“Women tend to ignore hygiene ‘down there’”.
I don’t say that; that’s how intimate hygiene products preface all their advertisements. But being a family physician who examines a lot of women, I can tell you this: it's not true. It’s easy to shame a woman for being “unclean and unhygienic”, because that’s how you build a demand for feminine hygiene products. A little bit of shame, a little bit of blame, and these manufacturers ace the game.
It’s still ok if we are talking about washes and wipes. But many douches, serums and highlighters create a false demand for our vulvas to look a certain way and smell like a meadow before they can be acceptable to our partners. The fact remains that the vulva is darker than the rest of your body and you don’t need a skin-lightening product to make it lighter-toned, nor is your vagina supposed to give out a rosy fragrance. In fact, the vagina requires no care whatsoever. It is something like a self-cleaning oven which keeps producing minute quantities of mucus discharge to flush out pathogens.
The effect these products have is often countering the nature of these natural mechanisms and putting the user at risk of inflammation and infection. Your intimate hygiene routine may include washing the vulval region once a day with a mild soap and with plain water after relieving yourself (and patting it dry after). It is as simple as it can get.
Many of these brands add a pH angle to make their product sound legit and scientifically backed. But just because a product matches the ideal acidity of your vagina, it does not make it the end-all and be-all of vaginal care. Let me explain how. The washes if applied up the vagina can disturb the balance of healthy bacteria called lactobacilli, which is our natural defense to outside infection. In addition, the array of chemicals in these washes like sodium laureth sulfate, sorbitol, lactitol, just to name a few, can cause irritation, allergic reactions and inflammation even when used for washing just the vulva. The cells lining the inside of the vagina are extremely sensitive to these fragranced products and can get inflamed by regular use. The disturbance that these intimate washes (even when used only for washing the vulva and not vagina) cause in your body can even impact future pregnancies.
The manufacturers of these products have very loose guidelines from the US FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) and absolutely no requirement for controlled trials to test for their side-effects. They mainly prey on female insecurity and induce us to shell out money for products we didn’t even know we needed. Take for example the vaginal douche -- 20% of American women douche using a small squirty bottle which has a mixture of vinegar and water. The nozzle of the bottle is elongated for entering the vagina and flushing the vinegar-water mix inside. This is a bad idea. Say you have a vaginal infection that hasn’t come to your attention yet or the nozzle isn’t clean enough, you are going to actually launch the infection into your uterus, tubes and ovaries. This can give rise to a nasty and painful internal infection called Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID). In a study, women who douched were found to have higher chances of ovarian and cervical cancer compared to those who didn’t. In my opinion it is a heavy price to pay for smelling fresh down there (once again, you don’t need to smell fresh!)
Another practice gaining popularity fast is vulval skin lightening industry. More and more clinics are cropping up claiming to do so, and a search on YouTube will show “natural home remedies” to lighten your vulval skin. What I find funny is that they go on to blame things like wearing the wrong kind of underwear or a “lack of ventilation” for the darkening down there. The fact is, skin darkening in our armpits and pubic area is a natural part of hitting puberty and attaining maturity and that is nothing to be ashamed of or to try and undo. The usage of a negative word like “discoloration” for the intimate area is unnecessary and body shaming at its peak. Aside from the fact that this practice stems from a form of self-hate and insecurity regarding our bodies, the side effects of bleaching or lightening include allergic reactions to irritation to burning and blistering. The skin is very sensitive to these forms of ‘treatment’ for a made-up condition that nobody requires treatment for to begin with.
It’s amusing to note that men also have darker skin down there, and yet it’s women who are pushed to embrace unrealistic standards–often set by the porn industry. Can the patriarchal medical-industrial complex please leave our vaginas alone?
Dr Farah Adam Mukadam is a family physician based in Bengaluru and the author of the book Newborns and New Moms. She is also a women's health educator working through her Instagram channel @dr.farah_momstein.