by Michelle Foster

In 2017, U.S. women spent $5.9 billion on feminine hygiene products. Worldwide, this figure increases to $20.62 billion annually. Many of these dollars purchase basics, like pads and tampons. However, some women also purchase douches.

Are these purchases money well spent? What is a douche? Is douching safe? Does it promote feminine health? In fact, the answer to each of those questions is no. Douching is unnecessary and can be harmful to a woman's overall health.

Read on to learn more about douching, including its purpose, risks, and alternatives.

 

What Is Douching?

To "douche" means to "wash" or "soak." Douching is the process of using water and other fluids to clean the inside of the vagina.

Douching products are commonly sold in stores. These products are prepackaged and include a mixture of water and baking soda, iodine, or vinegar. Store-bought douches come in a bottle or bag. A nozzle or tube is used to insert the mixture into the vagina.

Some women make their own douches using "recipes" they find online. However, these DIY mixtures can be even more dangerous than store-bought products.

 

Why Do Women Douche?

Daily feminine and overall hygiene involves washing the exterior genital region. This includes the vulva and its folds, which protect the vaginal opening. Warm water is sufficient and safe for this daily cleaning. Many women also choose to use a mild soap that doesn't irritate the tender skin. When washing the vulva, it's important to avoid getting soap into the vagina. 

While cleaning the exterior genital area is sufficient for feminine health, some women believe that it's necessary to clean the interior of the vagina as well. Many women chose to douche because they associate the practice with a "fresher" and "cleaner" feel.

After a menstrual period or sexual intercourse, women hope douching will wash away menstrual blood or semen.

Some women even believe that douching can offer protection against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. The medical evidence is clear, however. Douching does not protect against unintended pregnancy. It also provides no protection against STIs.

In fact, douching increases a woman's risk for infection. It can also make it more difficult for her to get pregnant in the future.

Finally, many women simply hope douching will eliminate vaginal odors. Again, this practice is unnecessary, ineffective, and potentially dangerous.

 

Why Is Douching Unnecessary? 

Doctors recommend that women only clean the exterior genital region. They also recommend that women avoid introducing any cleansing products to the vagina itself. Cleaning the inside of the vagina is simply unnecessary, as the vagina cleans itself.

The vagina produces mucous that cleans the vaginal canal. These natural secretions wash away menstrual blood, semen, and vaginal discharge. Normal vaginal discharge includes old vaginal cells, bacteria, yeast, and viruses.

 

Why is Douching Ineffective and Dangerous?

Doctors recommend against douching not only because the practice is unnecessary but also because it is ineffective and potentially harmful.

The Vagina: A Complex and Naturally Balanced Environment

The vagina is a complex environment that includes the body's natural fluids, cells, and good bacteria. It also includes the materials those cells and good bacteria need to survive, like glycogen. Maintaining a healthy vaginal environment means supporting the body in its efforts to keep this complex environment balanced.

A balanced vaginal environment relies on a natural mucous coating to protect and clean the vaginal walls. It also has a healthy balance of good and harmful bacteria. Finally, a healthy vagina maintains a normal pH level. The pH level refers to the level of acidity or alkalinity in an environment, and it affects what organisms can survive.

A "normal" vaginal pH level can vary among women and across different stages of life. In general, however, a healthy vagina maintains a pH level between 3.8 and 4.5. This level is moderately acidic. Because this level is not conducive to the survival of yeast, viruses, and bad bacteria, a normal pH level protects the vagina and female reproductive organs.

Douching: Upsetting the Vagina's Natural Balance 

Introducing foreign substances into the vagina's carefully regulated environment upsets its natural balance.

Douching upsets this balance by washing too many of the body's natural secretions away. In "cleaning" the vagina, douching removes the mucous that provides the vaginal canal with natural protection against harmful bacteria and viruses.

It also removes the glycogen that good bacteria need to survive. It even removes the good bacteria. Removing good bacteria is problematic because it is these good bacteria that help maintain a normal pH level. 

In the vagina, good bacteria include Lactobacillus. These good bacteria produce lactic acid. Lactic acid molecules, in turn, are responsible for keeping the vagina's pH level around 4.

When good bacteria can't produce lactic acid, the vagina's pH level can rise. Higher pH levels create an ideal environment for yeast and bad bacteria to grow and lead to odor. 

 

What Risks Are Associated with Douching?

By altering the natural vaginal ecosystem, douching increases the risk of infections and other gynecological problems.

Yeast Infections

Yeast infections are infections in the vagina caused by excessive growth of Candida, a microscopic fungus. A healthy vagina may include some yeast, but a proper pH level keeps its growth in check. When pH levels in the vagina rise, these fungi can reproduce more easily. 

Douching alters the pH level of the vaginal environment and can increase the risk of yeast infections.

Symptoms of a yeast infection include:

    • Burning, itching, redness, and swelling around the vagina or vulva
    • Pain while urinating or during sex
    • Vaginal discharge that is abnormally white and thick

Yeast infections are easily treatable with antifungal medication and over-the-counter medications are proven effective.

However, yeast infection symptoms are similar to symptoms of more serious vaginal conditions, so it's important for women to see a doctor right away if they suspect a yeast infection.

Bacterial Vaginosis

Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is also a common feminine health condition. Like a yeast infection, BV is easily treatable. If it is untreated, however, BV can increase a woman's risk for STIs and complications during pregnancy.

BV occurs when harmful bacteria outnumber good bacteria in the vagina. Again, douching can increase the risk for BV by altering the vagina's pH level and washing away good bacteria and the glycogen good bacteria need to survive.

Symptoms of BV include:

    • Abnormal vaginal discharge that has a white or grey color, a foamy or watery appearance, and a potentially strong fishy odor
    • Burning, itching, redness, and swelling around the vagina or vulva
    • A burning sensation or pain while urinating or during sex

Many of these symptoms are similar to the symptoms of a yeast infection. It is, therefore, important for women to see their doctor when they notice these symptoms. Only a doctor can provide a proper diagnosis and treatment.

Women who are diagnosed with BV are treated with antibiotics.

Pelvic Inflammatory Disease

While yeast infections and BV affect the vaginal canal, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) affects other reproductive organs. These include the uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and cervix.

Bacteria from STIs are a leading cause of PID. However, an overgrowth of bacteria that are naturally present in the vagina can also cause PID.

Douching increases the risk of PID in several ways.

First, douching increases the risk of yeast infections and BV. Frequent yeast infections and BV increase a woman's risk for PID.

Second, if a woman douches while she has a yeast infection or BV, she risks pushing the bacteria from these infections into other organs of the reproductive system.

Finally, douching increases a woman's risk for STIs. Again, STIs are associated with an increased risk for PID.

Symptoms of PID can vary from mild to severe, and they can come on suddenly. Some women with PID have no symptoms. Women who experience symptoms might notice:

    • Pain in the lower abdomen or, less commonly, in the upper right abdomen
    • Fever
    • Foul-smelling vaginal discharge
    • Pain during urination or sex
    • Irregular periods

PID is a serious infection with serious complications. However, it can be treated. Most women can be treated with a combination of antibiotics targeting the different strains of bacteria. If symptoms persist, a woman's doctor might recommend surgery.

Early diagnosis and treatment are important for preventing complications of PID, which include:

    • Chronic pelvic pain
    • Scarring
    • Infertility
    • Ectopic pregnancy

Sexually Transmitted Infections

A common misconception about douching is that it can protect a woman from STIs. However, medical evidence does not support this assertion. In fact, douching can increase a woman's risk of infection, including HIV, by altering the pH level and balance of good and bad bacteria in a healthy vagina.

The only effective ways to reduce the risk of STIs are to:

    • Know and limit sexual partners
    • Use a condom
    • Know and limit sexual acts that risk tearing the skin
    • Get available vaccines 

Infertility and Problems during Pregnancy

While douching provides no protection against unintended pregnancy, it can make it more difficult for a woman to become pregnant in the long term.

A study in the American Journal of Public Health found that women who tried to become pregnant after douching were 30% less likely to succeed than women who had not douched.

Because douching is also associated with conditions that can damage the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries, it can also contribute to problems during pregnancy. These include ectopic pregnancy and pre-term birth.

Vaginal Irritation and Dryness

Even if a woman avoids serious complications from douching, she may experience discomfort from vaginal irritation and dryness. The vaginal canal is a naturally moist environment, and the mucous lining maintains this moisture.

Douching washes this mucous away, drying the vaginal canal and exposing the vaginal walls to irritants.

 

Alternatives to Douching

Because the vagina cleans itself, douching is not necessary and is potentially harmful. Even a clean and healthy vagina can have a natural smell. This mild odor may increase and become muskier when a woman is physically active. 

Some women find this odor unpleasant and even embarrassing. As a result, they look for odor control solutions. Because of the associated risks, douching should never be among these solutions.

Deodorants

Women seeking relief from intimate odors can find a safer and more effective solution in deodorant products designed for external use on the genitals. 

Lume Deodorants are available in a stick or a tube for easy application. These deodorant products are clinically proven to provide 72-hour odor control.

Because Lume was developed by a gynecologist and usedexternally, Lume Deodorant is safe and does not disrupt the natural vaginal environment. They do not include ingredients, like aluminum, baking soda, parabens, and artificial fragrances, that alter the natural acidity and irritate the sensitive skin of the genital area. For particularly sensitive skin, Lume also offers an unscented option. 

Wipes 

For odor control and a feeling of freshness on the go, women can also use deodorant wipes. Although a different formula, Lume Wipes contain the same safe odor controlling ingredients as the cream deodorant. However, they're portable and convenient. They're also biodegradable and compostable.

Soaps

Regularly cleaning the exterior genital region is an important part of feminine hygiene and odor control. Many women use the same soap on their private parts as they use on the rest of their bodies. When this soap is well-chosen and formulated, this practice is safe. However, the pH of many commercially available soaps can alter the ph level and natural balance of vaginal bacteria.

It's wise, therefore, to use a soap specially designed to maintain sensitive skin's natural acidity.

Like Lume Deodorant, Lume Soap is designed by a doctor to clean and protect against odors safely and effectively. 

 

Maintaining Overall Feminine Hygiene and Health—Safely

Besides using external deodorant developed for our intimate area, and regularly bathing, women concerned with vaginal odors should take a holistic approach. This means scheduling regular checkups with a gynecologist and monitoring themselves for symptoms of infections.

A healthy vagina can have a mild odor, but particularly strong and unpleasant odors can be signs of an underlying problem. Douching to remove these odors can delay diagnosis and treatment. 

Women who are concerned about odors and are unable to control them using external products should consult a medical professional. A doctor can determine if an odor is merely unpleasant or an indication of a more serious condition.

 

To Douche or Not to Douche Is No Longer a Question: The Answer is Don't Douche

Women who chose to douche believe the practice promotes cleanliness and controls odor. Some women even believe douching can protect them from STIs and pregnancy.

In fact, douching conveys none of these benefits. However, douching does increase a woman's risk of serious infections, infertility, and other health conditions.

If you douche or have considered douching to control odor, we recommend using Lume’s external deodorant cream. If odor does not resolve after a day or two of use, then consult your doctor about a more concerning vaginal condition.

Michelle Foster
Michelle Foster



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