Steaming, Detoxing, Deodorizing: Do Vaginas Really Require So Much Work?
Updated: Aug 2, 2019
Vaginas aren't dirty or full of toxins. But you wouldn't know it based on the vaginal 'wellness' trend.
In today’s blog post, we examine the many different methods trending for cleansing, detoxing, freshening, deodorizing, balancing, tightening, and strengthening the vaginal area. But is all that high maintenance really necessary? Many of us have more questions than answers: can powders, sprays, and washes used in the vaginal area cause yeast infections? Is there any science behind detoxing your vagina and/or womb with yoni beads? Is vaginal steaming safe? Should you put cucumbers, parsley, or ‘herbal tampons’ in your vagina to ‘cleanse’ it or ‘balance’ its pH?
Frankly, I'm just not so sure about any of this stuff. The vagina is self-regulating. Are companies that peddle all these products simply preying on cultural messaging and women's fears about being dirty, smelly, or sexually undesirable after a certain age, during menstruation, or after childbirth?
According to plastic surgeons, cosmetic vaginal surgery is the world's fastest-growing cosmetic procedure. What's going on here?
Please note: I’m purposely not delving into the realm of the spiritual or metaphysical here. Certain wellness procedures are more accurately referred to as sacred rituals as opposed to modern medical procedures, and I have no intent to judge or belittle. I’m simply examining the current consensus in the medical and scientific community on whether or not there’s any evidence to support the claims made about the many different potions, lotions, and tools to alter the vagina or cure diseases related to the female reproductive organs. Belief in the power of chakras, astrology, vibrations, crystals, moon cycles, etc. to alter the course of disease is most definitely a thing – but outside the scope of this blog post!
We're also going to use proper anatomy terms here -you won't find 'down there', 'vijay jay', 'hoo-hoo', 'nether-region', 'intimate area', 'lady bits', or any other slang term for female reproductive organs!
Background Info on Vaginal Health
Before we get started, we need to cover some basic background information about vaginal health. (While a woman's external genitalia is often referred to as 'vagina', in actuality, the vagina is on the inside, it's the tube of muscle that joins the cervix and the vaginal opening; the proper term for the exterior genitalia is 'vulva'. It's truly sad how many of us don't know much about our own bodies!) The first thing we need to cover is pH - you probably remember learning about pH in high school chemistry class. A substance's pH indicates how acidic, neutral, or basic the substance is. Side note for anyone with Jeopardy ambitions: 'pH' stands for 'power of hydrogen' (click here for a more in-depth discussion of what exactly pH is). A healthy vaginal pH is somewhere between 3.8 to 4.5 (so it's somewhat acidic), and if you’re healthy, it will regulate itself and stay in this range. This level of acidity actually protects you from infection (more on that later). According to gynecologist Dr. Lauren Streicher, MD, factors that can cause a change in vaginal pH include (but are not limited to):
Menstruation: Blood has a pH of 7.4, so during your period, vaginal pH becomes elevated.
Tampons: Since they retain the fluids that cause pH to increase.
Intercourse: The pH of semen is 7.1 to 8.
Douching and cleansers: Any vaginal infusion of water or other fluids can affect vaginal pH. Fragrances and perfumes can also irritate the vagina. Soaps usually have a pH level of 9-10.
Menopause or pregnancy: These are times where hormones fluctuate, which is associated with elevated pH.
Use of antibiotics
Second thing we need to cover is that not all bacteria are bad guys. A healthy vagina keeps out the 'bad guys' with two 'good' types of bacteria. Lactobacilli and corynebacterium are the guardians, and they generally do a good job of eating up unwanted guests like extra yeast and 'bad' bacteria. But when a woman’s vaginal pH is out of whack, she is more prone to the overgrowth of yeast and bacterial vaginosis.
Bacterial vaginosis (BV), while very treatable, is no joke: Women affected have a higher risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like gonorrhea and chlamydia, acquiring and transmitting HIV, and having pelvic inflammatory disease (which can lead to infertility) and other vaginal and uterine infections. During pregnancy, BV gives a woman a greater chance of having a preterm birth or passing infections to her baby, both of which can lead to lifelong problems for the baby.
But BV and yeast infection are not the only games in town; these are just the two most common. There are other types of infection and sexually transmitted diseases that affect the vagina such as trichomoniasis, viral vaginitis, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and vulvodynia. See your doctor if you suspect something's up!
Baby Powder/Body Powder and Infection
By now, we’re all familiar with the lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson alleging that their talc baby powder caused ovarian cancer for women using it in the vaginal area. In its natural form, some talc contains asbestos, a substance known to cause cancers in and around the lungs when inhaled. It has been suggested that talcum powder might cause cancer in the ovaries if the powder particles (applied to the genital area or on sanitary napkins, diaphragms, or condoms) were to travel through the vagina, uterus, and fallopian tubes to the ovary.
According to the American Cancer Society, the evidence regarding ovarian cancer and talc powder is mixed. Regardless, Johnson & Johnson was ordered in 2018 to pay $4.69 billion to 22 women and their families who claimed that asbestos in the company’s talcum powder products caused them to develop ovarian cancer. And the drama isn’t over yet: the company is now facing more than 9,000 plaintiffs in cases involving its body powders that contain talc. But besides the talc and cancer question, are there other concerns about using baby powders or body powders in the vaginal area?
Powders do a great job of controlling moisture. But if they're needed for vaginal odor control, this could be a sign of a more serious issue, like an infection. And, according to obstetrician-gynaecologist Dr Charles Rockhead, all powders can affect the pH level of the vagina, moving it from an acidic to an alkaline state, and making women prone to infections such as yeast and bacterial vaginosis. "The vagina cleans itself, so anything else you do to it is likely to create problems," he said. Furthermore, powders often contain fragrance/perfume, which can also be problematic for pH level and irritate sensitive skin.
But what about using powder on babies? Is all this concern about baby powder just helicopter parents being paranoid? Far from it. Way back in 1981, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended against the use of talc powders due to concerns about aspiration of powder into babies' lungs, and stated that 'the true incidence of baby powder inhalation is grossly underestimated'. What about cornstarch-containing alternatives to traditional baby powder? Are they safe for baby? Cornstarch powder, with its larger particles, is not as easily inhaled as talc powder. Dr. David Soma, a Mayo Clinic Children’s Hospital pediatrician, said “The talc
powder is more concerning than cornstarch based powder, but the big take home message is that we don’t recommend powders.” He explained that any inhalable powder could pose health concerns, especially for babies at risk of respiratory problems, such as premature babies, babies with congenital heart disease, and babies who’ve had RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus) or frequent respiratory illnesses. Theoretically, cornstarch can also worsen rashes caused by a yeast infection because it provides a food source for the yeast that causes the rash or infection. I couldn't find a whole lot of information on this, but it certainly sounds plausible. However, one study concluded that 'cornstarch and talc powders do not enhance the growth of yeasts on human skin and do provide protection against frictional injury'.
Yoni Beads and Jade Eggs
If you Google 'history of Yoni eggs', the first thing you'll see is the following: 'Smooth, semi-precious stones are harvested from the womb of the earth and carved into the shape of eggs, brimming with unique crystal energy.' With further searching, you'll come across lots of talk about the 'sacred womb'. I won't be analyzing metaphysical, spiritual, or religious benefit; that's outside the scope of this article. There is no proving or disproving whether or not a woman receives these kinds of benefits from a yoni egg. However, I found the next statement intriguing: 'The tradition of exercising the pelvic
and vaginal floor muscles with polished stone eggs has been around for thousands of years.' I remember being advised by my own doctor to make sure to remember to do my Kegel exercise to strengthen my pelvic floor muscles after pregnancy and childbirth. So do they help with that? I also found bloggers suggesting yoni beads could help with vaginal atrophy, dryness and prolapse. Really? Alright, now I'm listening.
But I'm listening with a healthy does of skepticism. Nina Shapiro writes in a recent Forbes article, "In the past decade, the notion of sexual health, especially women's sexual health, has entered the lucrative wellness industry, which is draining our pockets annually to the tune of $3.7 trillion dollars". Gwyneth Paltrow sought a piece of that wellness pie with her $66 jade yoni eggs. In 2018,
ten prosecutors in California settled a suit against the Goop company for $145,000, stating that the company made claims about the vaginal jade egg that had no scientific backing, such as hormonal balance, menstrual regulation, and bladder control. (Did you buy one? The full price of the $66 Jade Egg, the $55 Rose Quartz Egg, and and also a $22 Inner Judge Flower Essence Blend essential oil that claimed to fight depression, will be refunded if you bought them between January 12, 2017 and August 31, 2017.) The court judgement also includes new rules stopping Goop from making "any claims regarding the efficacy or effects of any of its products without possessing competent and reliable scientific evidence that substantiates the claims."
Does the practice of using Yoni eggs really go back thousands of years? After all, across the internet, I saw variations of the following: 'The long history of Yoni egg dates back from Ancient China where it was a sacred and secret kept skill a knowledge only available to members of the royal family. Even back then the eggs were used for the amazing health benefits for both body and soul.' In a study published in the journal Female Pelvic Medicine and Reconstructive Surgery, over 5,000 jade objects in four major Chinese art and archeology databases found no vaginal eggs. There was no evidence that vaginal jade eggs were used for sexual health in ancient Chinese cultures. While it's definitely the case that 'ancient wisdom' is often unfairly dismissed as primitive or unscientific as compared to modern practices, it seems that Yoni eggs aren't 'ancient Chinese wisdom' at all.
Apparently, Yoni eggs are not the only device that can be put in the vagina to assist with pelvic floor strengthening. Dr. Jen Gunter, a gynocologist who has no patience for Gwyneth Paltrow, suggests that women who want to use a device to help with Kegel exercises use weights made with medical
grade silicone or plastic and not wear them for long periods of time. (I know there's going to be
strong objection to putting synthetic plastic or silicone in there, but remember that many sex toys on the market are made of similar materials).
The Mayo Clinic suggests that those who are having trouble doing Kegel exercises use vaginal weighted cones or biofeedback. To use a vaginal cone, you insert it into your vagina and use pelvic muscle contractions to hold it in place during your daily activities. During a biofeedback session, your doctor or other health care provider inserts a pressure sensor into your vagina or rectum. As you relax and contract your pelvic floor muscles, a monitor will measure and display your pelvic floor activity.
In conclusion, it sounds like there's some validity to using a device like a Yoni egg to strengthen the pelvic floor, but Gwyneth Paltrow (and many other Yoni egg sales persons) make medical claims that are either unverifiable or patently false. As far as spiritual benefit and claims that the eggs help you 'get in touch with your yoni, which translates to sacred space, where many women access their wisdom, power, and intuition'? This is not something that can be proven true or false. But Dr. Gunter makes the following valid point: 'The 'womb' (or uterus) and the vagina are separate structures, and are not one in the same. Terminology aside, the vulva, vagina, cervix, and uterus are not intuition repositories and neither are they sources of “power” or “wisdom.” In fact, I find that assertion insulting. Do you really mean a woman who does not have a uterus is less effective? Is a woman without a vagina less intelligent? Is a woman who had a vulvectomy due to cancer less creative?
Dr. Gunter also takes issue with the Goop founder's assertion that ' queens and concubines used them to stay in shape for emperors.' Nothing says female empowerment more than that, right?
This struck me in particular. Even though it's often portrayed as woman-centered empowerment, I've always seen much of the 'vaginal maintenance' industry as inherently misogynist and focused on male pleasure and visual stimulation.
Proponents claim that vaginal steaming cures a wide variety of ailments, including menstrual cramps, vaginal and urinary infections, cysts, hemorrhoids, and infertility, aids in circulation, and cleanses the vulva and uterus. In a nutshell, the treatment involves first getting nude and then sitting for 20 to 45 minutes on an open-seated chair over a boiling pot of usually herbal-infused water. There is no consensus on where the practice started; candidates include Central and South America, ancient Greece, and ancient Korea. You'll often see phrases like 'powerful ancient secret' and 'ancient wisdom' used to describe both yoni beads and vaginal steaming and statements like 'the reasons these practices became lost in the Western World could be related to the current lack of respect for the old in the modern world and a less holistic approach to wellness'.
Do you remember taking a philosophy, logic, or argument class in college? You may remember the term 'logical fallacy'. 'Appeal to tradition/appeal to ancient wisdom' (or argumentum ad antiquitatem in Latin) is a logical fallacy often used when when trying to justify something which can't be defended on actual, provable merits. It goes something like this: 'It is old or long-used, so it must better than this new-fangled stuff'. Sticking with something that works isn't a problem; insisting on a certain way of doing things simply because it's traditional or old is a problem and, in a logical argument, it is a fallacy. (Conversely, it's also true that we cannot assume, without further question, that an old object or practice is NOT valuable simply because it is old.)
But is vaginal steaming really an ancient practice? Jen Burd writes on Skeptoid that "I have not found any evidence to back up the claim that vaginal steaming originated in ancient Korea, or even in Korea. The phrase "chai-yok" means nothing in Korean. "Chai" mean "tea" in Hindi. The closest approximation in Korean is "cha-yak," or "tea-medicine," which is apparently an unfamiliar phrase to native Korean speakers. Neither eastern nor western medical journals contained references to the practice." Vaginal steaming may have originated among Korean American health spas in LA, but has apparently never been popular in Korea.
'Hey, gals. Ever worry about your yoni, that nasty, carcinogen-ridden creature that lives between your legs? I know I do. After all, that thing must be loaded with toxins. Well, I have good news. For only $75 you can steam your troubles away, along with those pesky toxins.' Don't have time to go to the spa and your vagina is overflowing with radioactive sludge now? Purchase a home kit for $150. Or make your toilet into an impromptu health and relaxation station for the price a few varieties of herbs and a scalded butt cheek or two.
All roads lead back not to Ancient Korea but to Niki Han Schwarz. Mrs. Schwartz wrote an article in the Los Angeles Times in 2010 claiming that vaginal steaming was an ancient Korean practice she had learned about from visiting spas in Koreatown. All subsequent articles about vaginal steaming mainly use variations of Schwarz's quotes (Schwarz and her husband, orthopedic surgeon Charles Schwarz, own a Santa Monica spa that offers the treatment).
A 2011 World Health Organization study of 4,000 women in Tete, Mozambique; KwaZulu-Natal,
South Africa; Yogyakarta, Indonesia; and Chonburi, Thailand found that in two African locations, 37–38% of women said they practiced it to enhance "male sexual pleasure"; in the two Asian ones, 0% gave that answer. Conversely, of the Asian women 26% reported their "feminine identity" was a reason, compared to 0% of the African women.
In a paper for Culture, Health & Sexuality, Tycho Vandenburg and Virginia Braun argue that the rhetoric of vaginal steaming actually more closely mirrors sexist WESTERN discourse about the supposed inherent dirtiness of the female body as opposed to any 'ancient wisdom', and that its claims of improved fertility and sexual pleasure continue the view that the female body exists for male sexual pleasure and childbearing, and deteriorates with age. The article further asks whether vaginal steaming and its associated advertising propagates beliefs that women's bodies are inherently dirty, deficient, or disgusting. The authors conclude that vaginal steaming is one of many practices that fit "neoliberal, postfeminist and healthist ideologies, colliding with pervasive sociocultural understandings of the female reproductive body both as core of womanhood and as 'embodied pathology'".
But...does it work? Does it deliver any of the myriad benefits its proponents claim? There is no evidence to support most of the claims, but some are difficult to evaluate. Putting steam near any part of the body may temporarily dilate blood vessels and increase circulation in that area, and for some people, that can feel good. Some even claim it causes orgasm!
So, V-steaming seems similar to a sauna, except that it is focused on one portion of your body (and there are usually herbs in vaginal steaming). There is currently no scientific evidence of any longer-term biologic or physiologic benefits of steam on the body. But, things like as stress, pain, orgasms, digestive problems and fertility all can have varying degrees of psychological and emotional components. So something that makes you feel better could theoretically help reduce stress and thus improve any stress-related health problems. Many benefits of V-steaming may be a placebo or effect, rather than any actual physical mechanism. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. “Herbal steams could have some relaxing effects and some beneficial superficial effects on the skin, just like a sauna or a facial steam would, Dr. Camilo Gonima, a practicing obstetrician and gynecologist in San Antonio, Texas, said. “Other than any possible involvement stress might have on these issues, I don't see any basis for any significant effects on fertility or menstrual cycles.”
"That the vagina needs cleaning at all is a common misconception in America as well as the rest of the world. The vagina is a mucus membrane, more like a nostril or an eyeball than an armpit. And like a nostril or an eyeball, you shouldn't clean it out with soap, a douche, herbs, or household detergents. It is a self-cleaning organ."- Jen Burd
We haven't talked much about the herbs involved in a vaginal steam like mugwort, basil, calendula, oregano, marshmallow root, wormwood, and rosemary. No doubt herbal remedies can be very powerful. Ingesting the herbs via a tea or capsule form is one thing, but there is little chance herbal steam would penetrate vaginal tissues, let alone reach the uterus, or penetrate into the bloodstream to regulate hormones and improve fertility. There are, in fact, peer-reviewed studies indicate that some of the herbs used in both vaginal steaming and herbal tampons do have beneficial medical properties, but this is from intravenous and/or oral use of the herb, not from vaginal steaming or vaginal insertion.
Herbal tampons (or 'womb pearls') are designed to be inserted into the vagina to “cleanse the womb and return it to a balanced state". One company even claims its herbal tampons treat pelvic inflammatory disease, sexually transmitted infections, postpartum hemorrhage, uterine polyps, and ovarian cysts. The tampons contain a mix of perfumed herbs such as Mothersworth, Angelica, Borneol, Rhizoma and Cnidium monnieri.
But from a scientific standpoint, how exactly would these herbs ever make it to the womb? The womb is separated from your vagina (and the outside world) by the cervix. There is a hole in the center of your cervix, called the os, that opens naturally to release the contents of your uterus during labor and (to a lesser degree) during menstruation. When closed, it keeps your uterus off limits to things you place in your vagina—tampons, penises, sex toys...and herbal tampons. Sellers of herbal tampons give no explanation about how the herbs, once placed in your vagina, manage to open the cervical os, penetrate the uterus, and cause toxins, fibroids, and excess endometrium to exit your body.
But faithful users of these products claim to have had much 'toxic discharge' leave their bodies - and they've got pictures to prove it! What is that stuff? Are our reproductive organs really full of toxic sludge that only an herbal tampon can rid us of? Turns out, those pics are actually a bad sign. A really bad sign. Keep reading.
"What happens when you leave something in a vagina for 3 days is that anaerobic (not good) bacteria grow. These mesh “pearls” will just be a nidus for infection. The vagina makes excess discharge when there is A) irritation B) infection C) an absence of good bacteria. This discharge isn’t some toxic swill that the vagina was hiding that only the “pearls” could release, it’s a sign that these “pearls” are damaging." Gynecologist Dr. Jen Gunter
But aren't products like this female empowerment? Woman-centered? Life-giving? Honoring the sacred feminine? Not quite. Caroline Weinberg writes, "Whatever success these companies have had can be attributed to the factors they implicitly prey on: a combination of fear, miseducation, and lack of access to health care, as well as a heavy dose of pandering to ideas of female strength and purity. Womb detox enters the scene under the guise of empowering “wombmen” to protect and restore the “foundation (of their) stability.” It reduces women to their wombs, positioning the uterus as the biological equivalent of a Captain Planet ring—the source of our power and how we interact with the world. The deliberate use of the word “womb,” which evokes images of motherhood and femininity, rather than the word clinical word “uterus,” is a clever PR trick. Lifting the uterus up in importance with the heart and brain, detox companies urge women to purge all of the emotional grief and trauma from their wombs, the conduit for “bringing souls into this world.” In reality, women who use these products in their vaginas are either throwing their money away or risking very real damage to their reproductive health. Your womb naturally purges itself via the menstrual cycle. There are no 'emotions and toxins' stuck in your uterus."
Vegetables (Cucumbers and Parsley) Vaginal Inserts
In late 2017, the term “vaginal cucumber cleanse” increased in search interest on Google by 3,450 percent. A video of a woman describing how to use a peeled cucumber as a vaginal cleanse went
viral (the cucumber is touted as a natural odor suppressant, among other things)More recently, an article in women's magazine Maire Claire advised putting parsley directly into the vagina (no, I'm not making this up) to stimulate or increase menstrual flow. Marie Claire said: “Parsley can help to soften the cervix and level out hormonal imbalances that could be delaying your cycle, helping your period come faster. If you’re struggling to find a dish based on parsley, don’t panic – the most effective forms are said to be parsley tea and parsley vaginal inserts.” I'd love to share the article with you, but Marie Clare has now taken the article down, calling it 'misguided'.
It's true that parsley is considered an emmenagogue (meaning it can induce menstruation and uterine contractions), and is used in tea form or in capsules. But its use as a direct vaginal insert has been associated with at least one death. A 34-year-old woman died in Argentina from trying to induce a miscarriage with parsley shortly after the nation's Senate rejected a monumental abortion bill. Doctors say that the woman was admitted to hospital on Sunday after inserting parsley into her vagina, a common but dangerous at-home abortion treatment that stimulates blood flow in the uterus and can lead to massive internal bleeding and convulsions. She went into septic shock and when doctors tried to treat her, they found a load of parsley stuck in her uterus.
Personally, I've always felt that the 'vaginal maintenance industry', whether it's peddling the more mainstream Summer's Eve douches, sprays, and wipes or 'all-natural' yoni eggs, vaginal steaming, and herbal tampons, is at its core misogynist, based on a misguided belief held throughout history that women are dirty and unclean during menstruation, and that there is something inherently dirty, smelly, toxic, or shameful about women's reproductive organs that must be remedied or expelled.
A closer examination of the newer vaginal maintenance products reveals that there's no evidence behind most of the claims made about them. However, it is certainly the case that some ailments have a psychological component (such as sexual disfunction), and there may be some sort of spiritual benefit to these products. I think the premise behind them is faulty, however - I'm wistfully reminded of Billy Joel's ballad "I Love You Just the Way You Are".