Vaginal Hygiene Products Maybe Doing More Harm To You Than Good

A recent survey, consisting of 1,435 respondents from Canada, explored a possible association between feminine hygiene products and vaginal infection. "Vaginal health and hygiene practices and product use in Canada: a national cross-sectional survey" was published in the journal BMC Women's Health on March 23.

"While research has shown douching can have negative impacts on vaginal health, little was known about the dozens of other products out there," said lead author Kieran O'Doherty, a professor of psychology at the University of Guelph in Canada.

Women who used gel sanitizers were 8 times more likely to have a yeast infection and 20 times more likely to have a bacterial infection. Those who used feminine washes, gels or wipes were 2 and a half times more likely to have a urinary tract infection. 

While the study did not identify whether the products were causing infections or the products were used to heal the infections, O'Doherty stated the correlations should be explored in a more detailed study. 

Vaginal hygiene products are actually not necessary according to most health experts. 

"So moisturizers, anti-itch creams, wipes, douching, waxing as well as shaving, in particular, I encourage women just to leave things alone down there," said Dr. Chelsea Elwood from BC Women's Hospital and Health Centre in Canada.

"Despite a lack of credible information about the impact of these behaviors on women’s health, the use of commercially manufactured and homemade products for vaginal/genital health and hygiene is common," the new study also stated.

Elwood highlights the marketing of these products as "clean and fresh" essentials, suggesting that women are unclean or sexually undesirable if they don't use them. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported that women in the United States spend over 2 billion dollars per year on feminine hygiene products.

So how do we keep clean and eliminate vaginal smells? The question arises often, especially with young women who may feel embarrassed to talk about it.

Your vagina uses a natural self-cleansing mechanism with a little help from "good bacteria." The pH range of a healthy vagina is anywhere from 3.5 to 4.5, and vaginal cleaners may actually disrupt these levels sometimes. Outer parts such as the vulva and labia can be washed with nothing more than water and mild soap.

"The inner vagina does not need to be washed," said Dr. Maureen Whelihan, an OB-GYN at the Center for Sexual Health & Education in Florida. She added that some of these products can also "dilute" the good bacteria.

According to O'Doherty, abnormal vaginal microbiome is related to health problems like pelvic inflammatory disease, cervical cancer, reduced fertility, ectopic and pre-term pregnancies, and bacterial and sexually transmitted infections.

As for the smell, every woman's vagina has its own natural scent (which can be neutral or slightly musty due to sweat) which is completely normal. Planned Parenthood advises against using scented or perfumed products as they may lead to vaginitis. However, if you sense an odor that is fishy or unusually pungent (or can be smelled from a distance), you may need to visit the gynecologist as it may be a sign of an infection.