Despite warnings from gynecologists, women regularly turn to douches, vaginal wipes, and moisturizers to try to “clean” themselves below the belt. But a new study finds that women who use these products are three times more likely to contract a vaginal infection than those who don’t.
For the study, which was published in the journal BMC Women’s Health, researchers from the University of Guelph in Ontario surveyed nearly 1,500 Canadian women about their overall vaginal health, any products they used, and how often they had vaginal issues. A whopping 95 percent of the women surveyed reported using some type of vaginal product, with the most common being anti-itch creams, moisturizers and lubricants, and feminine wipes.
The researchers found that women who use gel sanitizers are eight times more likely to have a yeast infection than those who don’t, and almost 20 times more likely to get a bacterial infection. Similarly, women who used feminine washes or gels are nearly 3.5 times more likely to have a bacterial infection and 2.5 times more likely to report a urinary tract infection. Those who use feminine wipes are twice as likely to have a UTI, and those who use lubricants or moisturizers are 2.5 times more likely to have a yeast infection.
The researchers point out that it’s hard to know whether the products themselves are causing the infections or whether the women are using the products to try to address their vaginal issues. But, they note, there is definitely a link.
The news isn’t shocking to experts. Many of these products contain fragrances or antiseptics that can disrupt the vaginal flora, the natural balance of bacteria that exists in the vagina, women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, MD, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “When the balance is messed up, the result can make it easier for the ‘bad’ bacteria to grow and cause an infection,” she says. Feminine douches or washes are particularly concerning, Wider says, pointing out that the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, and many health experts warn against it.
Of course, it could be that some women are resorting to using these products when they already have an issue. “There are women who will self-treat if they have a vaginal discharge or odor,” Jessica Shepherd, MD, a minimally invasive gynecologist at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “But then they’re not getting to the source of the issue and are just masking it or even exacerbating it.”
The vagina and vulvar region are self-cleaning, making all of these products unnecessary, Christine Greves, MD, a board-certified ob-gyn at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies in Orlando, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Your vaginal microbiome is helpful at preventing infections like bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections,” she says. “But it’s very sensitive, and feminine products can inevitably affect that area, especially if you put them inside your vagina.”
It’s important for women to understand that it’s normal for the vagina to have a slight odor, Shepherd says. “It’s usually a slight musky smell, but it shouldn’t be overwhelming,” she says. “If it varies from that, you need to let your doctor know.”
If you’re concerned about your normal vaginal odor, Wider recommends showering regularly and using a small amount of mild, unscented soap with water on your external genitalia only. Certain infections, like bacterial vaginosis, can cause a strong vaginal odor that need a doctor’s care, Greves points out, and masking it with a product isn’t going to fix the underlying problem. So, if you notice that your vaginal scent is off or you have another vaginal issue that you’ve been attempting to self-treat, see your ob-gyn. They should be able to help.
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