These and others found in the feminine hygiene aisle could actually harm your sexual health.
If you take a walk through your drugstore’s personal care aisle, you'll see lots of items carefully marketed for vaginal health. Although the sprays, creams, and other feminine hygiene products might look cute and inviting, think twice before you toss them in your cart.
A recent study published in BMC Women’s Health shows a connection between these common over-the-counter women’s health products and vaginal infections. After surveying 1,500 women, study authors found that those who used feminine hygiene items were three times more likely to have experienced a vaginal infection.
In the study, women who used lubricants and moisturizers on their vagina were 2.5 times more likely to have had a yeast infection and 50% more likely to have had a urinary tract infection (UTI) compared to those who steered clear of these items. Women who picked up gel sanitizers were eight times more likely to have experienced a yeast infection and 20 times more likely to have had bacterial vaginosis compared to women who didn’t use the products.
The study only found a link between vaginal health products and vaginal infections; it doesn't prove the products caused the infections. But the connection raises alarm among the study authors.
Some of the women in the study may have been using personal care items to take care of an existing issue—but the problem is, these vaginal health products don’t actually help the vagina, say the researchers. Anita Shrivastava, MD, one of the study authors and an ob-gyn at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, tells Health that when it comes to vagina products, you should mostly skip them.
Even seemingly helpful items can also be problematic. Creams for vaginal itching, for example, are typically sold with numbing medicines or topical steroids that might sometimes mask an issue that really should be medically evaluated. “If the issue is an infection, this can be serious,” says Dr. Shrivastava. “It is important then to understand what is being treated—that is why it is always useful to see a gynecologist.”
Unlike other parts of your body, the vagina is a self-cleaning organ, says Dr. Shrivastava. “Scented products, wipes, sprays, anti-itch creams, and douches should all be avoided,” she says. “Even products marketed specifically for vaginal use and marked hypoallergenic or organic may still be harmful to the delicate vaginal balance.”
A healthy vagina is kind of like a rainforest, says Dr. Shrivastava, where an ecosystem of bacterial species, vaginal cells, and yeast live together harmoniously. “Like in a rainforest, when this balance is disrupted, vaginal symptoms may occur,” she explains. “A healthy vagina should not itch, burn or have a foul smell. The amount of vaginal discharge may vary from woman to woman, and fluctuates. A moderate amount of vaginal discharge can be present in a healthy vagina, but should not be green, bright yellow, or bloody."
Without you even noticing it, your vagina maintains this delicate balance all on its own. Yet introductions to the ecosystem via sprays, creams, wipes, and other products can throw off this balance. “These vaginal hygiene products can be harmful, because they may deplete beneficial bacteria, can cause an inflammatory or allergic-type reaction, and may serve as a medium for bacterial and fungal overgrowth,” Dr. Shrivastava says.
Basically, you can skip your drugstore’s entire personal care selection when it comes to taking care of your vagina—with a few exceptions. Period products such as tampons and pads are necessities, but go with the unscented kind, so you don't risk a reaction to chemical fragrances.
If you have a yeast infection, it's also fine to use the antifungal OTC yeast cures. But again, be sure your symptoms, like itching, irritation, and thick discharge, really are caused by yeast. (Other infections with similar symptoms include bacterial vaginosis and some STIs, which require prescription antibiotics to cure.)
When you cleanse your vulva and vaginal area, ditch the sanitizers and vagina washes and go with a mild, hypoallergenic soap, suggests Dr. Shrivastava. “It should be used sparingly, and rinsed well," she says.
If you use a lubricant during intercourse, "flavored or warming-type lubricants are best avoided,” she advises, as they “have a higher likelihood of causing chemical or allergic-type reactions than sensitive formulas.”
According to Dr. Shrivasta, it all boils down to a less is more mentality with vaginal care. If you're experiencing symptoms like itching, burning, a foul odor, or off-color discharge, skip the vagina aisle and check in with an ob-gyn instead.