Erica Bloom is the Program Manager with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. The MLCV is a member of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Coalition.
The feminine care aisle at CVS radiates with blue, pink, orange, and purple packaging. Taking up most of the aisle are products designed specifically to keep a woman “fresh,” “odorless,” and “confident.” I had come to buy tampons, but when I noticed the names of the vaginal sprays and deodorizers I wondered if I had been missing something all my adult life. Why had I never made an island escape with my vagina, or sat in the cool summer’s eve with my lady parts?
Which led to the inevitable question: Do I smell bad?
It’s a question the $3 billion feminine care industry wants all women to ask themselves. In fact, they’ve developed a whole marketing campaign leading women to this question. Unfortunately, whereas other women’s health questions are useful, such as “should I get tested for STDs,” or “should I get a mammogram,” the question of “does my vagina smell like flowers” is not only un-useful, it’s dangerous.
While feminine care bottles and packages are adorned with drawings of hearts and ribbons, the products themselves are a toxic stew of hazardous ingredients. Parabens, triclosan, and benzocaine, to name a few, are virtually unregulated in these products by the FDA. But while these chemicals are known to be dangerous, the ugly truth is that with insufficient research and testing, little is known about how these chemicals interact with one of the most sensitive and absorbent parts of a women’s body.
What is known is that exposure to some of these chemicals is linked to increased risk of breast cancer, reproductive problems, asthma, and allergic reactions. But instead of acknowledging that these products may cause serious health concerns, the industry covers up the real facts with myths that a woman’s vagina is a hot spot for filth and needs regular scrubdowns to keep up healthy appearances.
Douche, for example, markets itself as a cleanser to remove chemicals, particles, bacteria, and other pollutants from a woman’s vagina. (The industry began in the 1950s by recommending that women Lysol their way to freshness down under!) Yet, a healthy vaginal canal has a self-cleaning mechanism, and needs all that lovely bacteria to keep it fully functioning, as it’s crucially important in the development of babies’ immune systems. When babies are born, they are coated in mother’s bacteria as they slide through the birth canal, making them less susceptible to auto-immune diseases.
Back in the CVS aisle I started reading the packaging on the Summer’s Eve cleansing cloths. The box read: “Do you feel the need for a little pick-me-up? No, we’re not talking about caffeinated beverages, we’re talking about Cleansing Clothes. They’re the perfect way to freshen up during your period, post-workout, and four-hour plane ride…Designed to wipe away odor causing bacteria, they’re pH-balanced to work with your body’s natural chemistry. And good news–they’re dermatologist and gynecologist tested for gentleness.”
Curious to know if I was the only one not “freshening up” after plane rides, I asked some of my female friends if they used feminine care products. Everyone responded they’d never used deodorizers, sprays or douches, but do use pads and tampons. In fact, most insisted they liked their vagina the way it is and had no problem keeping things au naturel. One friend responded, “Pheromones, baby!” Another replied that her mother loudly used to tell her not to douche while passing the cleansers in the drugstore. The embarrassment from those experiences alone were enough to keep my friend from wanting to even look at a Summer’s Eve box again.
So, if I’m not using these products, nor is my immediate friend circle, who is? Admittedly, the friends I asked were white higher education levels, and according to WVE’s Chem Fatale report, feminine ‘cleansing’ products like douche, wipes, and sprays are used more frequently by black and Latina women, and douching is more frequently practiced among women with lower levels of education and of lower socio-economic status. Though with only a few studies in existence, it’s difficult to get a solid understanding of the cultural reasons for cleansing versus non-cleansing.
But regardless of demographics, the real stink in all this artificial “freshness” is that under our country’s current regulatory laws, the FDA has little authority to require pre-market safety testing and ultimately removal of these hazardous chemicals. That companies are allowed to develop market campaigns to persuade women—particularly women of color—to spray, wipe, or insert toxins literally into their vagina is a matter of reproductive justice; one that pits women’s health against the chemical industry’s deep pockets.
A pillar of reproductive justice is the idea that women have the right to make personal decisions about their bodies, and that society and government have an obligation to ensure that conditions are suitable for implementing one’s decisions. While I decided to pass over the sprays, deodorizers and cleansers at CVS, I reserve my right to advise other women whether or not they should use these products.
What I will advocate for is the premise that women of all cultures, races, and socio-economic status deserve, first, the right to know what ingredients are in these products, and second, not to be exposed to toxic chemicals in feminine care products once and for all.
And one more thing. Georgia O’Keefe never intended her flower paintings to resemble giant…well, you know what, at this point. While O’Keefe insisted her brilliant watercolors were enlarged flowers, nothing more, it was her (mostly male) critics who turned her work into the archetype it’s known for today. So I advocate for a third thing, as a matter of principle: Let’s stop comparing vaginas to flowers and expecting they smell like them too.
Learn more about reducing your exposure to toxic chemicals in feminine care products.