We're all for showing your vagina a lot of love—but should this laser-like device really be part of your wellness routine?
What if you could wave a magic wand over your vagina—or better yet, insert a magic wand into your vagina—and it would instantly tighten, lubricate, and generally make your lady parts look and feel more youthful?
That’s the promise of ThermiVa, a “vaginal rejuvenation” device that uses radiofrequency energy to stimulate collagen in and around the vagina. The benefits, its marketers claim, can include everything from increased sensation to improved bladder control. Kim and Kourtney Kardashian both got the treatment after having babies. (“In my household, all they do is talk about this vagina laser!” Khloé Kardashian said on her now-cancelled talk show Kocktails with Khloé.)
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Since the device hit doctors' offices in 2015, some 55,000 women have tried it too, according to a spokesperson—a number that will surely rise as more providers begin offering the treatment.
Patricia Wallace, MD, a Southern California-based urogynecologist and member of ThermiVa’s clinical advisory board, has been offering ThermiVa for 18 months. She says her patients appreciate that it's pain-free and convenient—they can get it on their lunch break and then have sex that night—and it gives them a confidence boost. “When you have healthier collagen, your tissue has better sensitivity, it has a better appearance, and it certainly has more blood flow,” she tells Health. “All of those things translate into feeling confident and feeling beautiful, from the inside out.”
But does ThermiVa really have vagical superpowers?
Over the past decade, thanks to a potent mix of pop culture (see: so many reality stars) and savvy entrepreneurs, the so-called “vaginal rejuvenation” industry has exploded. The term is an umbrella phrase used to describe the sprawling marketplace of treatments that promise to “revitalize” vaginas, from lubricants and lasers to cosmetic surgeries such as labiaplasty and vaginoplasty. Products and treatments aim to do everything from “beautify” a woman’s labia to tighten her vaginal opening after childbirth to reverse postmenopausal vaginal atrophy.
While comprehensive data on the industry’s growth don’t exist yet, statistics on labiaplasty alone are striking. Surgeons performed more than 10,000 labiaplasties in 2016, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery—a 23% jump from the previous year. And today, more than 35% of plastic surgeons offer the procedure compared to zero percent in the 1990s.
But many gynecologists urge caution. “The term ‘vaginal rejuvenation’ itself is problematic because most vaginas don’t need to be rejuvenated,” Lauren Streicher, MD, medical director of Northwestern University Hospital’s Center for Sexual Medicine and Menopause, tells Health. “They’re fine the way they are.” Yet that hasn’t stopped a growing number of women from spending thousands in the name of vaginal wellness.
Contrary to Khloé Kardashian’s dispatch, ThermiVa is not technically a “laser” but a radiofrequency wand that uses heat to stimulate collagen a few millimeters into the skin. In a series of three 30-minute treatments—followed by a yearly maintenance treatment—a physician applies the wand, which is about the circumference of an index finger, around the vulva and inside the vagina. If the concept sounds familiar, it may be because dermatologists have long used radiofrequency devices to smooth wrinkles, cellulite, and stretch marks.
Dr. Wallace says her patients—from women in their 20s who are experiencing vaginal dryness as a result of hormonal birth control to women who’ve had babies to postmenopausal women—have been happy with what the treatment has done to their “feminine wellness.” (She’s also had the treatment herself.) And YouTube is filled with patient testimonials that rave about ThermiVa, describing it as a boon to their sex lives. “The results were immediate,” says one satisfied customer. “I noticed a difference, my husband noticed a difference—everything was back to the way I wanted it to be.”
But here’s the thing: While ThermiVa has been cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and deemed safe to use on skin, it hasn’t yet been approved as a treatment for many of the medical conditions it says it treats—including minor pelvic prolapse and bladder issues. Also, no independent peer-reviewed studies have been published on ThermiVa (yet). “They make a lot of claims that have not been proven in the scientific literature,” says Dr. Streicher. “Is it possible that it does something? Maybe! Show me the evidence.”
ThermiVa can cost as much as $3,500, which is a lot of money to shell out for uncertainty. And like many “vaginal rejuvenation” treatments, it’s frequently offered by dermatologists and plastic surgeons who, unlike gynecologists, aren’t experts on reproductive and sexual health. “I’m keeping an open mind,” Cheryl Iglesia, MD, director of the Female Pelvic Medicine and Reconstructive Surgery unit at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, tells Health. “I don’t think it’s going to cause harm,” she says. “But is it really going to work?”
It bears mentioning that ThermiVa is just one of a growing number of vaginal radiofrequency treatments and actual lasers on the market. Dr. Streicher, for example, treats select patients with the MonaLisa Touch laser, a type of “CO2 laser” that improves dryness and elasticity by making pinprick incisions in a woman’s vaginal tissue. The laser sends the body into “wound recovery mode” and results in regenerated tissue—and several scientific studies have shown it to be effective.
Gynecologists advise that women’s health providers should educate their patients when it comes to the promises and limitations of these treatments. The “vaginal rejuvenation” industry is fueled by “entrepreneurs who are trying to make money off of women’s insecurities about the appearance of their genitalia,” says Dr. Streicher. Doctors can help alleviate those insecurities by giving women a sense of what normal genitals look like.
Sure, if a woman wants to pay for ThermiVa, she should feel empowered to do so. Like the Kardashian sisters, she may be thrilled with the results. And research may eventually reveal that ThermiVa is effective for everything it claims to treat. But until then, springing for sessions with the wand isn’t all that different from springing for a super-duper expensive eye cream: It’s a gamble that may or may not turn back time.
The most important thing to remember? Our vaginas need all the love we can give them—but they don’t always need a vagician.