If you’ve ever dipped your toe into the health and wellness pool, you’ve likely heard someone talk up the benefits of one cleanse or another.
From fasting, to juicing, to colon cleanses, to complaint cleanses (yes, it’s a thing), there are hundreds of supposedly life-affirming programmes to choose between in the pursuit of a better, cleaner, healthier life. Supporting claims usually refer to the movement of energy, toxins in the body, and other generally unscientific stuff.
For the truly dedicated, there are vaginal cleanses.
Yep, the positives of steaming, douching, and “yoni eggs” are bounded around online and in wellness circles. Despite gynaecologists repeatedly recommending against the use of many cleaning products, items like vaginal steamers, deodorants, and energy-cleansing stones marketed for vaginal use are still widely available online.
These products are pretty popular - a Canadian study found 95% of 1,435 adult women surveyed had used vaginal or genital health products in their lifetime - but few people are aware of the associated side effects, which range from thrush to fertility problems.
What’s more, this industry is only set to grow. A report by Technavio suggests the industry will increase by $1 million in the next five years. Whether you were thinking of cleaning your vagina for holistic or hygienic reasons, there’s a long list of scientifically-proven reasons you shouldn’t. Here’s why.
Wait, do I need to deep-clean my vagina now?
No. The vagina is a self-cleaning organ.
Unlike cutting out complaining or loading up on fruit and veggie juices, vaginal cleansing and cleaning products can have dangerous consequences.
All bodies are riddled with microorganisms that live on surfaces like skin and hair, as well as cavities. There’s microbiota inside vaginas, which sounds gross, but in a healthy vagina it’s actually a good thing. Vaginal microbiota plays an important role in preventing a number of diseases, including bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, sexually transmitted infections, and urinary tract infections.
Douching is the term generally used for cleaning inside the vagina with a mixture of different fluids, like water, vinegar, baking soda or iodine. Dr Lucy Glancey, a cosmetic surgeon who specialises in vaginal restoration, says douching should be an absolute no-no for all women. She explains,“It can change the bacterial balance and cause infections, fungal and bacterial and also chemical irritation.”
Science shows squirting liquid up into your vagina is a truly terrible idea: using a pump to shoot liquid up there acts as an excellent means of transport for pathogens to get up above the cervix, into the uterus, fallopian tubes, or into the abdominal cavity. What’s more, douching has been linked to ovarian and cervical cancer, pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy, bacterial vaginosis, fertility problems, and thrush - and yet one in five women in the US regularly use a douche on their vagina.
In the 1800s, douching was introduced as a form of contraception: women would use the pumps to wash out sperm after sex. Later, douching liquids often contained considerable quantities of disinfectant. The method was even once marketed as a means of hygiene, and adverts for douching products were comically cruel. A 1950s advert for ‘feminine hygiene’ douche Zonite features a panicked woman fretting over her husband’s lack of interest in intercourse. The cause? Her vagina, of course!
As we now know 70 years later, douching is actually more likely to cause a platitude of problems rather than solving anything - let alone marital issues.
Unfortunately, it took doctors a long time to change the public’s perspective. Advertising campaigns for douching suggested that not disinfecting the vagina would result in pregnancy or awful smells. In 1939, the Journal of American Medical Association documented the case of a 19-year-old woman who had given herself severe vaginal and cervical burns as a result of douching multiple times a day. Even after douching fell out of fashion, the idea that women should be paranoid about the scent of their vagina and the discharge it naturally produces has remained, making way for products like wipes, powders, soaps, and deodorant for ‘down there’.
Cleaning your vagina with perfumed products like soap can easily upset the balance between good and bad bacteria. Specifically speaking, it can lessen the number of lactobacilli bacteria. That’s what controls the pH down there.
The average vaginal pH differs according to a woman's ethnicity, however, medical professionals generally consider a healthy pH to be somewhere between 3.8 and 4.5. An imbalanced pH can be linked to bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, and cystitis. Meanwhile, vaginal steaming might seem innocuous - how bad can steam be? - but Dr Glancey says this should be avoided too. “Steamers can cause mechanical trauma, affect the PH, as well as the bacterial balance in the vagina,” she says. “There is no need to cleanse the vagina.”
As for cleaning the vulva, and labia, that’s totally fine as long as you’re gentle and stick to water or a very mild, pH neutral soap that’s free from fragrance or dye.
What about using something natural?
You’re thinking about a jade egg, aren’t you?
Gwenyth Paltrow’s Goop was the first big retailer to sell jade eggs (you can still buy them for $66 USD a piece) after publishing an article claiming the mystical ‘yoni’ stones had the power to fix hormone levels and help with bladder control. For those uninitiated in the world of vaginal wellness, yoni is the Sanskrit word for the womb and female reproductive organs. Like affirmations, acupuncture, and yoga, the word has become re-appropriated in the wellness world to sell things to western women.
Paltrow’s claims about the magical yoni egg faced extensive backlash: in an open letter to the actress in 2018, gynaecologist Dr Jen Gunter said, “I would like to point out that jade is porous, which could allow bacteria to get inside and so the egg could act like a fomite. This is not good, in case you were wondering. It could be a risk factor for bacterial vaginosis or even the potentially deadly toxic shock syndrome.”
Goop was slapped with $145,000 in civil penalties for making “unsubstantiated” claims about the power of the yoni egg, but the use of precious stones for kegel exercises has remained. Yoni eggs are still widely sold online and are particularly popular in wellness circles, which typically rely on anecdotal rather than scientific evidence.
It’s important to speak to your GP about any concerns you might have about your vaginal health, be it smell, discharge or period related. Remember, discharge is completely normal and healthy, and its colour and consistency will vary depending on your cycle, age and hormonal balance. Dr Google is stuffed with not-so-reliable myths and rumours a qualified doctor of medicine will easily be able to clear up. So, arrange an appointment with your doctor to get expert advice if you’re worried about anything going on down under.