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The Care and Feeding of the Vagina

Column

Special Section

Harriet Hall

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 42.5, September / October 2018


We are pleased to introduce here a new regular column by Skeptical Inquirer contributing editor and Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Fellow Harriet Hall, MD, well known and respected for her incisive writings on pseudoscience and pseudomedicine. She has titled her column “Reality Is the Best Medicine.” —Editors



The status of women in our society continues to improve. As the cigarette commercial says, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Indeed, it seems we now have Equal Opportunity Quackery.

Sex sells. It’s always been a popular target for quackery, but the quackery used to be directed mainly at men. In the early twentieth century, Dr. John Brinkley made a lot of money promising to rejuvenate men by surgically implanting goat testicles into their scrotums. In addition to restoring their sexual potency, he claimed his treatments worked wonders on twenty-seven different ailments from emphysema to flatulence with a 95 percent success rate. His story is told in the entertaining book Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock.

More recently, we have seen our inboxes spammed with offers to enlarge penises and to cure erectile dysfunction with natural remedies without prescription drugs. Some of those remedies work … but only because they are illegally adulterated with prescription drugs! There were occasional offers aimed at women; for instance, claiming to enlarge their breasts with massage, exercise, and herbal supplements. Breasts are pretty obvious, so they were a natural target. Vaginas were a less obvious target: hidden from sight and not as socially acceptable as a topic of conversation. But lately it seems that vaginal quackery abounds.

The Vagina Is Self-Cleansing

There is no need for douching or other procedures to cleanse the vagina. It cleanses itself. (Just as the colon cleanses itself with no need for “detoxification” regimens. The idea that its walls are coated with years-old hamburger residue is preposterous.) Douching is not only unnecessary, but it can change the normal pH of the vagina and lead to infections and other problems.

Gwyneth Paltrow advocates steaming the vagina. She says, “You sit on what is essentially a mini-throne, and a combination of infrared and mugwort steam cleanses your uterus, et al. It is an energetic release—not just a steam douche—that balances female hormone levels.” Experts have spoken out against it: there are no health benefits and a real possibility of harm.

Some women use Yoni oil to promote freshness, moisturize, and support vaginal health. There’s even Ayurvedic yoni oil. It’s said to treat infections, allergic reactions, hormone imbalance, herpes, dryness, and roughness. It also supposedly tightens the vagina and even treats ovarian cysts. There’s even adaptogenic Holy Yoni Oil.

Admittedly, sometimes the vagina does require a bit of help. One of my most vivid memories of medical practice was when a woman came in complaining of a foul-smelling vaginal discharge. I removed a putrid, rotting tampon that she had forgotten to remove after her last period. I can’t remember ever smelling a worse odor; that exam room was out of commission for hours afterward. But I didn’t have to do anything but remove the tampon; her vagina took care of the rest. It cleansed itself and was soon back to normal.

Menstrual Superstitions

The vagina has been seen as “unclean” for centuries. The Roman author Pliny wrote: “Contact with the monthly flux of women turns new wine sour, makes crops wither, kills grafts, dries seeds in gardens, causes the fruit of trees to fall off, dims the bright surface of mirrors, dulls the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory, kills bees, rusts iron and bronze, and causes a horrible smell to fill the air.”

In many societies, menstruating women were isolated in a special menstrual hut. In Nepal, the tradition of chhaupadi required them to stay in a cattle shed or makeshift hut, avoid any contact with men, and avoid eating certain foods. Women have died from smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning in poorly ventilated huts, as well as from snakebite, rape, and wild animal attacks. The practice was banned by the Supreme Court of Nepal in 2005 but continues, and in 2017 Nepal passed a law imposing a fine and jail sentence on anyone who forces menstruating women into exile.

Orthodox Jewish women must take a ritual bath in a mikveh seven days after menstruation to restore them to a state of spiritual purity where they are ready to procreate. The restrictions mean they have no sex for half the month. To determine when menstruation has ceased, they insert a white niddah cloth into the vagina.

Things that Don’t Belong in the Vagina

It’s amazing what women will put into their vaginas. For vaginitis, they insert yogurt or yogurt-dipped tampons. For a yeast infection, they insert a whole or cut garlic clove. Proponents admit that this will irritate and burn normal tissue, but they claim it will cure an infection where the tissue is already irritated. There is a case report of a woman who put wood sticks in her vagina to terminate a pregnancy; the sticks migrated through the vaginal wall and resulted in hip pain.

Doctors have had to remove all kinds of foreign bodies from vaginas. In one published case, doctors removed an unidentified plastic foreign body with an aluminum rim, hexagonal in shape. The patient denied having put it there or knowing anything about it. In one woman they found a forgotten pessary; she couldn’t remember ever having used a pessary. In another case, they found part of a flashlight that had apparently been inserted by the woman’s rapist a year earlier. In another case, a pathologist examining a uterus specimen after a hysterectomy found a dead cricket in the uterine cavity. Really. It’s in a published report in a medical journal, and there’s a picture of it online. Searching for “dead cricket in uterus” will bring it right up on Google.

Women have put things in the vagina for health reasons, for sexual pleasure, to hide illegal drugs, or because of psychiatric disorders. In the 1700s, Mary Toft inserted live rabbits into her vagina to fool physicians into thinking she was giving birth to rabbits. Children insert objects in the course of exploring their bodies; they may not admit what they have done. Such things as pen caps, toys, and toilet paper have been found. I heard of one case where a toy train had been there so long, granulation tissue had grown in and out through the windows of the train. It was so embedded they had to remove the little girl’s uterus to get it out.

Some misguided naturopaths have been using corrosive escharotics such as bloodroot salve in the vagina to treat precancerous lesions. They burn both normal and abnormal tissue and form a scab. Believe me, this is a terrible idea.

There were reports that college girls were inserting vodka-soaked tampons in an attempt to get drunk, but Snopes says that’s just an urban legend. Women who put things in their vaginas would be well advised to remember the cautionary tale of toxic shock syndrome, where highly absorbent tampons led to serious strep and staph infections. They were eventually taken off the market after several women had died.

Jade Eggs and Other Quackery

There are herbal detox pearls, marijuana-infused vaginal pills, Japanese vagina-tightening sticks, and ground-up oak galls (abnormal growths that form when wasps lay larvae in branches). There are numerous brands of vaginal tightening gels, creams, pills, and sprays that promise to “make a woman a virgin again.” One online columnist likened these practices to treating vaginas as “walls at which to throw medicinal spaghetti.” There’s not a scrap of evidence that they do anything good, and they’re quite likely to do something bad, such as drying out the vaginal mucosa and causing an infection.

One of the most notorious vaginal quackeries is Gwyneth Paltrow’s jade eggs. Yes, she wants you to stick a $66 rock up there. You can even “breathe passion” into your jade egg practice with Yoni Breathing to increase your life force energy. She says jade eggs are an ancient guarded secret of Chinese concubines. She says it will detox, improve your sex life, balance your menstrual cycle, and intensify feminine energy. No, it won’t. And the porous rock might harbor bacteria. Gynecologist Jen Gunther has published an open letter to Paltrow explaining why her vaginal jade eggs are a bad idea.

Paltrow also warns against toxins in tampons. There are no toxins in tampons. One quack alternative to tampons is sanitary napkins embedded with anion strips. The enhanced embedded anion-chip and far infrared ray function inhibits bacteria, increases the growth of bioenzyme, and regulates acidic secretions in the vagina. It emits biological magnetic waves and activates water molecules in the cells. This is just meaningless pseudoscientific blather, or perhaps it would be more appropriate to call it twa(t)ddle.

Invasive Quackery

Nuvell Clinics offer an O-Shot Orgasm Shot, injecting your own platelet-rich plasma (PRP) into the upper vagina and into an area near the clitoris, to allegedly give you better orgasms. And then there’s elective vaginal reconstruction or rejuvenation surgery to create the “designer vagina.” American, Australian, and Canadian professional organizations of gynecologists have spoken out against this risky operation.

The Bottom Line

Vaginas needn’t be fed with garlic or yogurt or jade eggs or anything else. They don’t need cleansing with douches or anything else. Any advice to the contrary is quackery until proven otherwise.

Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall's photo

Harriet Hall, MD, a retired Air Force physician and flight surgeon, writes and educates about pseudoscientific and so-called alternative medicine. She is a contributing editor and frequent contributor to the Skeptical Inquirer and contributes to the blog Science-Based Medicine. She is author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and coauthor of the 2012 textbook Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.