2018 is the year of the woman, and we’re not just referring to the record number of female candidates heading to Congress. This year has also marked a rise in female-centric health and wellbeing products, from pink razors and pH-balanced washes to special wet wipes and oils to soothe your pubic hair. The feminine hygiene industry is expected to reach $37.7 billion by 2024, but are these products necessary or just a ploy to add one more item to our cart?
“Some of these new brands are exploiting historical fears of female cleanliness, and making women think they need products that they don’t,” says Dr. Stephanie McClellan, Chief Medical Officer at Tia, a reimagined women’s healthcare clinic opening in NYC with gynecology, wellness and primary care under one roof. “When if we’re nice to them, our bodies can do a pretty good job of taking care of themselves.”
So, how exactly should you care for ‘down there’ and do you need any products to help you along the way? In an attempt to figure it out, we asked a fertility nurse, a pubic hair entrepreneur, a chief medical officer, and a wellness director to clarify vagina health 101. Ahead, they answer the questions you’ve been too afraid to ask and spotlight the body-positive products and brands to know now.
To Wash Or Not To Wash?
Fun fact: “The vagina is the most absorbent part of the body—even more than our mouth,” says Suzie Welsh, an IVF and fertility nurse and founder of women’s health company BINTO. “That’s because there are vessels lining the vaginal wall, so anything that gets inside, goes directly into our bloodstream.”
Special, pH-balanced washes are an emerging field in feminine hygiene and claim to do everything from “nourish friendly bacteria” to “calm and relax you” with a lavender fragrance and chamomile botanical extracts—But do you really need them?
“A healthy vagina is like a self-cleaning oven that keeps in the good stuff and gets rid of the bad stuff,” says Dr. McClellan. “It’s a delicate ecosystem that can largely take care of itself, so long as you respect its natural processes.” That means avoiding scented soaps that can alter the balance between yeast and bacteria (you want bacteria—just only the good kind), and instead lightly washing with simple, unscented soap and water. Bonus points if your soap can even be phthalate-, glycerin-, alcohol-, and paraben-free, as well as organic.
A few additionals to keep in mind: no douching—ever. “There is no need to clean the inside of your vagina,” says Welsh. Also, if you feel the need to use these washes because you’re experiencing an ‘off’ smell or feeling, that is a sign there is something perhaps not correct, and the Tia experts we spoke to suggest seeing your doctor. Organic tampons and pads are a great option, and can actually be linked to your vaginal pH levels, too.
Do Supplements Actually Work?
Similar to a healthy gut, a healthy vagina needs to maintain good bacteria in order to keep out the bad bacteria, which is why the products you use are important, says Dr. McClellan.
Your diet and supplements can have an impact on your daily vaginal health, too. “Eating a healthy diet of whole foods, low sugar, and rich with probiotic foods can also help support the good bacteria,” says Dr. McClellan. If possible (and there are times when you do absolutely need them) avoid excess antibiotics, which can alter the good bacteria in your gut and vagina.
Think of your gut and vagina as sisters: just as probiotics are great for your stomach, they also are beneficial for ‘down there’. You want to nourish and encourage your natural flora, and certain strains of bacteria in probiotics can even help prevent vaginal infections. This fascinating link between gut and vagina is part of what led fertility nurse Welsh to create her own women’s health company BINTO, which specializes in customized, symptoms-based supplements to address everything from period support to fertility and prenatal care. She suggests looking for probiotics that contain ‘Lactobacillus rhamnosus’ and ‘reuteri’ that support gut and vaginal health and your overall natural flora.
Of course, be aware that supplements are not a “silver bullet,” says Dr. McClellan. “[They] shouldn’t be adopted without a holistic evaluation of a woman in the context of her genetics, environment, and lifestyle, which are highly variable and play a big role in our health needs.”
How Do You Care for Pubic Hair?
We have hair down there for a reason: “It helps to protect the skin and the vagina against foreign intruders and protects the sensitive skin around the vulva,” says Erica Matluck, Wellness Director at Tia.
Of course, your body, your choice, so whatever you’d like to do, do so. But follow a few helpful guidelines for hair removal. Firstly, try to avoid products that burn hair or disrupt the follicle chemically, says Matluck. And if you prefer waxes, try a paraben-free option like sugar wax. And surprisingly, shaving creams can actually be one of the worst endocrine-disrupting offenders, so try to spring for a healthy, cleaner version without the chemicals. (Ursa Major makes a great clean version.)
A natural part of having hair (or not) ‘down there’ is ingrown hairs, which results from bacteria growing at the follicle site. One of our favorite brands that emerged in the last few years is Fur, a skin- and hair care brand focused on gynecologically and dermatologically approved products that support your hair (or lack of) anywhere on your body. They’re actually still the only gynaecologically tested line of beauty products on the market, which is pretty impressive. They have a handful of products that aid in nourishing and moisturizing the skin and hair itself and is specifically engineered to be safe to use near the vagina. Organic coconut, avocado, olive, or evening primrose oil can work to keep hair softer and less itchy and are also gentle enough to use as you’d like.
Which Feminine Hygiene Products Are Best?
A handful of companies are embracing the body’s normal processes and creating solutions for life’s little (or big) nuances and needs. Thinx, Fur, Lola, and Maude are four such brands.
“Thinx has created a period blanket (ed note: now sold out) that supports an active sex life on your period,” says Matluck. “This is cool because for so long we were taught that it was unacceptable to have sex on your period.”
Public hair care brand Fur also aims to destigmatize feminine hygiene and offer an inclusive message, says co-founder Laura Schubert. “As with any beauty product, you don’t necessarily ‘need’ it, but we founded Fur because we thought it was odd that there were so many products out there that catered to head hair and facial skin, but absolutely none for pubic hair and skin. In some ways, it’s pretty groundbreaking to consider pubic hair… something you need to remove. There’s almost a rebellious quality to treating your body hair luxuriously.”
We’re also huge fans of organic tampon brands She and Lola, both of which are trying to make the industry more transparent and safe. Lola has even branched into the safe sex industry, creating pH-balanced condoms, lubes and wipes.
And we couldn’t talk about vaginas without mentioning Maude, a female-created and -owned Brooklyn brand based around destigmatizing the embarrassment and toxicity around the sex industry. From sleek, high design vibrators to candles that double as massage oil to easy-to-open buttercup-packaged condoms—the brand is upending archaic views and perceptions on sex.
The bottom line: if you have any questions, check with your gynecologist or doctor—but also yourself. “Listen to your own body, and what it’s telling you [that] you need—and not an ad you see on Instagram,” says Dr. McClellan. It’s sage advice we could all do well to remember.