginal opening so that the tip of the stem is no further than a ½ inch (1.27 cm) into the vagina.” When the cup slips out of place and slides down to the bottom of the vagina, the stem rubs against your labia, which is no fun. While you can’t feel a menstrual cup that’s properly inserted, you definitely can feel a menstrual cup that’s sticking partway out of your vagina, and it sounds like that would be the intended position for the Looncup.
What about the benefits touted by Looncup? Measuring the precise volume of one’s menstrual fluid might be fun just as a matter of curiosity, but Looncup can’t say why it’s good for individual users’ health. According to its FAQ, “Our belief is that this increase in precision will lead to unforeseen positive consequences for women's health—once doctors and researchers begin using smart cups to collect and analyze data to detect health patterns.” We know it will be helpful to someone, someday; we just need more information! The other ostensible benefit of the Looncup’s sensors, color detection, could hypothetically detect a clot, fibroids, or an infection. Or hypothetically not: “We’re working with our team of testers and doctors in Korea to determine the benefits of tracking color, and are open to adding or removing features that add little value to our customers and doctors,” the FAQ continues.
A potential roadblock for Looncup is that it doesn’t only have to prove the usefulness of its high-tech features to consumers—it may also have to prove them to the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA recently exempted menstrual cups from premarket notification requirements, which means that manufacturers no longer need to notify the FDA of their intention to market a new product before they begin selling it.* However, the FDA still expects manufacturers to submit paperwork prior to marketing if they invent a new menstrual cup with different fundamental scientific technology, according to FDA spokeswoman Deborah Kotz. Kotz wouldn’t speak to the particulars of a “smart” menstrual cup, but it seems to me that the Looncup does not have the same technological characteristics of menstrual cups that are already on the market, which might create hiccups with the FDA.
I am not so solipsistic that I believe that all women should share my personal concerns about the Looncup. Maybe the stem thing isn’t as annoying for other women as it is for me. Maybe other women are far more fascinated by the volume and color of their menstrual fluid than I am. And maybe researchers will find the information collected by Looncup incredibly useful, and it’ll lead to breakthroughs in detecting reproductive health issues. If you want more information about your period and want iPhone alerts when your menstrual cup is getting full, you should by all means contribute to the Looncup Kickstarter and reserve a cup for yourself. Just know that, depending on how the FDA responds to Looncup’s premarket notification, it might be a long time before you actually get to use your Looncup.
*Correction, Oct. 14, 2015: This article originally misstated that manufacturers of all menstrual cups need to notify the FDA of their intention to market their products before they begin selling them. The FDA recently exempted menstrual cups from premarket notification requirements but still expects manufacturers to submit paperwork prior to marketing if they invent a new menstrual cup with different fundamental scientific technology. (Return.)