The commodification of the vagina has reached peak craziness. Gynos share how you can avoid falling for the marketing trap.
Do you feel like every day there's a new product being marketed to your vagina? You aren't alone. Gone are the days when the only real decision you had to make was scented or unscented tampons, or pads with the wings or without. It can be overwhelming, even for health editors.
Just in the past year or two, we've seen the advent of Thinx period panties; FLEX, a tampon-alternative that can be worn during sex; my.Flow, a Bluetooth-enabled tampon that monitors your cycle and tells you exactly when it's time to change; and Looncup, a high-tech menstrual cup, just to name a few. Don't get me wrong, this low-key obsession with periods and constant innovation is a great thing: It means women have more options to choose what works for them and most importantly, that women's bodies are finally getting the attention they deserve. So when it comes to products that actually attempt to address real needs women are facing, we say keep 'em comin'.
But then there's a whole other category of products whose sole purpose seems to be convincing women they have to buy something to solve a problem they never knew they had in the first place. See: The Goop-advocated jade eggs that promise to cure "hormonal imbalance" and "intensify feminine energy," Lo Bosworth's line of millennial pink-branded Love Wellness products designed to "create consistent balance and harmony down there," and any of the products that Khloé Kardashian recently endorsed "to give your v-jay some TLC." And it's not just celebs to blame—the same can be said for those ambiguous washes and wipes in the drugstore that make you think the natural smell of your vagina is a problem that needs to be masked by the aroma of roses for any man to find you appealing. Enough.
Ob-gyns have a real problem with this commodification of the vagina, too. "Gwyneth Paltrow and the Kardashians have kept me really busy," says Lauren Streicher, M.D., associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. "But usually they're just promoting a product or themselves or all kinds of craziness—without any science."
"Yet, women are buying in and buying," she says. "I really look at it as abusive to women. They are taking advantage of women who are looking for real solutions for real problems."
Mache Seibel, M.D., author of The Estrogen Window, seconds: "Women have had healthy vaginas way longer than manufacturers have had products for sale to put into them."
Here, what you need to know about your vagina—and the world of "feminine care" products—to avoid falling into a marketing or celeb PR trap.
Your vagina is not the same as your vulva.
One of the biggest problems is the language that's being used to market products for the vagina, Dr. Streicher says. "What are commonly referred to as 'vaginal products' actually have nothing to do with vagina," she says.
Quick refresher: Your vagina is not the same as your vulva. "Anything on the outside is the vulva—your vagina is on the inside," she says.
So as for all those wipes or washes that are designed to be used on the outside of your body but promise to balance your internal vaginal pH? Don't fall for it. Yes, maintaining normal vaginal pH is extremely important to ensure that you have healthy, good bacteria down there to keep bacterial vaginosis at bay, Dr. Streicher explains. But products for your vulva won't do an ounce of good to help with that. (FYI: For women actually dealing with this issue and looking for an OTC solution, Dr. Streicher and Dr. Seibel both recommend RepHresh vaginal gel, which has been shown to actually normalize pH and can help women currently dealing with bacterial vaginosis.)
"It's highly confusing and misleading. It's kind of like, if you have bad breath, washing your face is not going to help," Dr. Streicher says. "It would be funny if it weren't so sad that they're having all these women buy these products that have absolutely nothing to do with their vaginal pH."
You don't need ANY special products to 'clean' down there.
"The vagina is a healthy 'self-cleaning' organ," says Dr. Seibel. "It requires a balance between 'good' and 'bad' bacteria to remain healthy, and throughout most of a woman's life it does a great job on its own."
"There should never be any need to clean the inside of the vagina under any circumstances," Dr. Streicher seconds. (The only way to do so is to douche, which is not recommended since it can lead to harmful repercussions like pelvic infections and even infertility, she says.) So that's finally settled.
As for cleaning the vulva (your external tissues), the truth of the matter is you don't need to do anything special. In fact, "the less you do, the better," Dr. Streicher says.
Dr. Streicher recommends using plain old water, or a gentle soap. As far as the other "feminine cleaning" products? "They're not only nonsense, but some of them can be quite irritating," she says. So save your money.
'Feminine' products are usually a trap.
"The labeling is very tricky and it's very important," Dr. Streicher says of shopping for down-there products. "There are a lot of vague terms like 'feminine,' because 'feminine' doesn't mean anything."
What it does mean is that these products are not tested. "These companies can make whatever claims they want. They can say it's going to clean your system, make you more cheerful, it's going to amp up your sex life—but it's not as if anyone's doing any testing. In fact, these are all under the umbrella of cosmetics—not medication."
"The only things that need to be tested are things that are actually put inside the vagina and that's why you have to look at the labeling very carefully," she says. "The minute they put 'vaginal' on there they actually have to test it's not going to cause vaginal harm."
"FDA' is another tricky word, Dr. Streicher says. "A lot of times people will see the words FDA and make assumptions. But you have to appreciate that if something is 'FDA cleared,' it does not mean it's FDA tested or FDA approved. It doesn't mean that it's been found to be actually helpful."
Bottom line? "Use products that are meant to go in the vagina and that are tested," Dr. Streicher says.
Your vagina probably doesn't smell bad at all.
"The distinction between perceived bad odor and actual bad odor is really important," Dr. Streicher says. "Women have been told the vagina is a dirty place and it smells bad and you've got to put on flowery fragrance and use douches and all this crazy stuff," Dr. Streicher says. "Sometimes it's because of the way they've been brought up, and sometimes it's because of a guy who doesn't like oral sex and shames women into feeling like she smells and there's something wrong with her." Don't let marketers profit off of a problem you don't actually have.
However, if you're worried you might be dealing with an actual bad odor versus a perceived one, there are three common causes, Dr. Streicher explains. The most likely cause is bacterial vaginosis, the most common vaginal infection caused by an alteration in healthy bacteria, she explains. The second? You might have a tampon left inside—"this happens more often than you think and causes a very strong, bad odor," she says. And the third? "You might have a little bit of urine on the vulva or in your underwear." Whatever the true cause, it likely "has nothing to do with hygiene." Skip the 'feminine wash' and go see your doc if you think you have a real issue.
Proceed with caution when it comes to probiotics.
Overall, docs agree probiotics can be a helpful way to stay healthy. "Probiotics can help keep the gut and vagina in balance, especially since our diets are filled with a lot of junk food and processed food that favors the overgrowth of "bad" bacteria," Dr. Seibel says.
However, that doesn't mean all probiotics will help your vagina specifically. "The problem is that there are a lot of products out there that are supposedly vaginal probiotics but have no clinical testing," Dr. Streicher says. "The concept of probiotics is not incorrect, but very often they don't have the right strain—lactobacillus—which contributes to vaginal health." Both Dr. Streicher and Dr. Seibel recommend RepHresh Pro-B, which has two strains of probiotic lactobacillus and has been clinically tested.
Still, Dr. Streicher says that despite the encouraging science, nobody really knows if the repopulation of normal bacteria will lead to fewer yeast infections or less bacterial vaginosis. "The concept is solid. And I am convinced that it doesn't hurt and it's not harmful, and there's some reason to believe that it may be helpful," Dr. Streicher says. "But I'm very specific. I don't tell my patients to just use probiotics. I tell them to use Pro-B because that's where we have some clinical information on it and it's the right strain."