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When I was shopping with my friend for a holiday a while back, she slipped an item into her basket that instilled visceral fear within me: a bottle of Femfresh, Chamomile scented. "What are you doing with that?" I interrogated, and her reply was exactly what I worried it would be: "cleaning my vagina so I’m not all dischargey this weekend." Dildos
Intimate washes have been knocking about for decades, from Femfresh to Vagisil, OYO, Wype, WooWoo — the list goes on. You can even add a bottle of intimate wash (sometimes called feminine wash) to your basket on fast fashion websites these days. While most of these brands claim to offer "care" to your "intimate" areas, there’s nothing intimate or caring about them. These washes and cleansers can actually cause all sorts of issues for our bodies. The way Florence Schechter, biochemist, founder of The Vagina Museum and author of V: An Empowering Celebration of the Vulva and Vagina puts it, is "people sell a lot of shit and and it’s not good for your vulva."
The truth is, intimate washes are bad for people with vaginas’ reproductive areas, especially the vagina (as in, the vaginal canal) itself. Though there are a few bad eggs on the intimate care shelves specifically (incorrectly) telling you to wash your vagina, most of them are made for the vulva. But Schechter tells Mashable that "people don’t always understand the difference between the vulva and the vagina. People call their vulva their vagina, and might say, ‘oh, I wash my vagina with this’ and it’s actually their vulva. Companies who sell intimate washes are aware of this misinterpretation but they don’t do anything to pre-empt it."
If you’re a bit confused, the vulva is the external part of your genitals (we can stop calling it an "intimate area now" because it’s giving me the ick), the entrance to the vagina, if you will. It includes the ‘lips’ surrounding the vagina (labia minora and labia majora) and the clitoris. ‘Vagina’ only refers to the actual hole, the one where blood comes from when menstruating, where tampons or fingers or willies might go.
You should absolutely not put products into your vagina to clean it. When a person with a vagina washes said vagina, they can disrupt their natural pH and their vaginal flora — the little ecosystem of microbes that keep you healthy that live inside your vagina. Do this, and you’ll be dealing with some serious irritation soon, or conditions such as bacterial vaginosis (causing grey discharge, burning when you wee and a fishy odour) or a yeast infection aka thrush. Yeast infections cause itching, soreness, and burning on your vulva. I’ve had thrush. And while it’s very common and easy to treat, trust me, you don’t want it.
A 2018 study found that participants who reported using feminine washes and gels had almost 3.5 times higher odds of reporting bacterial vaginosis and almost 2.5 times higher odds of reporting a urinary tract infection (UTI). In extreme circumstances, washing your vagina while you have an STI, or douching it, can increase the risk of pelvic inflammatory disease.
Cleaning your vagina is also wholly unnecessary, as, according to gynaecologist and author of The Vagina Bible Dr. Jen Gunter, vaginas have the power of self-cleaning. She tells Mashable, "The vagina has an intricate ecosystem of microbes that keep the vagina clean and protected on its own. In fact, multiple studies show that intervening with other types of vaginal cleaning can damage the vagina’s self-cleaning mechanism."
Gunter says that the confusing language attached to so many of these products is misleading, such as confusing the vulva with the vagina or calling all the parts of the female genitals ‘vagina’ or claiming that while the vagina is self cleaning, it needs a bit of help (yes, one feminine wash company has actually said this in the past). "This could easily lead someone to think these products can help maintain an acidic vaginal pH. This is not possible because the vaginal PH is controlled by the microbes in your vagina’s ecosystem."
The craziest part about my pal (and the many people with vaginas who have been tricked into buying intimate washes just like her) is discharge means your vagina is having a good clean-up. A dischargey vagina that looks, smells, and empties itself like a vagina is, funnily enough, a vagina in working order. You want to see discharge in your pants. As Schechter puts it, "Vaginas are self-cleaning. I usually describe it as being similar to eyes. You would never use any special cleaning solutions on your eyes unless your doctor specifically told you to. You should not be washing the inside of your vagina. It doesn't need it. Your body does it for you."
She adds that the only time you should apply anything to your vagina is at the direction of a doctor. "There are some situations where applying a solution to the vagina might be necessary, like if you have an infection or you’ve had a surgically created vagina that doesn’t clean itself" but you should never make that decision outside of a doctor’s support. So, bothering with these products is a waste of your time and money at best and a fast route to infections and other health problems at worst. And even if you are using them on your vulva as these companies intend, there are some interesting (read: painful) side effects. A lot of intimate washes are packed with fragrances and soaps that can still disrupt your pH balance from outside of the vagina, and can also irritate the skin on your vulva.
Sometimes we get extra stuff clinging to our vulvas we might want to clean up like dry blood from periods, semen from sex, or mud from a recent session of naked mud wrestling— whatever you’re into. In those cases, plain old warm water and your own hand should do the trick.
So if intimate washes are so bad for us, how did we get here? How did we end up with 40 percent of women using them, thinking they are necessary? A lot of people who use these washes believe their vagina shouldn’t smell of anything other than "clean" or perhaps one of the many floral fragrances on offer in the haunted vaginal cleansing section of the shower aisle. Somewhere along the way, people with vaginas have been convinced that the vagina’s natural form is somehow gross.
There’s also the discharge aspect, the one that got my friend buying vaginal cleansers for her holiday. A fear or embarrassment around discharge is prevalent in people with vaginas and a lot of people are misled to believe discharge is a bad thing. Back in 2016, there was even a #cleanpantschallenge circulating twitter, where mostly women snapped pictures of their knickers at the end of the day to show how clean they were.
But a lack of discharge would be more cause for alarm than heavy discharge. Schechter explains that "when our vaginas are self-cleaning, they need to get rid of the stuff that it's trying to clean out. That’s what discharge is. If you didn’t have discharge, that would be very strange." She continues: "And actually it's something that you want. Discharge changes with changes in your cycle and shows what’s going on in our bodies. Discharge can change to become foul smelling or to be like cottage cheese or turn green and other changes. That's when you can go to the doctor and you might have a type of infection. Your discharge is a good thing because it's a marker of your health."
Schechter says all this misinformation and weird ideas about what a vagina should be is, of course, down to the patriarchy. "It plays into this idea that vulva is disgusting and unnatural smells are disgusting, and you should be covering up that natural smell with something that is artificial. It’s a form of body shaming."
The patriarchy, of course, has a lot to answer for as well, with all types of vaginal shame rooted in a desire to control women and their bodies. Schechter says "The patriarchy specifically likes to shame our bodies because when we're ashamed of ourselves, it makes it very difficult for us to rise up against our oppression." It’s also in capitalism’s best interest for us to not like our vaginas. That way, we spend a whole lot of money trying to ‘fix’ it. As Gunter says, "The feminine hygiene industry takes the oldest patriarchal commandment — that the vagina is inherently dirty, and uses this to sell useless or even harmful products to women."
She adds that the history of vulva control is shrouded in racism. "In the 19th century when slavery was becoming banned, people wanted to continue justifying harm to Black people, and we ended up with scientific racism." This is the belief that scientific evidence exists to justify racism, and one of the many examples of this was to shame their idea of what a Black women’s vulva looked and smelled like, and upholding white women’s as the ideal — small, delicate, clean, and unscented. "They said that Black women had these bulbous, dirty, massive and unruly vulvas and white women had clean, tiny and inoffensive vulvas." This is of course untrue, but was one of many ways of keeping control over Black people. Now we’re in the 21st century, those ideas are still there — just presenting more subtly. The vulva shame we still experience daily is derived from the patriarchal and racist ideas instilled back then.
Schechter says: "I wish I could tell every single person with a vulva on this planet that the vast majority of people are just happy that you are allowing them access to your vulva and they don't care how it smells. Most people actually love the smell. And anyone who does think the smell is disgusting, should not be allowed anywhere in your body because they're gross and horrible and you should be doing better than that."
Pocket Pussy Much like skincare, shops have always been stocked with products we don’t actually need. Just because a product exists, doesn’t mean it should be part of our care routine. Leave the intimate washes on the shelves where they can expire. They mess up your pH, cause all sorts of problems with your vagina and vulva, and if you needed another reason, they’re riddled in racism and patriarchy. Not a fan.