Vaginal Hygiene Products Are Linked To Infections, Survey Finds, But That's Not The Only Problem With Them

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

As women, we're taught we should be waxed, preened, and perfumed to within an inch of our lives in order to be presentable. Money, energy, and time is wasted trying to buff our way into a perfection that just doesn't exist. As a result, way too many women spend too much time feeling ashamed of their bodies. It can eff with your head and, now, new research shows it can mess with your health as well.

A new survey in BMC Women's Health journal found a link between vaginal hygiene products and vaginal infection. Some products, like douches, have long been associated with negative effects on the vagina, because instead of cleaning you they can make you more likely to have problems with infection. "Douching is no longer recommended because douching cleans the healthy flora in the vaginal area, creating more empty space for bad organisms to grow, causing ... itching and discharge," Dr. Yen Tran, an OB-GYN at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center, tells Bustle. "These organisms could cause bacterial vaginosis (BV) and yeast."

Although douches have been on the outs with medical professionals for some time, this new research decided to look at the effects of other feminine hygiene products — and the results were very clear. The survey of 1,435 adult Canadian women found a big link between feminine hygiene products and infection. Women who used washes, gels, or wipes were two and half times more likely to have a UTI than women who didn't. But what is even more striking was that women who used gel sanitizers were eight times more likely to have a yeast infection — and 20 times more likely to have a bacterial infection, Medical Daily reports.

That's a level of association that would be pretty hard to deny. But it's not a surprise, because your vagina by design takes care of its own cleaning and maintains its own pH levels. New additions, even if they're coined as "cleaning" products, can just mess with it.

"As the [study] mentions the vagina is basically a self-cleaning oven. It doesn't need much in terms of cleaning," pelvic floor specialist Rachel Gelman, DPT, PT tells Bustle. "If you use products with fragrances, chemicals or just attempt to over-wash the area it can mess with the bacteria that resides in the vagina and that bacteria is what helps keep the vagina happy and healthy. By messing with the vaginal flora you can put the vagina at risk for 'bad' bacteria to invade which can lead to infections. If someone is concerned by their vaginal odor they can consult their healthcare provider, but most likely their vagina is doing just fine."

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

So this research clearly points to the fact that these feminine hygiene products are actually detrimental to our vaginal health — but there's another big problem with these products. The fact that these products play on our insecurities and shame us into buying products to cover up our (totally natural) scents and sweat is problematic.

In fact, your vagina should smell like something. It shouldn't be odorless or smell like flowers, it should smell like a damn vagina. "Everyone has a distinct vaginal odor that is unique to them," Lakeisha Richardson, MD, OB/GYN tells Bustle. "Vaginal odor can change depending on diet and the type of personal hygiene products that you use. Some vaginal odor will tend to be more musky after exercising or working out." And you know what? Musky or not, they smell great.

But we're taught to be insecure about our vaginas early on. From a young age we're exposed to pads and tampons meant to "freshen" our scent. At our most insecure stages of life we're inundated with products that tell us our vaginas are dirty and need to be cleaned. It's misogynistic — and it's dangerous. "I have told women all day, every day, for 25 years that vaginas don't need cleaning, but yet store shelves are filled with hygiene products so my message is easily countered with slick advertising preying on or amplifying the institutionalized misogyny about vaginas health," Dr. Jen Gunter, OB/GYN and pain medicine physician tells Bustle. "People sadly think if it is the drug store it is safe or good, but my answer is always 'They sell cigarettes.'" So don't believe everything you read on a label.

I know too many women who have panicked about the smell of their vaginas, but don't think twice about putting up with sweaty balls in their face. It's time to start embracing your vagina just the way it is. It should smell, look, taste, and feel like a vagina. And that's totally great.