I planned this piece as a joyful, but slightly guilty ode to the occasional feminine wash. My declaration was going to be (in homage to the opening gambit of The Guilty Feminist podcast): “Im a feminist, but I love Fem Fresh.” But the more Ive looked into it, the more I think my cavalier attitude to deep-south cleansing might be more problematic than Id realised.
The reason Ive ended up here, literally talking about vaginal washes and also using them, is for one reason alone – a massive mistake. I love scented body washes. I love them so much that years ago I accidentally ended up using my beloved Jo Malone in my nether regions. I shrugged it off – I dont often get issues down there – shes pretty robust. Itll be cool. And, frankly, who doesnt want a vagina scented like delicate pomegranate latticed with an effervescent waft of incense?
But what followed wasnt that beautiful fragrant scene. What followed, was thrush. Biblical thrush, like a plague of itch. It took two rounds of Canesten, probiotics, two pots of Yeo Valley (natural, not Greek) and a GP visit to clear. From that day, I vowed never to use anything in that area again that wasnt designed for her. And what I used instead, was Fem Fresh. I figured it was insurance, just in case any shower gel accidentally snuck in there and needed eradicating. Fem fresh, would do that for me, Fem Fresh is a friend.
Whenever pals come over and look in my bathroom, its curated with beautiful Instagrammable products – and my Fem Fresh. I dont hide it, Im proud. But they do always mention it, accompanied by wild gesticulating in what seems like slow motion: I make out the words “PATRIARCHY” and “your vagina is meant to smell” and “what is wrong with you?” And I get all of that, I totally do. And Im not buying it because Im trying to make my vagina smell like peonies to make it more palatable to the male gaze (or aroma?) – its part habit and part insurance against any wayward shower gel getting into somewhere it shouldnt be. And sometimes post-spin, post-period or post other strenuous activities (!) you just feel like you need more than a water wash. And Im not talking about douching – a practice that involves squirting water (herbal remedies and chemicals sometimes) into your vagina – often with a device – to cleanse. I know thats not good for you (in fact its seriously bad, the bacteria naturally found in the vagina forms protective barriers to infections which stops them travelling further up the gynecologic tract to the fallopian tubes and ovaries which can cause pelvic inflammation.) All Im talking about is a little wash on the outside, how bad can that be?
But I have pondered (like a brown Carrie Bradshaw, looking pensively out of the GLAMOUR offices window) that it could be time to break up with my feminine wash like my mates think? And because it just seems so at odds with everything else in my life. I sprout mung beans, make my own batshit herbal remedies and am one step away from actively howling at the moon – so using chemicals down there just really doesn't feel quite right anymore. The experts seem to think so too – for more scientific reasons: “Normally, the pH of the vagina is about 3.8 to 4.5, which is slightly acidic, and maintaining that is important because an imbalance that tips towards being too alkaline, causes our natural lactobacilli to lessen and it can cause yeast to thrive,” says Dr Pradnya Pisal, consultant gynaecologist at www.london-gynaecology.com. Other things cause pH imbalances too: “The pH can vary during the menstrual cycle and during our life time such as after menopause. Infections, the presence of semen or menstrual blood, vaginal douching, taking antibiotics can also affect vaginal pH,” she adds.
Whilst the brands marketing products for your lady garden (Ive reclaimed that phrase in a post-feminist way) are usually pH balanced to avoid disrupting the bacteria, its another product aimed at commodifying our vaginas (you can legit get highlighters for your vulva now) and another step in our beauty routines that we realistically just dont need. Dr Pisal agrees that women are doing too much down there: “You just dont need them – the vagina is self-cleaning. Theyre expensive and washing the outside with water is enough cleansing. Its normal for the vagina to have an odour and that changes depending on the time of the menstrual cycle. And it doesnt need investigation or treatment, unless the odour is very unpleasant (fishy