Worrying connection between feminine hygiene products and infection

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FemininehygieneA Canadian study found that women who use vaginal hygiene products are three times more likely to experience some type of infection.

Vaginal hygiene products have been used by 95% of Canadian women, but they likely do more harm than good, according to a University of Guelph study. The first-ever study revealed that women who use these products are three times more likely to experience some type of vaginal infection. In some cases it may be women purchased the product to address an existing vaginal concern.

“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,” said psychology professor Kieran O’Doherty, the study’s lead investigator.

The study surveyed nearly 1,500 Canadian women about their vaginal health practices and products, and how often they experienced problems. “While research has shown douching can have negative impacts on vaginal health, little was known about the dozens of other products out there,” said O’Doherty.

The most commonly used products included anti-itch creams, moisturisers and lubricants, and feminine wipes. The results connected certain products with specific infections.

“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,” said O’Doherty. “However, the results do provide important evidence for strong correlations that need further research.”

For example, women who used gel sanitisers were eight times more likely to have a yeast infection and almost 20 times more likely to have a bacterial infection. Women using feminine washes or gels were almost 3 ½ times more likely to have a bacterial infection and 2 ½ times more likely to report a urinary tract infection. Participants using feminine wipes were twice as likely to have a urinary tract infection, and those using lubricants or moisturizers were 2 ½ times as likely to have a yeast infection.

O’Doherty said emerging medical research has linked disruption of vaginal microbial systems with health problems. “These products may be preventing the growth of the healthy bacteria required to fight off infection.”

Pelvic inflammatory disease, cervical cancer, reduced fertility, ectopic and pre-term pregnancies, and bacterial and sexually transmitted infections are among the problems related to an abnormal vaginal microbiome, he said.

Vaginal hygiene products are a $2bn industry in North America.

In a previous study published recently, O’Doherty and a team of researchers looked at why Canadian women use these products. They found women are unaware of the potential health concerns linked to these products and believe the items will make them feel clean and fresh.

“Our society has constructed female genitalia as unclean, 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.”

Background: The vaginal microbiome influences quality of life and health. The composition of vaginal microbiota can be affected by various health behaviors, such as vaginal douching. The purpose of this study was to examine the types and prevalence of diverse vaginal/genital health and hygiene behaviors among participants living in Canada and to examine associations between behavioral practices and adverse gynecological health conditions.
Method: An anonymous online survey, available in English and French, was distributed across Canada. The sample consisted of 1435 respondents, 18 years or older, living in Canada.
Results: Respondents reported engaging in diverse vaginal/genital health and hygiene behavioral practices, including the use of commercially manufactured products and homemade and naturopathic products and practices. Over 95% of respondents reported using at least one product in or around the vaginal area. Common products and practices included vaginal/genital moisturizers, anti-itch creams, feminine wipes, washes, suppositories, sprays, powders, and waxing and shaving pubic hair. The majority of the sample (80%) reported experiencing one or more adverse vaginal/genital symptom in their lifetime. Participants who had used any vaginal/genital product(s) had approximately three times higher odds of reporting an adverse health condition. Several notable associations between specific vaginal/genital health and hygiene products and adverse health conditions were identified.
Conclusions: This study is the first of its kind to identify the range and prevalence of vaginal/genital health and hygiene behaviors in Canada. Despite a lack of credible information about the impact of these behaviors on women’s health, the use of commercially manufactured and homemade products for vaginal/genital health and hygiene is common. Future research can extend the current exploratory study by identifying causal relationships between vaginal/genital health and hygiene behaviors and changes to the vaginal microbiome.

Sara E Crann, Shannon Cunningham, Arianne Albert, Deborah M Money, Kieran C O’Doherty

University of Guelph material
BMC Women’s Health abstract

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