In early 2018, Huda Kattan wrote a blog post on her site that baffled a lot of her fans. In "Why Your Vagina Gets Dark And How To Lighten It," the beauty vlogger shared her "DIY hacks" to change the color of one's genital area and to "correct" darker vulva tissue. The backlash was swift and effective; the post was subsequently deleted. Still, the treatment is being performed more and more in doctors' offices and medical spas, so it nevertheless seems this controversial topic is still on many minds.
Refinery29's U.K. site recently reported that "an increasing number of private clinics in the U.K. are offering 'intimate skin whitening' procedures (known less euphemistically as 'vagina bleaching') to permanently remove darker colored tissue in the area." And while New York City-based dermatologist Shari Marchbein tells Allure that the trend is most popular in the Middle East and Europe, vulva lightening does seem to be catching on in the U.S.
To get to the bottom of the processes and risks that vaginal lightening actually entails, as well as the body-shaming sentiments that some feel these treatments stem from, we spoke to a few medical experts.
How does "vaginal lightening" work?
A Google search of "laser vaginal lightening" brings up the websites for medical clinics across the country that offer the service, including in major cities like Miami, Phoenix, and San Francisco. Called "intimate area lightening" by some and "vaginal bleaching" by others, these practices — often run by plastic surgeons, dermatologists, or gynecologists — promise to "remove genital discoloration" after just a few chemical or laser treatments. But to call it a "discoloration" implies there's something wrong with the color in the first place, and that's a pretty big issue.
Not only does this create a problem where there is none, it may put additional undue pressure on those with darker skin tones, who are not only more prone to hyperpigmentation but also the target audience of troubling marketing that pressures people of color to lighten their skin.
"There is no average vulvar skin color, but instead, like size and shape, the color varies from one person to the next," Marchbein tells Allure. It is not uncommon for the vulva to be darker than the surrounding skin due to hormonal changes at puberty."
Mary Rosser, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and practicing doctor at Columbia University Medical Center, says that although a sudden change in color paired with discomfort may signal that something is medically wrong, she agrees with Marchbein about the wide range of possible vulva shades. "Depending on a person's ethnicity, the color may be naturally pink to purple to brown," she says.
Why do people seek these treatments?
So, if virtually every vulva color is normal, what's driving people to pursue this treatment? At least one of the clinics offering the treatments (which range from about $150 to $350 per session) says that the desire for lighter-colored genitals may very well trace back to the adult film industry. Additionally, as nudity has become more commonplace in mainstream movies, which have also influenced viewers' perceptions of their own and other's bodies, some people began to find genitals that are darker than the rest of the body "off-putting," according to that same clinic's site.
What are the risks, according to doctors?
Although Marchbein herself does not perform or recommend this kind of treatment, she explains that those who do it use chemical bleaching agents similar to those used to minimize the appearance of hyperpigmentation elsewhere on the body, like hydroquinone and kojic acid. They also may use various fractionated lasers that can help lighten the skin — and she's not a fan of either idea.
"Using bleaching creams to lighten the skin or lasers to help remove pigment are both medically unnecessary and could have harmful side effects to the delicate and sensitive tissue of the vulva," Marchbein tells Allure, listing burning, blistering, allergic reactions, redness, irritation, and scarring among the potential side effects.
The verdict? Skip this trend.
Rosser also advises against the treatments, saying labia and vulva color are unique to each person and are totally natural and healthy. She encourages folks to embrace how every part of their bodies looks and not settle for partners who would want them to do this. "Every bit of you is acceptable and makes you special."
Marchbein couldn't agree more: "This is simply another way to make women feel insecure about our normal and beautiful anatomy," she says.
The decision to pursue any cosmetic procedure — vaginal lightening included — is entirely your own. However, it's important to honestly evaluate why you want to make the change, especially when there are serious risks and strong opposition from many in the medical community.
More about already-perfect vulvas and vaginas:
- Sheet Masks for Your Vagina Are a Thing Now — Experts Weigh In on Whether They're Safe to Try
- The Truth About Whether 5 "Vaginal Tightening Treatments" Actually Work
- Your Vulva Is Not Your Vagina — Here's the Difference
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