You may think you douche to feel “fresh” or smell clean, but what if you’re only douching because history and society have taught you that the female vagina is dirty? Or, what if your douching is actually making things worse?
Vaginal douches are wrought with misconceptions — some of which are potentially dangerous.
They’re linked to numerous health conditions, including bacterial vaginosis and pelvic inflammatory disease — conditions that can make your vagina feel and smell far less than fresh, potentially putting you in a vicious cycle of: douche, worsened symptoms, douche, worsened symptoms...
But don’t beat yourself up — you’re not alone.
Almost one in five women 15 to 44 years old in the U.S. douche, and douching is even more common among Black and Hispanic women, and teens of all races. Understanding the risks and misconceptions surrounding feminine hygiene products like douches can help you make better, safer decisions about your vaginal health.
Douching involves flushing the inside of the vagina with a liquid solution.
Modern douches, purchased in drug and grocery stores, typically contain a mixture of water, vinegar, baking soda and/or iodine. They come in a bottle or bag attached to a nozzle that is inserted into the vagina and squeezed.
When the container is squeezed, the liquid rushes through the nozzle and into the vagina, before being immediately expelled. It’s sort of like turning your kitchen sink’s sprayer into an upside down vase — that water is coming right back out, with the theory being that it’s flushing out the area.
Various forms of douching have been practiced throughout the ages and around the world, using all sorts of concoctions for many different purposes. For the most part, however, douching was historically used for two purposes: to prevent and treat vaginal infections, and to prevent pregnancy.
Spoiler: It wasn’t a very effective choice for either.
Douching was popular as a contraceptive all the way until the 1960s, when “the pill” was introduced. As a matter of fact, it was the most common form of birth control for women until then, according to author Andrea Tone in her book Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America.
But in the early 20th century, there was another reason women were douching: to please their husbands. Large-scale marketing campaigns were created to shame women about their vaginal odors and secretions. The underlying message: if things were going poorly in your marriage, it was because of your unpleasant vagina. Most of the time these ads were selling one popular douche product: Lysol. Yes, that Lysol. You could clean your floor with it or flush your vagina — your choice.
By 1911, doctors recorded at least five deaths from douching.
Today’s vaginal douches are not made with Lysol, thank goodness. But they do come with risks and are wholly unnecessary.
“The vagina is a self-cleaning machine.” You’ve heard it before, and that’s because it’s true. The human body is pretty incredible at taking care of itself if we feed it well, rest, exercise and stay hydrated, and our vaginas are no exception.
Your vagina contains a wealth of bacteria, or flora. And before you envision it crawling with creepy microscopic organisms, rest assured that these bacteria are good. They’re little soldiers keeping your vagina healthy and things in balance.
These bacteria serve many purposes. The most important: fighting harmful (disease or infection-causing) bacteria that overpopulate the vagina. They keep the pH level low too, which prevents the growth of other harmful organisms.
When the balance of this good bacteria is thrown off, you become more susceptible to infection, disease and an overgrowth of harmful bacteria that can lead to discharge and odors.
Flushing the vagina with fluids — as in a douching — can wash away good bacteria and disrupt the environment that keeps your vagina healthy.
Further, contraception and disease prevention — two historical reasons for douching — are now better handled with modern contraceptives and modern medicine. Douching is not effective, neither at preventing pregnancy or preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
There is a certain connection between douching and several different health risks.
It can increase your risk of bacterial vaginosis (BV), where the good bacteria naturally present in your vagina are replaced with “bad” microorganisms. BV can lead to off-color vaginal discharge, foul or fishy odor, itching, burning and ultimately serious problems like increased risk of STIs and even premature birth.
Among the increased risk of sexually transmitted infections is an increased risk for HPV or human papillomavirus, a very common STI that can cause cervical cancer. One study found regular douching definitively increases the likelihood of HPV infection, by both cancer causing and non-cancer causing strains.
Largely because of the increased risk of HPV infection with regular douching, douching is also tied to an increased risk of developing cervical cancer. One meta analysis that looked at six different studies found women who douche at least once a week are almost twice as likely to develop cervical cancer than those who do not douche at all.
Your risk of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) also increases with vaginal douching. PID causes pelvic pain, abnormal discharge and odors, abnormal bleeding, fever and painful urination. It can also increase infertility and the risk of ectopic pregnancy.
Essentially, not only may douching actually exacerbate some of the very issues you’re hoping to prevent by doing it, but it can also greatly increase your risk of some very dangerous diseases and other infections.
Women who are told by a medical professional that douching is dangerous are likely to stop the practice, so medical organizations are telling doctors and nurses to talk to patients about just that.
The American Public Health Association recommends medical, public health and pharmacology schools include curriculum about the dangers of douching to educate upcoming medical professionals. They also recommend: radio and television ads to inform women about the dangers of douching, public health education through state and federal health departments and medical institutions and a surgeon general warning on all douching products.
In other words, there is a general consensus among experts in western medicine that douching is not a healthy practice.
The vagina is smart — it’ll tell you when something is wrong. An abnormal vaginal discharge or odor is your body telling you that something is wrong and it’s probably time to seek medical care. These symptoms should not be managed by douching.
Keeping your vagina clean is really a matter of two things: washing externally and providing a healthy host (body) for a healthy vagina.
Washing your vulva, labia, anus and the surrounding areas is a good start to keeping things clean and avoiding odors. So is using an unscented soap or body wash to avoid irritation. And remember: these areas are all external. While it isn't as dangerous as a vaginal steam, there is still no reason to put soap inside of your body, anywhere.
Keeping your vagina clean is an inside job and begins with being healthy overall. Eating well and staying hydrated goes a long way in keeping good bacteria throughout your body in check.
Having a vagina means sometimes you’ll experience discharge and sometimes your odor will change — that’s natural. But if the discharge is an unusual color or consistency, the smell is foul or fishy or you’re experiencing other symptoms, see a doctor — don’t grab a douche.
Finally, protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections by using a condom. Washing out semen or a man’s “germs” with a douche after sex will do you no favors and may make you more susceptible to STIs and other problems.