We Know Douching Is A Bad Idea — So Why Are Ladies Doing It Anyway?
A woman in a long white dress walks slowly on a beach, putting on her best hat as she's encircled by a flock of birds. Another rocks back and forth on a tree swing as she laughs quietly to herself, but her private joy is hardly a secret.
Anyone who remembers these commercials, advertised by Summer's Eve through the 1980s, remembers the jingle's sunny refrain: "Its clean, fresh feeling keeps the good times on my mind/ Summer's Eve brings back freshness anytime."
These ads taught a generation of women to associate douching, or the process of cleaning out the inside of the vagina, with feminine hygiene, even though numerous studies have since determined that douching is both unnecessary and potentially dangerous. A 2015 study from Environmental Health, for instance, showed that douching causes a higher risk of vaginal infections; another report indicated that douching can possibly lead to increased rates of infertility. Douching has even been linked to cancer.
That said, women still continue to douche in fairly large numbers: According to figures from the Department of Health and Human Services, nearly one in four women between the ages of 15 and 44 use feminine hygiene products like Summer's Eve. Which begs the question: How did we even get the idea that douching was good for women in the first place?
A brief history of douching: Since the early 19th century, douching was marketed in a number of bizarre, pseudo-scientific ways. In 1832, an American physician named Charles Knowlton would first popularize the practice, promoting douching as an effective means of birth control for women.
According to Fusion, Knowlton "advised that, after intercourse, women inject a syringe full of a water-based solution that included (but wasn't limited to) salt, vinegar, liquid chloride, zinc sulfite and aluminum potassium sulfite into their vagina." By the 1870s, these syringes would become widely available across the country.
In the 1930s and 1940s, popular magazines like Ladies' Home Journal advertised Lysol, now used as a disinfectant, both as a contraceptive and a women's cleanser, billing it as "safe and gentle" for the female body. In one such ad, a happy housewife proudly boasts: "I use Lysol always for douching!"
Other advertisements cautioned women that their marriages might fall apart unless they were taking their scent into their own hands. "I guess I was to blame when Stan started paying attention to other women," one ad warned. "It wasn't that I didn't know about feminine hygiene. I had become... well... forgetful. Yes, I found out the hard way that 'now-and-then' care isn't enough!"
Mary Lou*, 64, came of age in the 1960s, when such feminine hygiene advertisements were ubiquitous on television and in magazines. Before seeing these ads, no one had ever talked to her about hygiene, so she hadn't realized it was an issue. "There wasn't anyone telling you not to do it," she told Mic.
"It just wasn't something you talked about."
"There wasn't anyone telling you not to do it."
While talking about sex was permissible among friends, she recalled there was a code of silence around the issue of feminine hygiene, which made it easy for companies to capitalize on women's insecurity. "[Douching] wasn't regulated in the same way that we regulated medicine."
However, advocating that women use Lysol for their personal needs was dangerous for a number of reasons. It created a stigma around vaginal odor, a nebulous idea that women might not smell normal. In addition, it could prove deadly. "Lysol might have been corrosive to the sperm, but it also damaged tissue inside the woman," reported Smithsonian's Rose Eveleth. "And in fact, the Lysol used back then was far stronger than our Lysol is today. Hundreds of people died from Lysol exposure."
A gradual decline: Since options like the pill provided safer contraception alternatives in the 1960s, the practice of using items such as household disinfectants has largely died out among women.
After it was founded by the C.B. Fleet Company in 1972, Summer's Eve has taken the place of Lysol on the market, but the original brand's product is drastically different than what its output looks like today. For instance, while 70% of the company's revenue in the 1980s came from "traditional douching products" — such as the bulb-shaped squirt bottle that originated in the early 19th century — today the brand primarily focuses on what it calls "external cleansing and freshening products," which includes "washes, wipes and sprays."
The feminine hygiene industry remains a $3 billion dollar business, as products like Summer's Eve, Massengill and YeastGard remain highly profitable. Yet although Summer's Eve remains popular among a niche market of consumers, the brand has been consistently on the decline. Between 1985 and 2006, the number of women who reported douching regularly had dropped from 37% to 12%.
The most likely reason for the decline in douching is increased access to information about douching's harmful effects on the body. In addition, some women told Mic they found the idea that women are "unclean" more than problematic.
"I find the idea that vaginas need to be cleaned in order to feel or be right pretty insulting, especially when penises spend so much of their time swampy, smelly and gross," said Rebecca, 29. "I do not need products to make my vagina feel, smell or be better. It is on top of its vagina game."
A lingering stigma: The vagina is designed to be a "self-cleaning organ," and the female reproductive system's natural functions work to maintain its hygiene through bacteria that stave off yeast infections or other ailments. Douching can disrupt the delicate, natural pH balance of the vagina, throwing the entire ecosystem out of whack. If your vagina does exhibit a particularly alarming smell, you shouldn't douche. You should consult a doctor.
Yet although few women continue to douche, the practice persists among certain segments of the population. African-American women and Hispanic women, for instance, make up a fairly large percentage of women who continue to douche, with an estimated 59% of African-American women and 36% of Latina women reporting that they douched in the past 12 months, according to 2005 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. (Feminine hygiene companies are well aware of this demographic, with Summer's Eve drawing intense criticism in 2011 for running an advertising campaign that was accused of capitalizing on racist African-American and Latina stereotypes.)
Jessy, 27, explained that she uses douching products casually — as a way to treat herself and "freshen up." "I douche at most twice a year," she said. "I think of it more as a refresher [for my vagina]." While she's aware of the risks, she believes it's OK in moderation.
Other women also appear to be influenced by the widespread stigma around feminine odor. On the Amazon page for Summer's Eve, one of the respondents thanked the company for ridding her of unwanted bodily smells. "Feminine odor is very embarrassing and hard to get rid of sometimes," she wrote. "This product has helped in so many ways and I will continue to use it for a long time. I would recommend this to anyone who has similar feminine issues."
While these women report having positive experiences with douching products, not every woman feels the same way. Some argued that the shame around hygiene hasn't changed, even if personal habits have.
"Women [are] consistently taught that our vaginas are somehow 'dirty' and need to be cleaned or maintained in a very specific way," said Sarah, 25. "I think a lot of it is simply societal pressure. It's similar to the idea of shaving, I think. No one wants to be the lady with the bush of pubic hair and no one wants to be the lady with the dirty vagina because we are taught that those women are somehow 'bad.'"
Dana, 36, said that we need to combat these beliefs — as well as the practice of douching in general. "It's a horrible, medically-unsound distraction that makes it that much harder for women to achieve their goals and dreams," she said. "Imagine if men were worried about how their scrotums smelled. Would they be running governments and inventing things?"