The problem with vagina cleaning fads

BY Mollie Davies

15th Apr 2021 Wellbeing

The problem with vagina cleaning fads

We spoke with Channel 4's The Sex Clinic Dr Naomi Sutton, on why  brands that offer "fresh smelling vaginas" might not be as harmless as they seem

Brands like FemFresh and Vagisil have been available in our high street shops for over four decades. Priding themselves on improving intimate health and offering expert advice, these brands are frequently trusted by young people and adults alike. But are they as harmless as they seem?

The dangers behind such products are actually more common than you may think at first glance.

People with vulvas flock to them because they claim to offer “fresh smelling vaginas”, they also offer to balance the pH in and around your vulva. This naturally makes us believe that we need to solve some sort of problem with their products.

Amongst a wide variety of concerning products are vanilla clementine-scented no-sweat-wipettes in the most colourful confetti packaging. These “cute” products are especially targeted towards vulnerable teens who may be experiencing hormonal changes for the first time, unaware what harm this is doing to both their self-confidence and body.

We spoke with Dr Naomi Sutton, Consultant Physician in Sexual Health, and in house doctor for Channel 4's The Sex Clinic, to discuss the real harm such products are creating.

Here are five reasons why you should avoid purchasing products that offer to cleanse, balance and scent your vulva.

Illustration of woman hugging herself

Even the wording is unsettling

A name like “FemFresh” insinuates that our vulva is a naturally unclean area. Dr Sutton explains the uncomfortable tension that such wording causes, as though we need to “prepare our vulvas and vaginas for someone else to approve of them.” Further, Dr Sutton says that there is not the same pressure for scrotums to smell of peaches and cream so why put this pressure on vulvas?

Fortunately, we are seeing an increase in body positivity, but there is still so far to go. Dr Sutton explained that brands who produce big marketing campaigns around “cleansing” vulvas “only exacerbate these feelings of shame and insecurity some women and girls have about their genitals.”

They can really disrupt your vagina

Dr Sutton explains how the “vagina is a delicately balanced microbiome with healthy bacteria present to help prevent infection.”

Products that encourage us to wash inside our vaginas—known as douching, or wash our vulvas as frequently as we would our face, only encourage interruption of our healthy bacterias. This can lead to bacterial vaginosis, which Dr Sutton says leads on to an unhealthy washing cycle because of the fishy smell and brightly coloured discharge it produces.

Most products in these ranges are highly scented, which is largely the reason they are so attractive to many. Any sort of perfumed product can cause irritation to the skin, especially when being applied to such a delicate area, and lead to a lot of discomfort.

"Any sort of perfumed product can cause irritation to the skin"

These companies are preying on your insecurities

Don’t forget that behind every brand is a marketing team who knows just how to win you around. They know what sorts of customers will buy their product, and if the product they are offering has no real need or place in our routine, then they need to create a reason for you to want to purchase it.

It is great that many women are taking a more proactive approach with their sexual health, but this also opens up room to be exploited. Dr Sutton adds that “psychologically such products play on the shame many women already have about their genital area. Which is why it is such a profitable industry.”

"psychologically such products play on the shame many women already have about their genital area"

There is a fine line between helpful products and unnecessary gimmicks. Many people will associate a scented deodorant for female genitals with a brand who produces thrush cream, but they are very different and it’s important to remember that.

There are places to ask questions and explore what is “normal”

From our youth, many of us are unsure of our female genitalia because it is so hidden away. This is in contrast with male genitalia which is often in full view in urinals, and handled when having a wee, and so we often find ourselves questioning if what we have, what we smell like, feel like or look like is “normal”.

A study by the Eve Appeal in 2016 for Gynaecological Awareness Month, showed that 60 per cent of women were unable to identify the vulva on an anatomical diagram. Many don’t even know the difference between the vagina and vulva. We call them everything from fairies to fannys, so how could we possibly know how to identify something as normal or concerning?

Dr Sutton recommends vulva owners visit this great resource from Women’s Health Victoria, which offers various photographs of “normal” vulvas in an abundance of wonderful variations.

Furthermore, Dr Sutton encourages parents to have more open talks with their children about their bodies, suggesting Outspoken Education as a brilliant source.

You don’t need to “cleanse” your vagina

Believe it or not, our genitalia is self-cleansing and an incredibly clever organ. Even vaginal discharge plays an important part in keeping the area healthy. Dr Sutton confirmed that “discharge in your knickers at the end of the day is normal. Bleaching of the gusset of your knickers is also normal as the natural vaginal pH is slightly acidic.”

Anything put in the vagina can potentially disrupt its environment, which is why it’s always best to use toxic-free, natural menstrual products and avoid putting anything inside at all. Dr Sutton says that the vulva “should be treated with utmost care and washed with a mild soap or warm water only.” Not only are these products a waste of money, they can cause much more harm than good.

If you’re worried about your vulva then it’s always best to seek medical help before trying anything out at home or avoiding the problem. Visit your GP or contact your local NHS sexual health service for advice.

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