What Is Vaginal Bleaching?

The aesthetic procedure has potentially dangerous side effects.

As people age, it's normal to notice changes to the body, and the vulvar area is no exception. The vulvar area includes the external female genitals, including the labia (labium majora and labium minora), clitoris, and vaginal opening, according to the National Library of Medicine.

Per the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the shape, size, or color of the vulvar area may change naturally due to factors like aging, mainly due to menopause as the body makes less and less of the hormone estrogen, or childbirth.

And for people who wish to halt any changes to the color of their vulva, one type of elective female genital cosmetic surgery is available: Vaginal bleaching.

Here's what you need to know about vaginal bleaching—including how it's done, why someone might choose it, and how it can be potentially dangerous.

How Vaginal Bleaching Works

Vaginal bleaching, also known as "vaginal lightening" or "intimate area lightening," entails using a specialized treatment to lighten the labia or general bikini area, Michael Cackovic, MD, an OB-GYN at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio, told Health

"The name implies lightening the vagina itself, which is inside the woman's body, but this is not the case," explained Dr. Cackovic. The procedure focuses on the vulva, the part of the female genitals outside the body. 

Like anal bleaching, vaginal bleaching can be done with a laser treatment or topical creams applied directly to the skin, Jessica Shepherd, MD, an OB-GYN and women's health expert, told Health

The procedure generally makes the vulvar area—mainly the labia—look brighter or lighter. However, the results don't usually last very long, Ife J. Rodney, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founding director of Eternal Dermatology + Aesthetics in Fulton, Md., told Health

"As the darker color of the vulva is actually the normal color, these skin bleaching procedures may only give temporary lightening," noted Dr. Rodney. "Once you stop using the creams or don't continue to get chemical peels consistently, then the darker color will return."

Purpose of Vaginal Bleaching

"It's purely aesthetic," said Dr. Shepherd. 

It's hard to say precisely where the idea that a vagina needs to be lighter or brighter originated. Still, Dr. Shepherd said social ideas of what is considered attractive might have something to do with it. 

"We get social constructs in nudity in the adult film industry that makes people think the vagina should look a certain way," noted Dr. Shepard.

Some research suggests that vaginal whitening helps improve self-esteem, especially in terms of sexual performance, according to a study published in 2022 in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology.

Some people also may be led to believe that a bleached vagina makes them "look more youthful or attractive, and so they bleach it," Lauren Streicher, MD, a professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, told Health.

But, from a "purely physiological perspective," Dr. Shepherd explained that there would usually be areas of hyperpigmentation leading to darker skin in areas where hair grows. But those dark spots are totally normal and not a bad thing. 

"All vulva, perinea, and labia are unique to every person," noted Dr. Shepherd. "Having it a little bit darker doesn't necessarily mean that it's unhealthy or unnatural. People should feel empowered by how their bodies are in a natural state."

The ACOG echoed that sentiment in a committee opinion published in 2020 about elective female genital cosmetic surgeries. The ACOG stated that the vulvar region varies between people, including its shape, size, and color.

Safety Warnings

Is it safe? Not really. 

"It's bad for the vulvar skin, which is delicate, and it can cause all manner of irritation and dermatologic problems," noted Dr. Streicher. "It's potentially very dangerous."

"Even when done correctly, lasers and chemical peels run the risk of burning and discoloration of this sensitive skin," added Dr. Rodney. 

And using bleaching creams with hydroquinone can be especially dangerous.

"When used in high concentrations for a long period of time, hydroquinone can cause irreversible black staining of the skin," added Dr. Rodney.

According to Dr. Streicher, vaginal bleaching may lead to adverse side effects, which include: 

  • Pain
  • Burning
  • Irritation
  • Redness
  • Rash
  • Long-term nerve damage

But that doesn't mean those side effects necessarily will happen, but it's possible.

"Certainly, many women get away with it and have no problems, but many can have potentially severe problems, like burns and vulvar pain," said Dr. Streicher.

A Quick Review

Overall, vaginal bleaching may not be a good—or even a safe—idea. And as it turns out, many healthcare providers won't even perform vaginal lightening procedures or treatments. 

"Most [healthcare providers] won't do this," affirmed Dr. Shepherd. "It's not commonly done, but it happens." 

So, it may help to nix any ideas about bleaching your vagina. Remember: Your vagina is perfectly fine as-is.

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