The troubled legacy of feminine care products

The troubled legacy of feminine care products

Washes and wipes remain popular, especially among Black women, even though doctors say they are unnecessary and potentially harmful.

(Advertising Educational Foundation; iStock; María Alconada Brooks/The Washington Post)

The Honey Pot Co., one of several Black- or women-owned intimate care brands that have risen in popularity in recent years, largely built its appeal on a commitment to products that are “plant-derived” and “free of chemicals.” Therefore, when loyal customers recently discovered that the company had added preservatives and other ingredients to its intimate washes, the online backlash was swift.

The social media drubbing prompted co-founder and owner Beatrice Dixon to acknowledge on Instagram and Twitter that the company “should have communicated more directly” about the changes. She also assured users that the washes “continue to be safe, gentle and kind to skin.” In a statement to The Washington Post, Dixon said, “After extensive testing, we have found that these specific preservatives are the best ingredients to ensure our formula, which is rich in herb and plant ingredients, remains effective down to the very last drop.”

But amid the outcry, only a few commenters raised what health experts say is the more fundamental issue: Why are women, particularly those of color, still using these products, which are widely considered unnecessary and can potentially lead to infections or skin irritation, among other concerns? The answer, according to researchers, gynecologists and historians, is a complicated one that involves racism, tradition and targeted advertising.

Diamond Redden, a Honey Pot customer, has used different intimate care products off and on, including vaginal douches, since she started menstruating. Her mother, who washed with Summer’s Eve, wanted to make sure Redden developed a ritual for caring for herself during her period, such as resting, eating well and staying hydrated, said the 32-year-old mother of four daughters from Newark. And, Redden said, her mother’s tips also covered guidance on “intimate washing.”

Redden’s experience isn’t uncommon. A study based on data from a 2001 to 2004 national U.S. survey of more than 700 women ages 20 to 49 found that a greater proportion of Black women reported using vaginal douches or other feminine washes, wipes, powders and related menstrual products. In a more recent study of about 350 women ages 18 to 34 in California, Black people also reported using intimate care products, including douches, more than other women.

Experts are especially concerned about douching, which is washing the inside of the vagina with water or a specially formulated solution. “We as gynecologists realized a long time ago that vaginal douching was just not a good thing for women to do,” said Tacoma McKnight, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Research has shown that douching may be associated with higher exposures to diethyl phthalate, a type of industrial chemical found in many consumer products. It may also be linked to health risks, such as infertility, vaginal infections and sexually transmitted diseases. In 2002, more than 30 percent of women ages 15 to 44 reported douching, according to the CDC’s National Survey of Family Growth. That figure dropped to around 11 percent in the latest survey, which was conducted from 2017 to 2019.

But the market has since become dominated by other intimate care products, such as external washes and wipes. “There’s a really high interest in using all kinds of ‘feminine products,’” McKnight said. The popularity of such products has been fueled, in part, by word of mouth and social media, she and other experts said.

“There’s this unrealistic standard of what a vulva and vagina should smell like, look like, feel like,” said Fatima Daoud Yilmaz, an OB/GYN in New York. “People with vulvas and vaginas are spending their money chasing after an ideal that’s not rooted in reality or being made to think that their normal, healthy bodily functions are somehow pathologic and need to be addressed.”

And while these standards can influence anyone with a vulva and a vagina, Daoud Yilmaz said people in marginalized groups may feel the effects more greatly because norms around beauty and health often evolve “through a Caucasian lens.”

Astrid Williams, the Environmental Justice Program manager for the organization Black Women for Wellness, agreed. “It’s a multibillion dollar industry that we’re paying into each year at the cost of trying to uphold these beauty standards — and it’s affecting our health.”

Modern-day menstrual and intimate care practices have been heavily shaped by historical views about women’s bodies being unclean. This “ingrained thought” can be traced to the practice of sequestering or restricting women during their periods, which has continued in some cultures, and antiquated ideas of the “vagina being dirty,” McKnight said.

But several experts noted that the evolution of common vulvar and vaginal care routines observed within Black communities may have a much more complex and fraught history tied to racism.

“Since the earliest contacts between Europeans and people of African descent, negative olfactory stereotypes have been wielded against those with dark skin,” historian Michelle Ferranti wrote in a 2011 research article.

As part of the racist justification for slavery, White men created a “construct of race” based on so-called “phenotypic differences” that included smell, said Ami Zota, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University’s Milken School of Public Health.

This history of “pervasive olfactory discrimination” was a significant factor in shaping ideas about cleanliness and deodorization among Black people, Ferranti wrote. “For many recently emancipated African-Americans, a clean and odor-free body signified personal progress and enterprise, and the hope for racial assimilation.”

Advertising and generational influence

Strategic advertising focused on Black people may be somewhat to blame for the perpetuation of these ideas, according to Ferranti’s paper. For instance, Ferranti found “no commercials for vaginal deodorants” in any Life magazines issues published in 1970, whereas the Ebony magazines from that same year “typically included more than one per issue.”

Her paper included a Lysol advertisement for douching that appeared in a 1958 issue of the Daily Defender, a Black newspaper in Chicago. The ad emphasized “daintiness” and claimed to stop odors, telling consumers “you know you can’t offend.” In a 1982 issue of Jet, an ad for FDS “feminine deodorant spray” stated that the product offered “Important odor protection to keep you feeling fresh and confident all month long.”

“A lot of products for women are often sort of wrapped in a veneer of empowerment,” Ferranti told The Washington Post in an interview.

This type of targeted advertising has exacted a toll on communities of color. In July, the National Council of Negro Women filed a lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson after it was revealed that the company marketed its talcum-based baby powder to Black people in the 2000s, despite evidence that such products could cause cancer.

“This company, through its words and images, told Black women that we were offensive in our natural state and needed to use their products to stay fresh,” Janice Mathis, the council’s executive director said in a statement at the time. “Generations of Black women believed them and made it our daily practice to use their products in ways that put us at risk of cancer — and we taught our daughters to do the same.”

Mathis’s statement highlighted what experts say is a key point about intimate care, particularly among people of color: Ideas and routines are often passed down within families.

In her two decades of experience as an OB/GYN, Shari Lawson, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins, said she frequently sees that Black and Brown people have “had this idea of feminine hygiene handed down from the women in their lives — mothers, aunts, grandmothers,” which includes “making sure that everything’s very clean, that there’s no odors associated with the vagina or the vulva.”

“These are misinformation, misconceptions, misperceptions that seem right, but they aren’t,” McKnight added, “and they get passed on and it’s just hard to break the cycle.”

Over the years, many of these products have become “part of the African American beauty culture,” Zota said.

Health concerns about intimate care products

No matter where the pressure comes from, Williams and other experts, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, don’t recommend using douches, washes, wipes and other similar products. “The female reproductive system is incredible just completely by itself. It contains its own ecosystem, a microbiome of healthy bacteria. It cleanses itself. It protects itself. It lubricates itself,” Daoud Yilmaz said. “It does all of this, and we expect it to not create some discharge? We expect it to not have a little bit of a smell that is normal and natural and healthy?”

In a statement to The Post, Dixon said the Honey Pot Company is aware that “cleaning one’s vagina is unnecessary.” She added that its products remain free of parabens, dioxides or sulfates and are meant to be used externally on a person’s vulva, which she said “attracts lots of different bacteria and can often be a hostile environment.”

But, experts said, external products can also lead to problems, such as skin irritation. Vulvar skin tends to be thinner and more absorbent, said Alice Watson, a dermatologist and genital skin specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Watson recommends only rinsing the vulva with water or, at most, using a gentle, low-allergen soap. Even many brands of baby wipes have “very common allergens in them and can cause a lot of issues,” she said. Any products with dyes or fragrance should also be avoided, Daoud Yilmaz added.

Health experts say increased education about vulvar and vaginal care is critical. Daoud Yilmaz, for instance, promotes medical education and combats misinformation on Instagram and TikTok.

Redden, who spends about $300 a month on Honey Pot’s menstrual pads, wipes and washes for herself and her family, said she wasn’t aware of the history behind intimate care products, nor did she know that doctors often don’t recommend them. Discussions about using these kinds of products are “not typically in the conversation” during her 10- to 15-minute OB/GYN appointments, she said.

Gabriela Diaz, a Honey Pot customer from New York, said she knows the vagina cleans itself and that “women are not supposed to smell like a unicorn peed through your vulva.”

“But I don’t necessarily want to stink either,” said Diaz, 22, who is Dominican. “Even though you could put just water, I feel like it’s not as effective on my body.”

Still, Ferranti would encourage buyers to look into the “very important history” of these products. “If you know a little bit about the history, you can really be a discerning consumer.”


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