AAs someone who suffers from chronic hives and has a hormone-related health issue, I have been on a mission to eliminate dangerous chemicals from my hygiene regimen. Phasing out toxic chemicals from my hair and beauty routine was quite simple, as “clean beauty” products abound in the makeup aisle these days. But recently, I started evaluating another product category that left me with more questions than answers: the world says “feminine hygiene.”
This wide range of products marketed to women includes everything from menstrual products like pads and tampons to cosmetic products aimed at reducing vaginal odor, like scented wipes, powders and douches. This latter category can still be found on drugstore shelves, even though researchers have documented the adverse health effects of using vaginal cleansing products since the 1980s.
Specifically, there has been a lot of talk about the health risks associated with douching. But a growing body of research has also begun examining the effects of vaginal wipes and washes — which, unlike douches, are designed to clean the outside of the vulva, rather than the inside of the vagina itself.
The main concern with vaginal cleansers is how they affect the microbiome of the vagina. “The vagina is a self-cleaning oven with its own pH level. When we start adding antibacterial soaps, you kill the bacteria that create the vagina’s ecosystem and control acidity,” Dr. Jacqueline Walters told Essence magazine in 2020.
Growing up, no one in my household used vaginal deodorants, but once I became aware of them, I felt like they were everywhere. In college, it wasn’t uncommon to see vaginal wipes alongside free menstrual products offered on campus, and I remember the early buzz around The Honey Pot, a new intimate care company, when it launch in 2014. with something I hadn’t seen before.
Beatrice Dixon, a black woman and founder of the company, has spoken openly about using natural ingredients to treat her case of bacterial vaginosis, inspiring her to bring herbal hygiene products to the masses. The Honey Pot’s branding is loaded with diverse images of black, trans and queer people happily using their vaginal washes and wipes.
The Honey Pot makes it clear that it’s not advocating douching, but it certainly encourages “cleansing” as part of vaginal wellness. Here’s a black entrepreneur promising “plant-based” cleansers that balance vaginal pH and “minimize odor.” I never thought I needed to use such products, but the marketing of the Honey Pot made them seem additive to my personal care, not harmful. I struggled to reconcile the messages from my own online research and my OB-GYN’s advice against the use of vaginal cleansers as I researched this new wave of products apparently designed for people like me. I thought, whether vaginal wipes, powders and cleansers really are so bad, why aren’t more people – especially the women in my life – talking about it?
“Vaginal cleansers and the associated risks have received so little attention over the years, and it has a lot to do with social taboos around talking about vaginal health,” says Alex Scranton, director of science and research. at Women’s Voices for the Earth, an environmental organization. This taboo may well be a global phenomenon; a 2006 study of women from 13 countries found that less than half were comfortable speaking with healthcare providers about vaginal health issues.
But these taboos can carry even more weight and more risks for black women. In the United States, approximately one in five women between the ages of 15 and 44 shower. A 2015 study found that a higher rate of black women — nearly 40% — reported douching, compared to white and Mexican American women. The same study found that black women had 48% higher levels of a diethyl phthalate metabolite – a toxic and endocrine-disrupting chemical used to extend the life of fragrances in products – in their urine, for example. compared to white women. The researchers concluded that douching can be a source of exposure to DEP for women.
According to Scranton, the endocrine-disrupting chemicals lurking in vaginal cleansers should give consumers more time. A 2002 meta-review of several studies found a positive relationship between douching and certain cancers. Another study from 2022 suggests that high exposure to phthalates (a fragrance additive) and phenols (a class of antimicrobial chemicals) in vaginal wipes is associated with a number of pregnancy and fertility issues, including polycystic ovary syndrome. A national, cross-sectional study of women in Canada published in 2018, which examined vaginal hygiene routines, found that participants who reported using feminine wipes were almost twice as likely to report a previous diagnosis of a UTI. than those who did not use wipes. Those who reported using shower gels or women’s gels were 2.5 times more likely to report a previous UTI and 3.5 times more likely to report a previous diagnosis of bacterial vaginosis.
So why do black women still use vaginal cleansers at higher rates than other groups? The legacy of racist advertising and cultural norms passed down from generation to generation may be the cause.
“Black women are overexposed and underprotected when it comes to environmental health risks,” says Astrid Williams of Black Women for Wellness, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit. “In the focus groups, we learned that black women are socialized to believe we need to smell better, using heavily scented products – odor discrimination is definitely at play.”
Manufacturers of these products have always relied on cultural constructions of vaginas as inherently impure and “leaky,” Margrit Shildrick theorizes in her book, Leaky Bodies and Boundaries. Then, these companies claim that products like douches are key to keeping them fresh.
In the 1930s, it was common for both white and black women to douche, as it was then believed to have contraceptive benefits. As black communities gained purchasing power in post-World War II society and sought better jobs through the Great Migration, advertisers tapped into this new market of ascendant mobile consumers. One such ad targeting black Chicago Defender readers touted Lysol products as douching-friendly, promising to leave users “soft,” “clean,” and “delicate.”
Dr. Parke Gibson, the founder of a major black-owned press relations firm, has observed an increasing use of soaps, detergents and personal care products among black consumers. In his 1969 book on black consumers, he wrote, “Undoubtedly, a big part of the desire for cleanliness is overcoming the damaging old wives’ tale that ‘all niggers smell bad.’
Predatory marketing is not a tactic from the distant past, but still exposes black communities to toxic chemicals. Johnson & Johnson recently announced the end of its commercial sales of baby powder, after thousands of lawsuits linked the use of the product to ovarian cancer. The National Council of Black Women claimed the company had marketed its baby powder to black women for decades without communicating its potential dangers.
“Generations of black women have believed [Johnson & Johnson]and have made it our daily practice to use their products in ways that put us at risk of cancer – and we have taught our daughters to do the same,” said Janice Mathis, executive director of the National Council of Black Women. , to NPR.
Much of what I learned about personal hygiene was passed down from elders and women in my family. Although none of them advised me to use vaginal cleansers, the opposite might as well have been true. “It really comes down to cultural norms. I remember seeing my aunts using powders for ‘coolness’ and to control humidity, but now we know these products are under-regulated,” says Williams, of Black Women for Wellness.
The Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act – which regulates menstrual products as “medical devices” but non-drug vaginal products as “cosmetics” – has not been substantially updated since 1938.
Federal bills, such as those introduced by Illinois Representative Janice Schakowsky and California Senator Dianne Feinstein, aim to strengthen the Food and Drug Administration’s ability to require premarket testing of personal care products and to reduce public exposure to toxic chemicals.
In the meantime, consumers shouldn’t have to make do with the confusing cultural messages I’ve crafted. Vaginal cleansers and endocrine disruption may not be what you would call polite conversation at the dinner table, but I make it a point to have open conversations with family and friends about the personal care products they use. We never know; it could save someone from a life of sickness.