Merchants of Shame

The problem with Vagisil and the feminine hygiene industry

The feminine hygiene industry takes the oldest patriarchal commandment — that the vagina, vulva, and menstruation are inherently dirty and problematic — and weaponizes it to sell useless and often harmful products to women. Feminine hygiene taps into a primal fear about reproductive tract cleanliness, and it’s a gold mine. 

Until recently, the target audience was the 18+ market, but Vagisil® decided to buck that trend with a product line designed specifically for teens. Enter OMV! Which I guess is “Oh, my vagina!” Vagisil® is offering OMV! as some form of cool teen vagina empowerment, but it’s the equivalent of adding bubblegum flavoring to a vape. Which is why when I brought attention to it on social media it drew such a firestorm — OB/GYNs, family doctors, pediatricians, and dermatologists took to Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok to share their disgust, as did thousands of women, many who shared their own stories of using these products out of shame or lack of knowledge and furious that they would be marketed to teens. 

When I say feminine hygiene products, I don’t mean menstrual products (pads, tampons, cups, and period underwear). Feminine hygiene is an industry that peddles an array of washes, wipes, sprays, suppositories, powders, deodorants, vaginal steams, tiny bags of herbs, and douches that claim to do one or more (sometimes all) of the following: prevent or treat odor, balance the vaginal pH, clean, detox, or achieve that elusive goal of feminine freshness. These products are not fringe; this is an industry. Walk through the aisles of any drug store, browse online, or scroll Instagram, and you will be met with a dizzying array of products to improve the vagina and vulva. While I am not privy to the motivation behind the Vagisil® teen product line, I do know from watching this space for years that there is an ever increasing number of so-called “natural” products, such as washes, vaginal steams, tea tree oil suppositories, “detox yoni pearls” (which I helped get banned in Canada), and wipes. I can imagine how this natural trend might affect market share, so Vagisil® may have needed to reassert their legacy brand’s leadership position, and what better way than by using a brand extension strategy to get teens to believe that a creamsicle-scented vulva is fetch.

Whether a bag of herbs, oak galls, tea tree oil suppositories, wipes, sprays, or washes, they are all part of the same crime family that weaponizes shame and medical misinformation. Vaginal hygiene products exist because women and girls are told their vaginas are dirty and problematic. They are either too wet or too dry. Too gross. Too smelly. It’s worth noting that the language used by feminine hygiene is also the language of purity culture. A woman who is sexually active is dirty and loose. Being wet is viewed as a sign of being sexually experienced and hence impure. A clean, dry, tight, pretty package is the promise. For much of recorded time, a woman has been judged by her ability to have children. By conflating cleanliness with good reproductive health, feminine hygiene also taps into this aspect of patriarchy.   

Vagisil® isn’t shy about leaning into this messaging — their advertisements warn of something they call “period funk,” which I guess is their attempt to refresh the term feminine odor. It’s worth noting that they are creating a devil term here, a vague term that nonetheless has inherent negative potency. Vagisil® doesn't have to say what is actually wrong with the vulva or vagina, they just create this term and let the reader fill in the rest. The marketing for OMV! also references a “glow-up,” a transition from an ugly duckling to swan popularized in videos on TikTok and Instagram. Think Cinderella before and after the magic. The cure for your ugly, funky, unpresentable cinder vagina? A creamsicle scent from Vagisil®. 

Vagisil® defended their actions in a statement by noting they are a woman-run brand. But this only makes it more jarring that their solution to addressing entrenched fears about nonexistent odor or concerns about the attractiveness of a teen vulva is to become part of the problem. Vagisil® claims that during product development they spoke with 2,500 moms and teens and are simply meeting their needs. It doesn’t surprise me that some of the moms and teens may have had concerns about “feminine freshness” because messaging that the vagina is problematic is everywhere. It’s hard to believe that Vagisil® presented these mom-teen dyads with all the facts they needed to conclude a creamsicle-scented wash for the “external vaginal area” was desirable. To make an informed choice, people first need all the information. While I don’t know the questions asked by Team Vagisil®, I doubt they informed the mothers and teens of all the health risks associated with these products like I’m now going to do. 

Medically, so-called feminine hygiene products are unnecessary at best, but many are harmful. And that includes every product from Vagisil® to the handmade confections on GYNO Etsy, yogurt douche recipes on TikTok, natural wipes, odor control suppositories, and feminine washes — whether from a big brand or a small business. 

Here’s what you should know about these products, with a special emphasis on OMV!

The vagina should never be cleaned

The vagina has an intricate ecosystem that includes lactobacilli, other helpful bacteria, and mucus. The normal discharge seen on underwear is not bad or harmful, rather it’s a sign that this system is working to keep the vagina healthy and is protecting the body from pathogens. I maintain that if everyone understood the elegance of vaginal discharge and the myriad of ways it protects the reproductive tract as I do, it would be a source of pride, not shame. 

Multiple studies have shown attempts at intravaginal cleaning — even with water — disrupt this ecosystem, likely by killing the protective bacteria and damaging the mucus, but there may be other mechanisms. The consequences are an increased risk of acquiring sexually transmitted infections (STIs) if exposed and an increased risk of serious pelvic infections, premature delivery, ectopic pregnancy, and bacterial vaginosis. Douches carry a warning label for this reason. Think of intravaginal cleaning as cigarettes for the vagina. 

As the protective mechanisms in the vagina are easily disrupted with cleaning products causing serious consequences, many people use the analogy of a self-cleaning oven. Add a cleaner to the coating on a self-cleaning oven and you damage that coating. It’s a fair comparison.

Despite this canon, Vagisil® claims the vagina needs to be cleaned. No really, they do. They even have a video about it on YouTube and have that same messaging on their website. I’m not going to link to them, but here are some screenshots.  

Vagisil® repeatedly conflates the vagina (inside the body) and vulva (outside, where the clothes touch the skin) with terms like “vaginal area” and “external vaginal use” in their videos, on their website, and on social media. They repeatedly use the term “vaginal health” for a product designed to be used externally. Perhaps they know the proper naming of the product should have been Vulvasil? Or maybe they more malevolently don’t care about conflating the two because they know intravaginal washing is practiced by 32-45% of women ages 15-49 and these external products are often used internally. In one study, 22% of women used wipes internally in the vagina. Lack of clarity here could clearly increase this practice. A teen watching the Vagisil® video might easily think she should be using this wash inside her vagina. It’s also possible the people at Vagisil® don’t know that the vagina is inside and the vulva is outside. 

Feminine hygiene products can’t benefit vaginal pH

The confusing language used by Vagisil® could easily lead someone to think these products can help maintain an acidic vaginal pH. This is impossible for any product, vaginal or vulvar. Vaginal pH is controlled by the lactobacilli, and multiple studies have shown intravaginal products can’t acidify or lower vaginal pH for more than a few hours. In fact, inserting cleansing products vaginally kills lactobacilli and other healthy bacteria raising the pH, meaning making the vagina less acidic (not good, and one mechanism by which these products lead to infections and other serious consequences). 

As for balancing the vulvar pH…not a thing. Vulvar pH is also acidic and important for vulvar health. Soap can interact with skin, raising the pH, which is one of the reasons soap isn’t recommended on the vulva. The best a cleanser can do is not raise the pH of the vulva. Gentle cleansers have been tested on the skin of newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), adults in the ICU, and patients with skin conditions such as rosacea, because not raising skin pH is important for a cleanser. So we have some data about some products (although, admittedly, not how they might affect the vulva, but these data are better than no data). Vagisil® OMV! is not a gentle cleanser like these products. 

Feminine hygiene products are associated with skin irritation and infections

Skin irritation and inflammation (dermatitis) of the vulva and the area around the anus due to feminine washes and wipes is well-described. Vulvar skin has different properties that may make it more vulnerable to irritation. The Vagisil® OMV! wash is particularly concerning irritation-wise as it contains fragrance (a common source of irritant reactions) and two exfoliating agents — salicylic acid and lactic acid. Salicylic acid can be irritating and even lead to mild skin peeling depending on the product. It is not well tested on the vulva. Regularly using a product on the vulva with two exfoliating agents is not something I recommend. If Vagisil® has data to suggest otherwise, I challenge them to publish it in a peer-reviewed journal. If they have something to teach me, I stand by ready to learn.

The vulva requires very little, if any, special care. While many people find water on the vulva is enough, others may prefer a cleanser. A gentle, unscented facial cleanser (such as CeraVe, Eucerin, or Cetaphil) is typically fine. Vagisil® is not this kind of cleanser. 

Feminine hygiene products are associated with an increase risk of infections

We’ve covered the harm of intravaginal cleaning, but the use of external products — specifically wipes and washes — is also linked with urinary tract infections (UTIs) and bacterial vaginosis. Again, the very conditions many women are hoping to prevent by using these products. While this data shows only an association, not proof of causation, there are several mechanisms by which wipes and washes could be harmful and lead to these infections, possibly by affecting the vulvar pH or the microbiome of the vulva or because they are also being used intravaginally.

I regularly see women who have used washes and wipes to treat an itch or used them because they think they are beneficial (when a product claims it is gynecologist tested that is not an illogical conclusion). This starts a cycle of itching or odor, which is then misdiagnosed as yeast or bacterial vaginosis. Many women who believe they have chronic yeast infections or bacterial vaginosis really have a vulvar dermatitis due in part to these products. Judging by the reaction on social media, many of my medical peers have also seen this phenomenon.

The feminine hygiene industry is a particular concern for BIPOC women

While intravaginal washing is common, several studies indicate it’s most commonly practiced by Black women, so ads targeting youth may disproportionately affect Black teens. According to OB/GYN Dr. Heather Irobunda, “Products like Vagisil, especially OMV!, target girls and women of color in low resource settings.” She has a fantastic video on her Instagram detailing her concerns (and she is definitely a must follow). She explained to me that there are many reasons that can make BIPOC women and teens more vulnerable to the messaging of feminine hygiene products, including cultural reasons that impact education about genital care, lack of insurance or being under-insured, or being undocumented to name a few. She also adds that “when it comes to GYN care, these women are more likely to attempt to self-treat vaginal irritation, itching, or odor with these products.” 

Wait, even wipes are bad? 

I trust women to use toilet paper or water after they go to the bathroom. The question is why doesn’t everyone? I also know there is no such thing as feminine odor or feminine freshness. So what purpose does a wipe serve except causing perianal dermatitis, potentially increasing the risk of UTIs and vaginal infections, and reinforcing patriarchal beliefs about genital panics? 

The only people who can benefit from wipes are people with incontinence. If stool or urine stay on the skin, they can cause irritation and even impact skin integrity. Stool and urine can also cause odor. Having wipes to facilitate cleanup while away from your own bathroom can be beneficial. Might they be useful for someone with very heavy periods who is soaking clothes in public? Yes, they could be helpful to clean up blood on the thighs, but if bleeding is that heavy, what is really needed is medical care. Flooding is almost always a sign of abnormally heavy menstruation.  

As a 54-year-old gynecologist who specializes in disorders of the vulva and the vagina, I have never once personally used or recommended these products for any kind of vaginal or vulvar maintenance, nor would I. If I thought they were healthy or necessary medically, I would. Trust me.

Women do have medical conditions that affect their vulvas and vaginas. They can have itching, pain with sex, heavy discharge, or odor. I know the feminine hygiene industry preys on them and that many of these women have been failed by the medical system. That is why I have this Substack and why I wrote The Vagina Bible. Some of these conditions can be challenging to treat — such as recurrent yeast or BV — as they are the result of a complex dysbiosis (bacterial changes) in the vaginal ecosystem. I can understand why women could be lured by feminine hygiene products offering near-magical solutions, especially when their concerns have been dismissed by their health care provider. But if a company truly had the answer to these challenging medical concerns, we’d know by now. 

We have huge communication and treatment gaps in medicine — especially when it comes to vaginal and vulvar health — but the feminine hygiene industry isn’t filling those gaps, it is exploiting them. Whether a big company or a small business making bespoke natural products, they are all causing the same harm. 

I don’t know for sure what Vagisil® intended the acronym OMV to stand for, but from my point of view, it means, “Ouch, my vagina.” And it isn’t a term that is unique to Vagisil®; it belongs to every company and person who participates in the feminine hygiene industry.

They are all merchants of toxicity and shame.