Vaginal cosmetics are big business: Is it female empowerment or cynical exploitation of our body image?

Some things don’t need dressing up… Including our – how shall we put this? – intimate area. Suddenly, vaginal cosmetics are big business. Is it female empowerment or cynical exploitation of our body image, asks Lucy Sweet?

Photo by Peter Crowther & Getty Images

Do you have a vagina? If so, you’re probably quite used to it by now. It can bring you joy and pain, but most of the time it just sits there in your pants as you journey through life. Mine has been a bit temperamental over the years, to be honest, but I think we’ve reached an equilibrium, emotionally and bacterially. As long as nobody drops a perfumed bath bomb in there, we’re all good.

However, there is trouble in paradise. Although vaginas are cleverly designed and have served us well for millennia, modern life now dictates that you must make it look pink and perfect. Yes, ‘intimate skincare’ is a new area of female grooming that’s here to make us feel bad about ourselves both inside and out. It comes in the form of wipes, balms and kits for your bits that promise to make your labia tighter, brighter and lighter. Words such as ‘eco-friendly’, ‘pH-balanced’, ‘natural’ and ‘pampering’ are bandied about freely.

Last year saw the launch of two intimate skincare ranges, the first by Scandi-influenced brand The Perfect V and the other by a company euphemistically named Woo Woo, which is being marketed in the guise of female empowerment. Founder Lucy Anderson has said: ‘It’s high time us girls valued our vaginas and Woo Woo was designed to do just that by enabling women to feel unapologetically sexually confident.’

‘Us girls.’ Did ya hear that? This is the same kind of female empowerment as a ladies lunch featuring naked butlers. Crack open the prosecco and let’s tighten up our vulvas for the lads! The message seems to be… Pop them in your handbag! Freshen up on the go! Let nobody know that you are human!

Your vagina’s value starts from £3.75 at all large branches of Superdrug, where you can find a bewildering array of products. Why not choose Woo Woo’s Lift and Tighten Gel (£12.95), which claims to give the labia majora a ‘smaller, tighter appearance’? How about its Saddle Sore Soothing Balm (£6.75) for when you’ve been a bit too enthusiastic in your spinning class? Maybe go the whole hog and treat yourself to Bare Derma’s SuperVagina Kit (£29.99), which is a ‘vajacial’ set containing Natural Purifying Cleanser, Intimate Resurfacing Lightening Cream, Bump Free Scrub to tackle ingrowing hairs and Perfecting Calming Mask. A great birthday present for your mum, I’m sure you’ll agree.

As if we don’t have enough to feel bad about, you can also choose from a dazzling range of washes, wipes and deodorants designed to help you pretend you don’t have a vagina at all. They’re not like those old-fashioned, pre-enlightenment products you might have found lurking in your granny’s cupboard back in the day. A quick scan of the Boots feminine hygiene aisle reveals a selection of 24 intimate washes; Asda has 12 to choose from, while online there are countless offerings ranging from a FairTrade green-tea wash to an Italian brand called Chilly (ouch!). And if you really want to feel depressed and angry, I even found one – Lactacyd – that claims to be suitable for girls as soon as they reach puberty.

Put it all together and this feels like a war on our vaginas, a feeling compounded by the fact that every single one of these products is pointless at best and damaging at worst. ‘The whole concept of “feminine hygiene” suggests that the vagina is in need of cleaning,’ says YOU’s resident GP Dr Clare Bailey. ‘In fact, the vagina has its own highly effective self-regulating system keeping it healthy, in most women, the majority of the time without douching, wiping, soaking and washing. I see patients who are douching four or more times a day, washing out all those healthy microbes that protect the delicate vaginal lining.’

While it’s not exactly easy to get women chatting about their vaginas without at least buying them a drink first, most of the friends and colleagues I talked to for this article reacted with horror at the idea of using such products. ‘I’m amazed so-called feminine hygiene products are allowed when they are linked to higher risks of bacterial infections,’ said one outraged friend. ‘The companies who profit from feminine hygiene products need us to feel insecure about how we smell to create a market for them. The reality is, our vaginas are happier without them.’

A colleague told me that her long-term thrush problem started after she used a scented bath product. But are you mad to be seduced by the promise of citrus-scented lady parts? Or even pH-balanced ones? Someone is obviously buying these products because our private business is big business. Along with Woo Woo, other brands include Fur, Lady Suite and Bawdy, which peddle naturally formulated pubic hair oils and soothing post-wax creams. In the US, according to a survey by trend forecaster WGSN, the intimate hygiene industry is predicted to grow by 7.2 per cent by Art2024, reaching $35.3 billion (£27.6 billion).

Some of the women I spoke to didn’t think all feminine hygiene products are bad. One friend, Morag, who is in her 30s, told me she has used a wash for years and claims that it helps to manage bacterial infections. Another 30-something friend is an advocate of a pH balanced wash: ‘I have eczema and generally very sensitive skin, and I’ve found that this is the only stuff that stops my skin getting irritated around that area,’ she told me. ‘I don’t use my regular body wash there. Before I started using this, I felt itchy and irritated on an almost daily basis.’

However, Dr Bailey, along with the Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists, disagrees. She says that scented soap, bubble bath, vaginal deodorants, applications and ‘pH-balanced’ products can make things worse by causing irritation and upsetting the natural balance of microbes. ‘Microbes are vital in helping maintain the right pH in a healthy vagina,’ she says. ‘Just as our gut microbiome, made up of trillions of microbes, is keeping the gut lining healthy and producing vital chemicals, so is a healthy vaginal microbiome working on our behalf.’

Canadian research backs up Dr Bailey’s point. A 2018 study of feminine hygiene products found that women who use them were three times more likely to experience some type of vaginal infection, even though in some cases they bought the product to help an existing problem.

Specific products were also linked with specific infections: women who used intimate gel sanitisers were eight times more likely to have a yeast infection and almost 20 times more likely to have a bacterial vaginal infection; those using feminine washes were almost 3.5 times more likely to have a bacterial infection and 2.5 times more likely to report a urinary tract infection (UTI); users of feminine wipes were twice as likely to have a UTI, and those using lubricants or moisturisers were 2.5 times as likely to have a yeast infection.

However, it’s not just feminine hygiene that has got us hooked – we’re completely jazzed about intimate grooming, too. According to a recent Woo Woo survey of 1,600 UK women, 42 per cent carry out site inspections and general vaginal topiary on average five times a month; 39 per cent groom some of the time and 19 per cent choose not to. Meanwhile, a cursory view of the Bare Derma website, where you can buy your SuperVagina Kit, shows mostly five-star ratings and more than 40 rave reviews from real-life vagina owners.

This kind of intensively targeted ‘grooming’ is so wildly unnecessary that it makes Gwyneth Paltrow and her vaginal steaming seem like level-headed self-care. Yet even more disturbing than vajacials and oils is the trend for lighteners, containing bleach to pinkify your labia, which can darken with age or be darker depending on your skin tone. Heaven forbid it’s the wrong colour.

All this grooming may be exacerbating self-consciousness, leading to an existential crisis downstairs. Dr Bailey points out that many of the patients she sees who have concerns about the appearance of their labia actually have ones within the usual range of shapes and sizes, hinting that there is some lack of understanding. ‘Often this is a result of the fashion for trimming or removal of pubic hair, revealing the labia, which are normal but would otherwise be hidden by hair.’

Morag, who used to bleach her labia when she was younger, also thinks that intimate grooming and labia worries are related. ‘I have used bleach before, as I wax down there completely,’ she says. ‘And I became self-conscious about what it looked like. The bleach I used was effective, but I stopped using it because… I don’t want bleach down there! Now I realise it’s insane – and a waste of time.’

Insane is exactly the word that springs to mind when you consider how time-consuming and expensive intimate skincare is. There is no need to pluck, perfume and pummel our bits in the name of perfection. Blame porn and the patriarchy. We’re better than this. We have self-cleaning organs that are useful, can give us pleasure and push out children. How great is that? And, as Morag says, ‘Nobody cares what your vagina looks like. They’re all different and fabulous.’

Fur oil, anyone?

Just a small selection of the products aimed at what’s in your pants!