The ladies' personal care aisle in any drugstore is bound to offer a wide array of intimate hygiene products — from gentle washes to wet wipes for your on-the-go needs. We use these products on a regular basis, but are they likely to cause harm?
Market studies indicate that, this year alone, United States revenue from feminine hygiene products sales amounts to $2,729 million so far.
Some products — such as tampons and sanitary pads — are necessary for most women, who will need to continuously invest in them for a large portion of their lives.
Other feminine hygiene products, however — such as intimate washes — aren't necessarily something we couldn't do without.
Still, many of us buy them in the hope that — unlike regular soaps, which are sometimes abrasive or irritating — they will promote intimate cleanliness without harming the health of this sensitive area.
However, a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, seems to tell another story.
The research, which takes into account information about intimate health provided by 1,435 adult women from Canada, has revealed that intimate hygiene products are popular among the female population, but their use worryingly correlates with a heightened risk of vaginal or urinary tract infections (UTIs).
"This study establishes a baseline of what Canadian women do with regard to their vaginal health and identifies concerning correlations that researchers can now look into more closely," explains lead study author Kieran O'Doherty.
The researchers' findings have been published in the journal BMC Women's Health.
Intimate care products and risk of infection
According to the current study, approximately 95 percent of Canadian women use intimate hygiene products. Yet a large number of those who choose to do so are highly likely to experience a form of infection.
"While research has shown douching can have negative impacts on vaginal health, little was known about the dozens of other products out there," notes O'Doherty.
After surveying the participants, the team noticed that the hygiene products that the women most often used included creams meant to relieve irritation, moisturizers, lubricants, and wet wipes for feminine care.
Certain products were tied to a higher risk of particular types of infection. In fact, gel sanitizers were associated with an eight times higher risk of yeast infection, as well as an almost 20-fold higher risk of bacterial infection.
Intimate washes and other types of vaginal cleansers were linked with a 3.5 times higher risk of bacterial infection, and a 2.5 times higher risk of UTIs.
The use of intimate wipes was also tied with a twofold risk of UTIs, and lubes and moisturizing creams correlated with a 2.5 times higher risk of yeast infection.
Still, in O'Doherty's words, "The study does not establish whether it is the products causing the infections or whether women are using the products in an attempt to address the infection."
"However," he adds, "the results do provide important evidence for strong correlations that need further research."
'Preventing the growth of healthy bacteria'
The most likely explanation in the case of a causal relationship, the researchers note, is that certain ingredients found in intimate care products can disrupt the natural balance of vaginal microbiomes, eliminating good microbes that contribute to women's intimate health.
"These products," explains O'Doherty, "may be preventing the growth of the healthy bacteria required to fight off infection."
In their paper, the researchers also warn that imbalances in the vaginal microbiome can promote a large number of health issues, including pelvic inflammatory disease, reduced fertility, cervical cancer, bacterial vaginosis, and a higher susceptibility to sexually transmitted infections.
Why do women still choose to use many inessential feminine hygiene products? The answer to this question, according to O'Doherty and colleagues, is simply that they may not know about the risks that come with these products.
Added to that, he notes, are ingrained societal misapprehensions that vaginas are impure, which leads women to clean obsessively, ignoring the fact that too much zeal can lead to undesired consequences for their health.
"Our society has constructed female genitalia as unclean," says O'Doherty, "and the marketing of vaginal hygiene products as something women need to attain the ideal is contributing to the problem."
"These products are viewed as a physical need rather than a choice. But the reality is, there are potential health risks to using these products."