Do We Need Intimate Feminine Hygiene Products?
Intimate products have been advertised as many things over the years, enhancers, fixers and well-wishers of one of the most important and sensitive areas, the vagina. But the question we need to ask is, what are the beneficial uses of intimate products and how do they naturally help our body.
There have been several wellness products in the past, targeting natural physical features like skin colour, tanning and natural pigments. This comes from the mass media’s portrayal of what a woman’s body should look like. From social apps like Instagram to the largest cinema screens, there is colorism, a “perfect” body type and several other stereotypes attached to a woman’s image. Thinner and fairer bodies are rampant in social media and cinema alike, going back to the Eurocentric standards of beauty. This has been supported by a long continuing stereotype in India of “dark” skin being synonymous with ugly or unattractive.
“Perfect” Standards of Beauty
Intimate Products & Eurocentric Beauty Standards
With India having hardly any insight into sex education, and a lack of sex-ed programs and taboos existing in Indian communities, the knowledge of how maturing bodies should look has been very limited and biased. With an influx of OTT platforms and easier access to international media, women going through adolescence face insecurities, comparing their bodies with Eurocentric standards of “perceived” beauty.
In an article by the Vox in 2020, Seema Hari, an engineer, model and anti-colorism activist spoke about how she used to be ridiculed and bullied for having darker skin. A story, a lot of children sadly share. She shares “People used to call me Kali Kaluti (a derogatory slur for being dark-skinned) or “bhangi” which meant a member of the lowest untouchable caste.” From being put under the spotlight by her relatives to being made fun of by other people, she almost came to a point of being depressed and suicidal. “I always thought I was defective or something, everyone wanted to fix me for having dark skin”.
This is the kind of world adolescents and now, even younger children face when they don’t look “conventional”, warping their self-esteem and confidence from a timid age. This is the gap that intimate products have grabbed as an advertising and profit opportunity. This negative mindset associated with darker skin has seeped into the intimate product market as well, with vaginal and nipple lightening creams and washes having found traction.
But do we need these products that create false self-image and heighten insecurities?
Intimate Products & Why We Think We Need Them
There are a variety of intimate products like washes, wipes, shaving gels and lubricants in the market promising hygiene, cleansing and purity, disregarding the chemicals that make up a significant portion of its materials.
Experts and gynecologists have called the vagina a “self-cleaning oven”. This refers to the fact that the vagina naturally produces discharge that cleans dead cells and bacteria, therefore cleaning itself without the need for washes or soaps. The discharge is a sign of a healthy vagina. Keeping in mind that inner and outer vaginal health are two different aspects altogether. According to an article by Maria Cohut PhD (2019) in Medical News Today, to maintain vulvar and vaginal health, two aspects need to remain balanced-:
- PH - Measurement that denotes acidity or alkalinity
- Bacterial Balance - Bacterial Population within intimate areas.
While vulvar pH (outer side of the vagina) is usually 3.5-4.7, vaginal pH changes concerning a person’s age and the stage of their menstrual cycle.
The main task of balancing the pH lies in the hands of the vagina itself, it’s also an indicator of good intimate health and should be prioritized. Microbial balance, on the other hand, is much harder to focus on as it varies according to different people, often even in different ethnicities.
With several studies looking at how feminine hygiene products and an increase in vaginal infections are connected, a few pointers when it comes to keeping intimate health intact.
Like knowing about what goes inside, transparency in intimate products and being cautious about chemicals and additives. Getting away from harsh soaps and washes that could lead to pH disbalance and infections.
Another study by researchers in the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada concluded that using intimate washes induced a 3.5 times higher risk of bacterial infections and a two-fold risk of urinary tract infections. Unless what is inside the product is transparent and cares for the vagina’s pH and bacterial balance, the risk prevails.
“I started using an intimate wash because I traveled a lot. Strange and unhygienic bathrooms were easy to come by and I wanted to stay clean”, says Usha (name changed). But increased itching, frequent UTIs and irritation made her question her decision. “It became increasingly uncomfortable and then I realised, I wasn’t paying close enough attention to what was going inside my body!”. The presence of chemicals like glycerin and parabens often found in intimate products can cause harm to the vaginal equilibrium . Finally, a visit to her gynecologist opened her eyes to sustainable and safer products.
Good Practices & Infection Prevention
A lot of women have registered questions in menstrual apps like “Flo”, the no.1 app for female health in the United States, which talks about vaginal discharge and changes in vaginal health pre and post menstruation, bringing a need for awareness in this intimate health segment. Going to a gynecologist or the doctor is the first and surefire way to understand changes in discharge or understanding if there is a potential infection.
Vaginal odour is a large advertising segment for intimate products, making promises to eliminate it but vaginas have a smell of their own that varies from woman to woman and even age. Thus, these products promising “no-smell” or “freshness” are nothing but ploys to target intimate insecurities women have developed due to the lack of exposure to intimate awareness.
Therefore, the “flowery fragrance” and “clean and hygienic” picture painted by intimate products have a significant downside, and perhaps using them in one of the most absorbing parts of our body has its downsides.
Natural cleaning with mild, unfragranced, soap-free alternatives is the way to go according to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. No ulterior force or obstructions are needed to maintain intimate hygiene.