In ancient times, women would squirt olive oil, honey, or wine inside themselves as an ineffective method of birth control. Vaginal douches because widely used in the 1830s, when an American doctor widely recommended them as a way to prevent pregnancy. From then, they became a popular commercial product, with women using a mixture of water and vinegar, or even toxic household cleaning products to try and avoid unwanted pregnancies.
These days, between 20-40% of American women aged between 15 to 44 say that they use a vaginal douche. The main use nowadays is professed to be hygiene, to remove unpleasant odors, and to wash away blood after a period. Some also say they use douching to avoid sexually transmitted infections (STIs), as well as the old favorite – contraception.
But are vaginal douches safe? Despite what you may have heard, there is no scientific evidence to show that douching works effectively for any of these uses. In fact, this practice can do the exact opposite of what its intended purpose is, and it can lead to some rather nasty complications.
What Is Douching?
“Douche” is a loan word from 18th century France, and in this context means to “wash” or “soak”. In modern French and many other European languages, the word just means “shower” these days.
Douching is primarily a method of washing out a woman’s vagina, using a mixture of water and vinegar, or other antiseptic chemicals and fragrances. Douches normally come in the form of a squeezable bottle or bag, attached to a tube which is inserted into the vagina. The liquid container is squeezed, which sprays the mixture into the vagina. The mixture then comes back out again, supposedly cleaning the vagina in the process.
Does It Work?
The short answer is no. Vaginal douching does not work for the intended purpose, and doctors recommend that you don’t do it unless directed to by a healthcare professional for medical reasons.
Rather than reducing the risks of STIs, for example, it can actually provide a vector for infection, as it can push the harmful microbes deeper into your reproductive system. It has also been linked with cervical cancer, an increased likelihood of infections, and reduced fertility, among other complications.
Bacterial Vaginosis (Vaginal Infections)
The vagina has a natural microbiome of helpful and harmful bacteria called vaginal flora, as well as a naturally acidic pH balance. The bacteria help to keep the vaginal environment acidic, which in turn protects the vagina from infections.
Using a douche disturbs this natural balance, which makes the conditions more favorable for the harmful bacteria to grow. This can lead to vaginal infections. Bacterial vaginosis can increase the chances of the woman catching an STI, as well as the chances of preterm labor in pregnant women.Studies have indicated that women who stopped using douches became less likely to get a vaginal infection.
Sexually Transmitted Infections
A number of STIs don’t show symptoms in many of the people who contract them. Chlamydia and gonorrhea are two such infections that are especially linked with pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can lead to infertility, ectopic pregnancies, and cancer.
Studies have shown that women who use vaginal douches are significantly more likely to be infected with cervical chlamydia. The more often they douched, the higher the likelihood of their having an infection. There is also some evidence that suggests that women who alter their vaginal flora and acidity by douching are more susceptible to infection by HIV.
Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)
PID is the term for when you have an infection in your uterus, fallopian tubes, and/or your ovaries. It has been linked with tubal infertility, sterility, tuboovarian abscess, endometritiss, chronic pelvic pain, ectopic pregnancy, and cancer. It affects over one million women in the USA every year, and it costs over $9 billion in healthcare annually.
Studies have shown that using a douche can increase the chances of PID between 30-70%, depending on your age, race, and how often you use the douche. It is posited that the increased chance of infection is due to two factors. For one, the water mixture pushes vaginal bacteria or existing infections into the normally sterile upper reproductive system. But the infection also comes from changes in the vaginal environment, which allow for the growth of bacteria that cause PID.
Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers among women worldwide. It is closely linked with infection by human papillomavirus (HPV), a disease that can be transmitted sexually or even just by skin contact.
Multiple studies have shown a link between douching once a week, and an increased likelihood of contracting cervical cancer. The more frequent the douching, the higher the risk of cancer.
What You Can Do Instead
The weight of the evidence shows that squirting water and chemicals up your vagina is not only ineffective, it also increases your risks of infection, infertility, and cancer. So, what can you do instead?
Well, it’s worth keeping in mind that your vagina is very much capable of keeping itself clean. It produces mucus, which then washes away any blood, semen, and vaginal discharges. Putting chemicals or scents up there can disturb this process and increase the chances of infection.
Washing the outside of your vagina with warm water while bathing will help to keep you healthy downstairs. You can use a mild, unscented soap, though if you have sensitive skin or current vaginal infection, this might cause dryness and irritation. If you have concerns about odor, it helps to know that a mild odor is perfectly normal, and that physical activity can make this stronger and muskier.
Don’t Be a Douche – Stop Using a Douche
Are vaginal douches safe? There is a wealth of scientific studies and research that shows that it is not only unsafe, but potentially quite dangerous to keep using douches. It doesn’t work as a contraceptive, it doesn’t make you cleaner or help you smell better, and it makes STIs more likely rather than less. Potentially, douching could even lead to you contracting a host of diseases or even cancer. Much better to trust in your body’s natural ability to clean itself.