There’s a longstanding narrative in the female hygiene world that the vagina is an organ that needs professional cleaning — ideally, via steam. But as a 62-year-old woman in Canada who suffered “second-degree burns” from vaginal steaming learned recently, this concept may not be as harmless as it sounds.
The report, published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology Canada, says that the woman found herself in extreme pain after spending 20 minutes sitting over a pot of boiling water and herbs. The authors write that vaginal steaming “has gained increased popularity” as a way for women to “achieve empowerment” by “providing vaginal tightening and to ‘freshen’ the vagina.” But they conclude that it’s important for doctors to “be aware of alternative treatments available to women so that counseling may mitigate any potential harm.”
In reactions online, some brought up one of the biggest celebrities to endorse vaginal steaming, Gwyneth Paltrow.
The practice was undoubtedly popularized by Paltrow, who mentioned it in a Goop newsletter in 2015, and encouraged anyone “in the LA area” to try it. “You sit on what is essentially a mini-throne, and a combination of infrared and mugwort steam cleanses your uterus, et al.,” she wrote, according to Salon. “It is an energetic release — not just a steam douche — that balances female hormone levels.”
While the actress may have brought it into the mainstream, vaginal steaming is nothing new. According to a 2010 piece from the LA Times, the practice derives from a “centuries-old Korean remedy,” which claims that vaginal steam baths can “reduce stress, fight infections, clear hemorrhoids, regulate menstrual cycles” and more. Those claims, while alluring, aren’t medically sound.
In a post on her blog in 2015, popular medical myth-buster Jen Gunter, MD, a board-certified ob-gyn, set the record straight. “The vagina (and uterus and vulva for that matter) should be viewed as self-cleaning ovens,” Gunter writes. “...We don’t know the effect of steam on the lower reproductive tract, but the lactobacilli strains that keep vaginas healthy are very finicky about their environment and raising the temperature with steam...is likely not beneficial and is potentially harmful.”
Gunter — who is releasing a book on myths like this one titled The Vagina Bible — adds that the steam itself could contain “volatile substances” that could actively damage the vagina, and that despite Paltrow’s mention of it cleansing the uterus, air “does not magically wander from the vagina into the uterus.”
As a medical professional who is vehemently opposed to the practice, Gunter is far from alone. When Chrissy Teigen posted a picture of herself appearing to steam her vagina last year, a doctor told NBC’s Today that the practice should be avoided. "I would never recommend vaginal steaming to any of my patients," April Dunmyre, MD, told Today. "If they are getting their water to boiling, it's going to be warm and we worry about burns that would be difficult to treat."
While it may be understandable for women to want their bodies to be in optimal form, the study this week is proof that vaginal steaming isn’t a good way to get there. Plus, as Gunter adds, there are lots of alternate paths to take. “If you want to feel relaxed get a good massage,” she writes. “If you want to relax your vagina, have an orgasm.”
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