Why vagina cleaning fads are unnecessary and harmful

December 13, 2017 by Deborah Bateson, The Conversation
No, you don’t need to douche yourself with a cucumber. Or anything for that matter. Credit: www.shutterstock.com

A staggering variety of so-called feminine hygiene products seek to help with "vaginal odour" and discharge, and "keep you fresh". From deodorants to cucumber cleanses, scented "panty liners", and the newest fad "vaginal steaming". These products actively promote the view that women's vaginas should be discharge-free and either have no smell at all or exude the whiff of rose petals or vanilla pods.

Many women perceive vaginal as undesirable and unnatural rather than physiological and normal. Data suggest around half of all women use "panty liners" to absorb discharge with up to 30% using them on a daily basis. While Australian women are generally not big fans of "douching", a French term for washing out the using a liquid spray, it's important to understand why cleaning the vagina is not recommended.

What is vaginal discharge and why is it important?

The vagina is self-cleaning, and vaginal discharge plays an important role in keeping the vagina healthy. From puberty, when oestrogen kicks in, the vagina becomes colonised with healthy bacteria from the Lactobacillus group which produce lactic acid.

This finely balanced vaginal ecosystem is referred to as the vaginal microbiome and the resulting acidity of the vagina provides protection against sexually transmissible infections.

Healthy vaginal discharge is made up of fluid from the vaginal walls, mucus from the cervix as well as the lactobacilli, and because the vaginal environment is hormonally influenced, variation in the amount of discharge throughout the month is to be expected and completely normal.

As well as providing a protective environment, vaginal discharge provides natural lubrication with between one and 4mls of fluid produced every 24 hours. Healthy vaginal discharge has a characteristic smell – and in some women this can become stronger because of the large number of sweat glands in the hair-bearing pubic area. So while washing inside the vagina is not recommended, it's important to keep the outer skin clean.

Disruption of the healthy vaginal environment

Anything put in the vagina can potentially disrupt the vaginal environment and its balanced vaginal flora, including tampons, penises, condoms, semen, fingers and hygienic sex toys. Disruption in these cases is almost always temporary and the vagina quickly restores itself.

But this may not be so in the case of vaginal cleansing products, or repeated douching. Homemade douches usually contain water and vinegar and commercial products contain antiseptics and fragrances that can reduce the lactobacilli and reduce the protective effect of the discharge.

So what about the latest "v-treatment", vaginal steaming? To quote a version promoted on Gwyneth Paltrow's site GOOP:

"you sit on what is essentially a mini-throne, and a combination of infrared and mugwort steam cleanses your uterus, et al. It is an energetic release—not just a steam douche—that balances female hormone levels."

Apart from the risk of burning and scalding, there are many other reasons not to v-steam. Not only will steam have a drying effect on the vagina, it's likely to disrupt the and reduce the body's natural barrier against infections.

While no steam may actually reach the uterus, blowing hot herbal fumes into this important organ has no benefits and could in fact do harm. There would certainly be no effect of this pseudo-scientific treatment on female hormone levels.

When to seek medical advice

While vaginal discharge is certainly normal, if you experience a significant change in the volume, colour or odour of discharge, you should seek medical advice.

A change in vaginal discharge can be a sign of infection, although the most bacterial STIs, including chlamydia and gonorrhoea, usually do not cause any change in discharge.

More common causes are candida (vaginal thrush) or (BV) which occur when the vaginal flora becomes over-colonised with either yeast (candida) or other vaginal bacteria. Bacterial vaginosis is a condition in which the vagina is unable to return to its normal state and becomes more alkaline. The alkalinity of menstrual blood can be associated with bacterial vaginosis.

The lactobacilli are reduced and replaced with other vaginal bacteria which can be associated with an increased greenish-greyish discharge and an unpleasant odour. Although the condition is not thought to be harmful, for women living with bacterial vaginosis, having a persistent and malodorous discharge can be debilitating and they should see their doctor to discuss how to manage the condition.

As doctors working in sexual health we are keen to help women work out what is normal and what is not. It's crucial to reject practices that masquerade as clinical treatments but have no base in evidence. Vaginal discharge is healthy and plays an important role in the defence against infection. Trying to eliminate it makes no sense and is in fact harmful.

Explore further: Women's wellness: vaginal yeast infections

Related Stories

Women's wellness: vaginal yeast infections

November 25, 2016
A vaginal yeast infection is a fungal infection that causes irritation, discharge and intense itchiness of the vagina and the vulva - the tissues at the vaginal opening. It's a type of vaginitis, or inflammation of the vagina. ...

What is normal vaginal discharge and what's not?

October 11, 2016
V-juice, vovey-goo, vu-dew… there are many ways to describe the natural fluid that comes out of the vagina. It varies in consistency, texture, smell, taste and volume in the same woman from day to day, week to week, month ...

Certain vaginal bacteria may be linked with increased risk of chlamydia

September 25, 2017
The presence of specific types of vaginal bacteria may be associated with an increased risk for chlamydia infection, finds a small, but well powered study published online in Sexually Transmitted Infections.

Vaginal bacteria alter sexual transmission of Zika and herpes simplex virus-2

June 5, 2017
Bacteria in the vagina can inhibit sexually transmitted Zika virus and herpes simplex virus-2 in women, according to a new study from The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. The findings were discussed at the ...

High risk sex behaviors impact women's health

November 6, 2017
High-risk sexual behavior like sex work may be biologically linked to an increased risk of acquiring human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), new research at McMaster University ...

New research shows vaginal bacteria vary among healthy women, need customized treatment

July 11, 2007
Silence may impact women’s health since few women or their doctors are comfortable talking about vaginal health openly. This hesitation, combined with a limited understanding of the differences between women, can lead to ...

Recommended for you

New technology can keep an eye on babies' movements in the womb

July 19, 2018
A new system for monitoring fetal movements in the womb, developed by Imperial researchers, could make keeping an eye on high-risk pregnancies easier.

Why baby's sex may influence risk of pregnancy-related complicatations

July 12, 2018
The sex of a baby controls the level of small molecules known as metabolites in the pregnant mother's blood, which may explain why risks of some diseases in pregnancy vary depending whether the mother is carrying a boy or ...

Study analyzes opioid overdose risk during and after pregnancy among Massachusetts women

July 11, 2018
A study of women giving birth in Massachusetts found a higher level of opioid use disorder than have studies conducted in other states. In a paper published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, the research team—consisting ...

High blood pressure in pregnancy linked to mother's heart function

July 9, 2018
Pregnant women who develop high blood pressure, or have small babies, may have hearts that pump less blood with each beat.

What you eat while pregnant may affect your baby's gut

July 4, 2018
A mother's diet during pregnancy may have an effect on the composition of her baby's gut microbiome—the community of bacteria living in the gut—and the effect may vary by delivery mode, according to study published in ...

New study reveals time and day women are most likely to give birth

June 15, 2018
A new study has found that the time and day that women give birth can vary significantly depending on how labour starts and the mode of giving birth.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.