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What A Healthy Vulva and Vagina Really Need

Feminine wipes. Cleansing washes. Freshening sprays. Vaginal douches.

There is no shortage of feminine hygiene products on the market promising a clean, fresh and balanced vagina. As periods and feminine hygiene are often stigmatized topics, those of us with vaginas can find it difficult to discern what the best method of maintenance is for our down-there bits.

The truth is, most feminine hygiene products are unnecessary and, in some cases, potentially harmful. According to gynecologists, water and, preferably unscented, soap are the only things necessary for maintaining good feminine health, which is easily integrated into an everyday shower routine.

Another misconception is that the vagina needs any maintenance at all. Despite being marketed as “vaginal,” most hygiene products are intended for external use only. This means that they should only be used on the vulva, the external female genitalia. The vagina is an internal organ that is largely self-sufficient. In fact, products intended for internal use, like douches, can actually disrupt the natural cleaning process of the vagina.

Scented feminine wipes can be convenient for cleaning up on the go or during your period, but the harsh chemicals used for scenting can be irritating to the delicate skin of the vulva. Instead, it is recommended to use regular, unscented bathroom wipes, which are often less expensive.

Additionally, these products should never be used as a substitute for a doctor’s visit. Each vagina has a subtle smell that is going to differ a little from person to person, but if you experience an abnormal smell, especially paired with itching, then you should contact your doctor as this may be a sign of infection.

However, if you enjoy scented washes or wipes from feminine hygiene companies and don’t find that they cause you irritation, then they are okay to use. Just know that they aren’t necessary for maintaining hygiene and your vagina doesn’t need to smell like flowers and fruits to be normal.

This rhetoric, that your vulva and vagina must smell like fruits and blossoms, is one of many damaging and inaccurate advertising tactics used by feminine hygiene companies. These companies are often criticized for reinforcing misogynistic and harmful stigmas surrounding feminine wellness and for exploiting the insecurities typically created by these stigmas.

Just earlier this year, the company Vagisil was criticized for an exploitative marketing campaign that targeted teenagers.  The campaign promoted scented washes, wipes, and anti-itch serum from their OMV! line, promising that these items would get rid of their “period funk” and “bikini itch.”

This marketing was criticized for reinforcing the idea that periods are inherently unclean and promoting scented products as a solution for odor and itch that should be addressed by a doctor. Because these concepts were being used to target young teens, who are adjusting to pubescent changes in their bodies, the advertisements were considered especially exploitative.

Many professionals spoke out against the Vagisil marketing campaign, educating those with vulvas on safe hygiene practices. In a YouTube video reviewing and responding to the Vagisil campaign, board-certified OB/GYN Dr. Danielle Jones says, “All you need to wash your vulva is water and unscented, plain soap. Only on the outside, nothing inside the vagina. That’s all you need!”

In terms of vaginal care, Dr. Jones asserts that the vagina is “self-cleaning” and warns against ever using products inside of it. She disputes the existence of “period funk” and critiques the idea that scented products are necessary to feel confident during your period.

Vagisil, however, is certainly not the first feminine hygiene company to market its products as necessary for a hygienic or balanced vagina. Period products, especially, seem to capitalize off the idea that menstruating is inherently unsanitary and should be counteracted by special fragrances and washes.

In 2017, the national health organization Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) began the Summer’s Deceive campaign by releasing parodies of Summer’s Eve ads. The parodies criticized the company’s use of harmful and ambiguous chemical ingredients and the damaging and inaccurate ideas pushed in their marketing.

Since then, Summer’s Eve has signed onto an open letter from WVE and removed ten damaging ingredients previously featured in their products. However, the deputy director of WVE, Jamie McConnell, cautions consumers against using the products and relinquishing the fight against the harmful messages of their marketing.

In addition to characterizing the vagina as inherently dirty, McConnell points out that feminine hygiene marketing especially targets women of color, exploiting racist stereotypes and myths that subsequently cause women of color to be disproportionately exposed to the harmful chemicals in these products.

Though feminine hygiene choices are always personal, it is important to educate ourselves on what is actually necessary for a healthy vulva and vagina and recognize how companies push harmful rhetoric to sell their products. According to gynecologists, it is okay to use feminine hygiene products if they aren’t causing you irritation, but it is best to stick to the tried and true method of simple washing with plain soap and avoiding the harsh chemicals found in those products.

I am a senior Professional Writing and Rhetoric major with minors in English and Women's and Gender Studies. I'm passionate about women's issues, sustainability, and equality.
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