You probably already know that health advice from magazines, social media influencers and podcast hosts can be suspect. But sometimes they mention a product that sounds like just the solution to the vaginal health problem you’re experiencing. And you can pick it up for $20 at Target.
You feel seen.
If you’ve ever tried buzzed-about vagina vitamins or vaginal odor treatments, you’re not alone. Social media influencers share convincing testimonials, and product descriptions use medical lingo to back their stories up.
“If I didn’t know better as a nurse practitioner and Ob-Gyn, I might want to try some of these products myself based on how attractive they seem through influencers and advertising. But many of the products available have no scientific research behind them to prove that they are effective. And they may actually be harmful,” says Mary Marnach, M.D.
But Dr. Marnach is an obstetrician and gynecologist at Mayo Clinic, with expertise on vaginal health products. She shared her insight as to which products may be worth a shot — and which ones you should skip.
The vagina and its flora
First, a quick refresher on vaginal health. The vagina is a muscular canal that leads from the uterus out of the body. It’s used for sex, shedding menstrual blood and birthing babies. The vulva is the outer part of the female genitalia.
The vagina naturally contains a mix of yeast and bacteria, called the flora. The flora contributes to a healthy pH level — typically in the moderately acidic range between 3.8 and 5 for women in their reproductive years. Age, diet and anything that goes in the vagina can mess with the pH. That includes semen, lubricants and products found in the women’s health aisle.
Taking antibiotics or using vaginal cleaning products can kill too many bacteria. This can lead to an overgrowth of yeast — or a yeast infection. Signs of a yeast infection can include itching, a thick, white or watery discharge, and a burning sensation during intercourse or urination.
When certain kinds of bacteria outnumber the beneficial bacteria in the vagina, a bacterial infection could occur. This is known as bacterial vaginosis. A person might experience itching, discharge, a fishy odor or a burning feeling when urinating.
Products for vaginal health
Several products offer to clean or detoxify the vagina. But are they necessary? Dr. Marnach weighs in.
Herbs for vaginal health
You probably associate herbs with your spice rack, but some companies are selling herbs for your vagina. Known as “yoni pearls,” these look like round bags of herbal tea, only smaller. Ingredients may include the root of red-rooted salvia, safflower, peach kernel and root bark of peony tree. The directions say to insert one pearl into your vagina for 24 hours to pull toxins out of your body and improve vaginal health, pH level, smell and dryness.
“I’m going to be honest: It sounds like something a couple of my girlfriends would ask me about,” Dr. Marnach says.
But there is no evidence that yoni pearls do anything beneficial for your vagina. Putting things into your vagina can also affect the pH level, which again, can lead to bacterial or yeast infections.
Women on the internet have posted pictures of the secretions that have clung to their yoni pearls for removal. But secretions are normal and don’t need to be removed. Their job is to help lubricate the vagina for intercourse and make it less painful.
Probiotics for vaginal health
Vaginal probiotics are supplements that can be inserted into the vagina or taken orally. They’re said to support the bacteria in the vagina — just like probiotics support bacteria in the gut.
There is no evidence that a probiotic will improve the bacterial mix in the vagina. In fact, researchers are still working to develop vaginal probiotic products that will be stable by the time they reach the vagina. Since probiotics are living organisms, they must survive manufacturing and the journey to the vagina.
“Eating a plant-based diet with lean meats and taking good care of yourself may be most beneficial to maintaining gynecological and reproductive health,” Dr. Marnach says.
A Dripstick is a sponge that absorbs semen from the vagina after penetrative sex. It promises to save your underwear and bedsheets from wet spots.
While it’s not necessary to clean your vagina after intercourse, these look harmless for most people, Dr. Marnach says. Insert it as you would a tampon. Leave it in for 15 or 20 minutes to let it absorb any secretions. Then take it out. If it’s irritating or you find tampons uncomfortable, you might want to skip these.
Products to get rid of vaginal odor
The feminine hygiene industry has created countless products to clean and freshen the vagina. But the natural smell of the vagina doesn’t mean it’s unhealthy.
If you’re noticing an unusual smell like a fishy odor, you should see your health care team to get this checked out. If gynecologists detect an odor, they will take a swab to find out what’s going on to determine the best treatment. But that treatment won’t involve products in flowery pink boxes.
Thanks to social media, the hottest spa trend seems to be a vaginal steam. Vaginal steams can also be done at home by sitting over steaming hot herbs. The belief is that it tightens the vagina and cleans and freshens the vagina and uterus.
But this could be doing more harm than good. Use of herbs and heat could affect the balance of the vagina’s flora. Additionally, some women have experienced serious burns from vaginal steams.
There’s really no need to use douching products or steam the vagina. Gently cleaning the vulva with soap and water is enough.
“The best thing for the vagina is not cleaning it at all,” Dr. Marnach says. “Really. It doesn’t need to be cleaned. It takes care of itself.”
Products for vaginal infections
If you are prone to recurrent yeast infections, you’d probably do anything for some relief. A diet of plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and being choosy about what goes in your vagina are good places to start.
When you have symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection (itching and thick white discharge), you can try nonprescription yeast infection treatments. If symptoms don’t improve with the treatments, Dr. Marnach suggests seeing your provider as the next best step.
Different strains of yeast respond to treatments differently. The way to know what strain is causing your misery is to see a health care provider for testing. Your provider can recommend a treatment that will work for a specific strain. That way you aren’t spending money on products that won’t work.
You can read more about options for frequent yeast infections here.
Boric acid suppositories
If you get frequent yeast infections, it’s understandable to want a product ready in your medicine cabinet. Some influencers swear by keeping boric acid suppositories to use after sex or when you feel the telltale vaginal itch.
But Dr. Marnach says it isn’t necessary to use them regularly.
Gynecologists do prescribe boric acid suppositories for some yeast infections since they lower the pH of the vagina. They’re also available without a prescription. The products say they can help with vaginal itching and burning from yeast infections.
You’re probably better off seeing a health care provider. They’ll need to get to the bottom of what is causing your yeast infections to find a treatment that will work for you.
If you do have boric acid suppositories around, keep them out of reach of children and pets, never, ever take them by mouth and use sparingly. They are fatal if ingested. Using them every night can be irritating, affect the flora, and in extreme situations could lead to vaginal or vulvar ulcerations.
Vaginal pH test
Home health testing has increased in popularity in recent years. So it’s no surprise that you can test your vagina’s pH at home, too. Test strips allow women recovering from an infection to test their pH levels at home. The idea is the strips tell them if their treatment is working.
“These things sound good,” Dr. Marnach says. “But do you know what to do with the results?”
Instead, if symptoms persist, see your health care provider.
The verdict on vaginal health products
Unlike a lot of things in a woman’s life, you can (mostly) count on your vagina to take care of itself. But if you sense that something is wrong — like a yeast or bacterial infection — your health care team can guide you to the most effective products.
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