Very OnlineWhy Does the Internet Keep Trying to Sell Us Bullshit Vaginal Healthcare?

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Illustration by Jessica De Jesus (Photo credit: Jen Wilson/Unsplash)

We’re all aware that Facebook has a big fake-news problem, thanks in part to its advertising policies. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Mark Zuckerberg was called into Congress to answer for how his platform failed to monitor the spread of political mis- and disinformation. Policies around political advertising have since been updated, but fake news continues to flourish on Facebook—as well as Instagram, which it owns. In May 2019, Facebook faced criticism for allowing a deepfake video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that showed her seemingly drunken slurring her words to circulate. Instead of removing the video, they said, “We don’t have a policy that stipulates that the information you post on Facebook must be true.” Their solution was to create an additional info box on the posts that link to fact-checking sites, and a pop-up that includes links to “additional reporting” on questionable posts.

And Facebook’s continued disinterest in factual information and truth-telling doesn’t stop with politics, as evidenced by one of its most prominent sectors—women’s health. Or, more accurately, “women’s health”—brands peddling vaginal healthcare products that, despite being about neither health nor care, are quickly building audiences online. Take, for example, the Kourtney Kardashian-fronted lifestyle brand Poosh, which launched in February 2019. While the Facebook page itself hasn’t run ads, Kardashian herself acts as a living, breathing ad for Poosh products including foundation, hair towels, and “guilt-free” snacks. In late August, the Poosh Instagram account shared a post driving to their article, “Non-Toxic Feminine Washes That Won’t Harm Your Hoo-ha,” about their favorite products for “keeping fresh down there,” though the image itself was of a naked woman, rather than the product itself.

It garnered more than 15,000 likes and 110 comments, only a handful of which mocked the idea of a fresh vagina. Poosh itself has an editorial team, though the site doesn’t have a “team” page to disclose who is writing what. Like many BS clean beauty brands, it says the list avoids products with “artificial fragrances and ingredients that are hard to pronounce,” as if the inability to pronounce an ingredient makes it bad by default. Meanwhile, the list includes a wash made with lavender and eucalyptus, and another made with propanediol, pentylene glycol, and sodium cocoyl glutamate…all ingredients that, I for one, definitely cannot pronounce.

Then there’s the Honey Pot Company, whose Facebook page boasts 12,000 followers. Since joining Facebook in 2014, the company has run about 20 ads for products including lavender-scented Refreshing Panty Spray, a Foaming Wash, and a travel pack of herbal-infused pads. Much of their messaging is around “a happier honeypot guaranteed!” with an August 2019 ad highlighting their wipes, and another highlighting their “complete feminine care system,” with a video noting that their products “balance your vagina.” A July 2019 ad features an influencer who says, “It smells amazing, guys.” The caption: “Wash away odor-causing bacteria, boost moisture levels, and balance your pH for long-lasting freshness and protection. No itching, no burning, no worries, girl.”

There’s also Sweet Spot, which offers products ranging from Vanilla Blossom Feminine Wipes to Coconut Lime Gentle Feminine Wash to Buff and Brighten Body Exfoliating Pads. The brand, which debuted in 2008, has a Facebook page with 34,000 followers and header text that promises: “Products that worship your sweet spot,” but doesn’t actually run ads on Facebook. On the other hand, LOLA, a brand that prioritizes “period and sexual wellness products made with you in mind,” joined Facebook in 2015 and has since run about 120 ads.

The history of the search for a “cleaner” vagina and vulva is a long and complicated one. In Timeline, writer Stephanie Buck explains that douching was originally understood as a form of birth control (Buck notes that by 1940 douching was the most popular contraceptive in the United States), and in more recent decades it was viewed as a means of freshness once users realized that douching did not, in fact, prevent pregnancy—its creators needed a new use for the product, and thus the concept of a fresher vagina came into being. In 2014, a 200-year-old douche was found in Manhattan dating between 1803 and 1815. Archaeologist Lisa Geiger told Live Science that in the 19th-century, douching was popular, but still taboo, noting, “It’s not written about so overtly in the record, so the physical object in this case gave us an avenue to look at how women conceived of themselves and how they conceived of their hygiene.”

These ads might not be as explicit as today’s advertisements for douching, but their existence suggests that media has long been a means to shame vaginas and vulvas for not being quite “clean” enough. The same taboo that made it difficult to discuss vaginal health in the early 1800s is one reason why vaginal health isn’t adequately discussed, or understood, today. As Dr. Jen Gunter recently told Bitch in an interview aboutso-called vaginal healthcare products, “So much about the way women live their lives—the underwear they choose, the way they clean their skin, the way they have sex, the lubes they use, the way they choose to remove their pubic hair—[comes from not being] taught about these things…Sometimes there are health ramifications that we don’t even know about.”

If we don’t critique these products publicly, we risk passing dangerous vaginal wipes and washes down generation after generation, though they have potential health consequences. A 2005 paper in the Journal of American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association explored ways to decrease douching among young women specifically young Black women. The paper notes, “vaginal douching has been linked to a number of adverse reproductive health outcomes, including increased risk for pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), ectopic pregnancy, preterm birth, reduced fertility, increased susceptibility to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including human immunodeficiency (HIV) infection, cervical carcinoma, and bacterial vaginosis (BV).” Their study concluded that feedback from nurses, physicians, or other health experts, as well as being educated about the consequences, are the best ways to decrease use of both douching products and similar products like vaginal wipes.

The cultural dialogue surrounding these products has been ongoing. One of the most well-known of these brands, Summer’s Eve, refreshed its brand messaging in 2011 as less women bought their products, thanks to an increase in information about the harm douching can cause. In 2006, researchers published a paper titled “Vaginal Douches and Other Feminine Hygiene Products: Women’s Practices and Perceptions of Product Safety” in the Maternal and Child Health Journal. They found that “use of vaginal douche products has been linked with a variety of reproductive health problems; nonetheless, the practice of douching persists.” The researchers also noted that women who douche do so because they believe it’s safe, and that those who begin douching in adolescence continue to do so into adulthood, whereas women who didn’t begin douching in their youth—arguably the period where many women are first learning about vaginal health and the needs of their bodies—don’t start as adults.

As Slate reported, “Summer’s Eve has shifted its focus to…’external cleansing and freshening products.’ These washes, wipes, and sprays have been around since back in the 1980s, but for most of their existence had comprised only 30 percent of Summer’s Eve’s revenue while the other 70 percent came from traditional douching products.” But, like douching-as-birth-control in 1940, and douching-as-freshness in 2010, in 2019, vaginal wipes have an equally negative rep. The same 2006 paper found that women who douched were more likely to also use other forms of supposed feminine hygiene products, including vaginal wipes, and n the last five years, more brands have popped up with stylish packaging, well-curated Instagram feeds, and a supply of women’s lifestyle influencers to transform Gen-Z’s and millennials into consumers.

What’s strange is that Facebook and Instagram are still allowing bullshit vaginal healthcare to thrive on their platforms while it making it nearly impossible for healthcare brands focused on women’s pleasure to run ads and sex tech companies Unbound and Dame Products going as far as to protest censorship outside of Facebook because their ads are constantly flagged and rejected. Facebook has made it clear that it’s more concerned about hypersexualizing women’s bodies than actually protecting our bodies from products that have no purpose beyond profiting from our shame. Why else would they remove a post from a sex tech company while letting vaginal washes and wipes flourish? 

It’s not just an issue on social media. While women’s media publications ranging from InStyle to SELF have been critical of vaginal-health products, often including at least one expert saying that there’s really no reason for people to use vaginal wipes, they’re just as quick to justify their use as a form of “self-care” or to help build confidence among their users. I would argue that the main reason women’s media publications haven’t said a permanent goodbye to positive presentation of vaginal wipes is because of their clients; as wellness becomes a more and more popular section among the publications, they’re more likely to have brands like Summer’s Eve and their more “progressive” and trendy counterparts (like the aforementioned LOLA, Sweet Spot, and Honey Pot) ready to shill money in exchange for advertising or branded content in pursuit of a younger consumer.

Ideally, the job of educating young people about taking care of their private parts would fall primarily on health professionals, parents, and other adults who don’t have commercial motives for doing so, rather than the likes of Kardashian’s Poosh and Paltrow’s lifestyle brand, Goop. But Gen Z is more likely to be influenced in purchasing decisions by celebrities and friends than earlier generations. It’s hard to argue that influencers like Kardashian, Paltrow, and those selected to be ambassadors to the products they sell aren’t aware of the very real impact they have on the decisions that young people make with regard to their health.

After all, if they can convince adults who haven’t grown up surrounded by influencer culture to use suspect supplements, adaptogens, and the infamous jade yoni eggs simply by putting the products in nice packaging and showcasing them on Instagram accounts, why wouldn’t this same strategy work with young people who’ve had less time to develop a critical eye? As of July 2018, Goop is worth more than $25 million dollars, and Poosh is well on its way to major financial success—so regardless of the valid criticisms of them, both brands have plenty of consumers in their corners.

In the same way that it’s the responsibility of social media platforms like Facebook to spend time developing measures that will limit the ability of fake political news to spread, and of Google to deprioritize white supremacist “news sites,” at the very least social media platforms can make it more difficult for harmful healthcare products to gain massive followings and even become verified, as these are means by which their users understand the validity and credibility of an account. (Both Goop and Poosh are verified, Goop with 1.1 million followers, and Poosh with 3 million.) And there’s nothing credible about smearing perfumed wipes or washes on your vulva. Organizations and experts like Dr. Gunter and the National Health Service are fighting health misinformation in social media spaces, and will continue to fight it as long as Facebook and Instagram allow these products to cause real physical harm and continue a proliferate a culture that says vaginas have to floral, “cleaner,” or prettier—anything other than vaginas. 

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Rachel Charlene Lewis, who has light brown skin and dark brown curly hair, wears a white button up and gold jewelry and gold glasses.
by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Rachel Charlene Lewis has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Greatist, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.