Women are led to believe their vaginas should look and smell a certain way, influenced in part by pornography and a lack of understanding among men and women when it comes to the female anatomy.
As a result, a number of products or treatments have appeared over the years, promising to make us smell like rose petals or “tight and wanted again” (yes, really).
The latest? Women have been encouraged to buy “wasp nests” to insert into their vaginas to “tighten and rejuvenate” them.
To set the record straight, we’ve rounded up a whole host of things you should not be letting anywhere near your vagina (or the surrounding area).
Put bluntly: you’re perfect as you are, ladies.
According to Metro, an Etsy seller called ‘HeritageHealthShop’ was selling oak galls, also known as wasp nests, for women to use internally to “tighten and rejuvenate” their vaginas. It has since removed the listing.
Oak galls are created when a female wasp inserts her eggs into part of an oak tree. When the wasp hatches, the legless grubs begin secreting chemicals that reorganise the oak’s normal growth processes - forming an oak gall around it, the Royal Horticultural Society explains.
The oak galls are then being sold as an all-natural vaginal tightening method (without wasps, of course).
Gynaecologist and prolific blogger Dr Jen Gunter advised people against inserting oak galls into their vaginas, as it dries them out (”which is both medically and sexually undesirable”).
She explained that drying the vaginal mucosa increases the risk of abrasions during sex, destroys the protective mucous layer and could also wreak havoc with the good bacteria in the vagina. In addition to causing pain during sex it could also increase the risk of HIV transmission.
She concluded: “This is a dangerous practice with real potential to harm. Here’s a pro-tip, if something burns when you apply it to the vagina it is generally bad for the vagina.”
Womb Detoxing Pearls
Last year it emerged that women were buying small herb-filled balls and inserting them into their vaginas to detox their wombs.
The idea of the detox is that you pop the pearls into your vagina after your period has finished. They then supposedly cleanse all of the bad stuff away, which women will see in their discharge a few days later.
But a leading sexual health charity urged women not to buy them.
Bekki Burbidge, head of communications for FPA, told HuffPost UK: “The vagina is very good at cleaning itself and using perfumed products can upset the balance of the normal bacteria, rather than help. Perfumed products have been linked to bacterial vaginosis, which is the most common cause of unusual vaginal discharge, and can also increase the risk of developing thrush.
“If women are concerned about the smell of discharge or notice a change from their normal discharge, it’s important not to try and mask this with products as it could be linked to an infection - instead, it’s a good idea to get checked out by a doctor.”
Some women opt to manually clean their vaginas by inserting feminine hygiene products into them. However a study published in 2015 found that incorrect usage could affect a woman’s hormone levels.
When used internally for “vaginal douching”, these products impact oestrogen, testosterone and thyroid hormone levels, researchers warned.
They urged women to use the products to wash externally (the vulva and labia) rather than internally (the vagina), as internal use can expose women to harmful chemicals known as “phthalates”.
“Douching is not medically required,” said lead author, Ami Zota from George Washington University. “A healthy vagina has an effective self-cleaning system.”
Zota added that doctors generally advise against douching as it can increase a woman’s risk of bacterial vaginosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, pregnancy complications and potentially cervical cancer.
Dr Vanessa Mackay, spokesperson for Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), told HuffPost UK: “It’s a myth that the vagina needs extensive cleaning with perfumed soaps or feminine hygiene products.
“The vagina is designed to clean itself with natural secretions. It contains good bacteria, which are there to protect it. If these bacteria are disturbed it can lead to infection, such as bacterial vaginosis or thrush, and inflammation.”
She added: “It’s a good idea to avoid perfumed soaps, gels and antiseptics as these can affect the healthy balance of bacteria and pH levels in the vagina and cause irritation.
“Use plain, unperfumed soaps to wash the area around the vagina (the vulva), not inside it, gently every day. During your period, washing more than once a day may be helpful.”
Vaginal tightening sticks are made from natural ingredients including oak galls, pearl powder and aloe vera. The idea is women insert the sticks into their vaginas to tighten them.
The infuriating slogan on one producer’s website reads: “Feel tight and wanted again!”
Other supposed benefits include claims that sticks can “stimulate the body’s natural cleansing system and regenerates the vagina’s skin tissue in a totally natural way” and “reduce or completely eliminate vaginal discharge”.
According to Dr Gunter, this is all kinds of wrong. She said, in a similar way to oak galls, the chemicals in the sticks dry out the vagina, increasing the transmission of sexually transmitted infections and making sex painful for women.
Perfumed Products And Oils
Women have also been using natural oils, such as yoni oil, on their vaginas to transform them into an “anti fungal, antibacterial and PH balanced environment”.
But in reality they could be doing more harm than good.
The oil is warmed in the hands and then rubbed onto the vulva (externally). However some places also recommend inserting the oil into the vagina to clear minor infections. And this presents problems.
According to Aly Dilks, sexual health expert at The Women’s Health Clinic, doing this can actually cause infections.
“The vagina’s PH is very specific and it is self-cleaning,” she told HuffPost UK. “Be aware of creams and potions as they can cause infections easily. A bit of water and a little soap is all it needs.”
‘V-steam’ became popular back in 2015 when Gwyneth Paltrow recommended it to followers of her GOOP lifestyle newsletter.
Explaining the process she wrote: “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.”
But it turns out vaginal steaming isn’t a good idea.
Dr Gunter highlighted the vagina has a very delicate balance, which should not be messed with, plus it’s unknown what effect steam could have on the lower reproductive tract.
“The lactobacilli strains that keep vaginas healthy are very finicky about their environment and raising the temperature with steam and whatever infrared nonsense Paltrow means is likely not beneficial and is potentially harmful,” she explained.