Should you be using feminine hygiene products?

A woman wears a pair of shoes with a strawberry design
A woman wears a pair of shoes with a strawberry design

It’s not polite conversation for the dinner table. Some women even struggle to talk about it with friends. In fact, the topic only seems to come up when you’re forced to go to the doctor for an emergency. 

This is the wrong approach, say experts. Women must know the basics – and intricacies of vaginal health. What we don’t know, or are doing wrong, could kill us. 

A glaring example of this type of misinformation is feminine “hygiene” products. 

Put down the gel that promises a fruity scent. You don’t need it; it may do more damage than good. 

Smells like... toxins?

"Do you know what’s in that vaginal douche? Or that bar of scented soap that assures you freshness and cleanliness?" 

Your skin is the only barrier between your internal organs – and what’s outside. The vaginal and vulvar tissue are far more sensitive than the skin, say on your hands. So, these scented, perfumed, fragranced products you’re applying on the most sensitive area of your skin can quickly turn detrimental. 

According to a report by the Women’s Voices for the Earth organisation, feminine hygiene products may use ingredients that are known or suspected endocrine-disrupting chemicals, carcinogens or allergens

What this means: your body becomes vulnerable to disturbances in the nervous and immune systems, abnormal growths, and your risk for breast cancer and fertility issues increases. As the report says, “The vaginal ecosystem is more sensitive and absorbent than typical skin.”  

Not just absorbent, but self-functioning too.

You don’t need expensive gels, soaps and aromatic trickery to be clean.

“Female sex organs evolved to be self-explaining,” explains the report. “The vaginal canal is richly endowed with blood vessels and produces mucus that protects against and washes away harmful microorganisms.” 

READ MORE: "Vaginal douching has no benefit" 

Unfortunately, many women believe the hype. A small study in Canada found that over 95% of participants use at least one product in or around the vaginal area, including moisturiser, anti-itch creams, wipes, washes, sprays and powders. And the report also found that 80% of these women suffer one or more negative vaginal reactions/symptoms

Johannesburg-based general practitioner, Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng agrees on the risks. “There is a definite link between these products and the increased risk of PH imbalance. This can lead to thrush, bacterial vaginosis (very difficult to treat and break the cycle), and depending on the toxicity, chemical burns on the vulva and vagina.

You can pick up infections, and chronic dermatitis. And even when the skin heals, it heals with scars. Your skin elasticity and vaginal lubrication are all affected by these harmful ingredients.”  

The down low on your down below 

So, is a wash-and-go fine? Are you going to repel everyone within a 10-kilometre radius if you don’t wash, scrub and spray yourself with the strongest scents you can find? 
Let’s demystify the conjecture. 

You should “smell nice” down there to be healthy?

How can a vagina smell like a strawberry? All these expectations are false. This is medically flawed in every sense. Scent-based products are more for pleasure, not health-related reasons. You are never going to turn your vagina into something that smells like a mango! These products that speak to this narrative of smelling nice are not health-based; if you had a vaginal-related health need, you’d have to be treated and diagnosed by a doctor, not “fix” it with something you can buy from a grocery shelf.
Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng
This is not true. All women have their own unique smell - which is normal.
Dr Chantal Stewart

Certain foods can improve vaginal health?

Cranberry is said to be good for urinary tract infections – which is a bladder issue, not related to the vagina at all. Yes, they may decrease the recurrence of urinary tract infections, but no, there is no magic formula.
Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng

Foods have nothing to do with vaginal health. In fact, lots of sweet things can predispose you to diabetes and thrush.
Dr Chantal Stewart

How should women stay healthy?

Go for your annual check-up. Have your Pap smear. Talk to your doctor about menstruation – understand ovulation and discharges. Learn how your body works; track your period so you know your bodily patterns. Women go to the doctor for normal things, like discharges – you will always have moisture because your vaginal area is full of glands. It’s vital to know your body and be sensible. Food is for eating – not inserting into your body. True story: I once had to remove garlic from a woman’s vagina…
Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng

The vagina is a self-cleaning organ. All we need to use externally is normal soap and water.
Dr Chantal Stewart

Do probiotics for vaginal health work?

Probiotics are good for immune and chronic health and illnesses, and things like a healthy colon. A probiotic is not going to treat an issue that needs an antibiotic. It won’t give you a healthy vagina – it’s akin to taking vitamins. It’s for your overall health.
Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng

If probiotics are used, they need to be live culture yoghurt and must be used vaginally, not orally. It’s helpful in cases of recurrent thrush.
Dr Chantal Stewart

Would you put this in your mouth?

Just some of the worrying ingredients in some female hygiene products include: 
- Benzocaine; can cause an allergic rash and dermatitis 
- Diazolidinyl urea; can cause cancer 
- A colourant dye (FD&C Yellow no. 5); can cause allergic reactions and bronchial asthma 

Do you use feminine hygiene products? What has your experience been. Let's chat here.

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