The feminine hygiene industry and what it says about society’s treatment of women

In recent years, the multi-billion-dollar feminine hygiene industry has come under much – long-overdue – scrutiny at the hands of a growing conversation surrounding women’s health. In the process, sweeping misinformation in the form of marketing tactics for unnecessary and harmful vaginal and vulvar products have been brought to light.

The damaging rhetoric that comes with marketing these products speaks volumes as to why natural processes experienced by women, such as menstruation, have sustained a deep-rooted “taboo” attitude, with an embedded societal narrative that these experiences should not be talked about openly, despite the fact that roughly half of the world’s population grapples with these issues on a daily basis.

Feminine hygiene products – washes, wipes, sprays, powders, the list goes on – are marketed to women on the pretence that these are something they need when, in reality, these products can actually do a lot more harm than good. These products sell the message that a woman will only be “fresh” or “clean” if she uses them, and not only are these marketing tactics harmful to women, they are representative of a larger societal problem regarding perceptions of women as a whole. 

Vaginal and vulvar health: a background to the backlash

These feminine hygiene companies prey on the fact that, at present, there is a huge gap in information regarding women’s health, and in turn, the “facts” are twisted in order to market their products. Many women are unaware of or don’t know the full extent of, issues such as what actually constitutes vaginal or vulvar health, and these companies know this all too well.

In order to maintain vulvar and vaginal health, both need to maintain a balanced bacterial content and a balanced pH. A person’s vulvar pH is usually 3.5-4.7, while vaginal pH can vary according to a person’s age and stage of their menstrual cycle – during reproductive years (15-49), your vaginal pH should be below or equal to 4.5, while before menstruation and after menopause, a healthy pH tends to be higher than 4.5.

The issue with the feminine hygiene industry is that in most of their products, which carry the claim of making the vagina feel and smell “fresh and clean”, they actually gravely interfere with its natural pH and bacterial content, and in the process, create the “solution” to a problem that was never there in the first place.

Take douching, for example, the practice of washing or cleaning out the vagina with water or other mixtures of fluids, mainly sold in stores as prepackaged mixes of water and vinegar, baking soda, or iodine. Despite the fact that the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology wholly recommend against douching, almost one in five women in the United States aged 15 to 44 douche regularly. 

Douching is not recommended by experts due to extensive research found regarding the risks it poses to vaginal health; by douching the vagina, you are reducing its healthy bacterial content, in turn allowing “problematic bacteria” to flourish and making the vagina much more vulnerable to infections such as sexually transmitted infections and bacterial vaginosis, as well as increasing the risk of cervical cancer.

Vagisil and OMV!

For the most part, the term “feminine hygiene products” refers to those products which are geared towards women with the implication that they will help “clean” your vagina and keep it fresh and free of odour. Vagisil is one such brand that has routinely come under fire from gynaecologists and women’s health specialists, in particular for its marketing.

Vagisil is often criticised due to their not-so-subtle implications that although these odours and processes your body goes through are normal, you need their product to reach your full, confident self. The company that claims to be for and by women inherently use this “girl boss” attitude to manipulate and distort facts for profit from the very market they claim to uplift.

One of Vagisil’s most recent products, OMV!, is a particular example of these contentious marketing attitudes towards women, and in this case, young, impressionable women. OMV! is geared specifically towards teenagers and the line includes scented wipettes, anti-itch serum and a body wash, marketing itself as a hip and trendy product for young people, with the tagline, “the intimate care line that’s all about your glow-up”. 

Dr Jennifer Gunter, renowned gynaecologist and author of The Vagina Bible, brought to light the issues with Vagisil’s latest line on her blog, The Vajenda, which aims to dismantle misinformation surrounding women’s health. It is a known scientific fact that the vagina cleans itself – it is largely protected against bacteria due to its naturally acidic environment, and the analogy so often used is that of the vagina being similar to a self-cleaning oven.

However, in order to sell their products, Vagisil goes as far as to attempt to discredit this on their website and YouTube channel, debunking the “myth” that the vagina self-cleans. This “myth” is not a myth whatsoever – the fact that the vagina self-cleans is completely verified by many credible organisations, such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

As Gunter points out, Vagisil also uses the terms “vagina” and “vulva” interchangeably, or refer to the “external vagina area”. There is no such thing as an “external vagina”, what they are referring to is the vulva. This alone begs the question, do Vagisil themselves even know what they are marketing?

The term “vaginal health” used on a product designed for external, vulvar use is particularly destructive and creates a damaging lack of clarity, most notably for young, vulnerable consumers who may purchase these products. Purchasing products they don’t actually need, and then potentially mistakenly using them on the wrong areas due to poor advertising and lack of clarity, is an unequivocal recipe for disaster and totally inexcusable on Vagisil’s part.

Another questionable facet of Vagisil’s OMV! line is its ingredient list. The OMV! wash is designed for use on the vulva, which, as Gunter points out, is a particularly sensitive area of skin that is a lot more vulnerable to irritation than other parts of the body.

This wash not only contains fragrance, a common skin irritant, but two exfoliating agents, one of which is salicylic acid, which can be irritating and even lead to mild skin peeling – as Gunter states, “it is not well tested on the vulva”. Most gynaecologists specifically recommend against anything with a fragrance or exfoliating agents when dealing with sensitive areas of the body such as the vagina and vulva, due to their irritating properties; instead, the usage of just water or unscented soap is actively encouraged.

Another issue is Vagisil’s perpetual use of the term “period funk” throughout its marketing, referring to a post-period odour, which only serves to prey on young girl’s insecurities that their period is unclean and off-putting to others. All vaginas have their own natural odours, and if an odour seems out of the ordinary or particularly overpowering, generally the correct course of action would be to advocate for young women to visit their doctor, as it could indicate something more serious. The incorrect course of action would be to push a “light vanilla-clementine scented” body wash onto impressionable adolescents on the basis that any vaginal odour is undesirable and must be covered up immediately.

Vaginal and period stigma 

Marketing products of this nature towards young women who are already at an extremely vulnerable and volatile age is particularly egregious, but the dissemination of outright misleading information and falsifying of “facts” creates a much larger problem. Young women have, for the most part, grown up subliminally learning to be ashamed of their bodies and their natural processes, and a 2018 YouGov poll commissioned by ActionAid found that 46% of UK women felt embarrassed the first time they got their period. 

feminine hygiene industry
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

And the shame and embarrassment certainly do not dissipate after that first time; most women are all too familiar with the hesitant, hushed whisper to a fellow female classmate or colleague asking for a sanitary product, the subsequent shuffle to the bathroom with a pad or tampon stuffed up a sleeve so no male in the vicinity sees.

This is, unfortunately, all too common; this same study by ActionAid found that 52% of UK women hide sanitary products when carrying them to the toilet so as not to embarrass others, with 43% doing so because they think people will embarrass them or make jokes. 

The reason period stigma and the feminine hygiene industry go hand-in-hand is the complete misinformation it caters to. When there is a stigma around a certain topic, it encourages things to happen in secret, it closes doors to conversations that need to be had in order for women to feel more comfortable in their bodies and actually understand their bodies. Research by Plan International Ireland found that more than half of Irish school girls aged between 12 and 19 did not find school helpful for providing information on their period; in taking this into account, the feminine hygiene industry solely serves to feed misinformation to impressionable young women who are let down by their education system.

It’s no secret why women’s health is on the back burner in a society that has thrived under patriarchal norms for hundreds of years. Topics such as periods were long considered completely taboo, and it wasn’t until 1985 that the word “period” was actually uttered on television for the first time, by actress Courteney Cox in an advertisement for Tampax. Hushed attitudes surrounding topics concerning women; the likes of miscarriages, sexual health, and periods, to name but a few, have been rife under a misogynistic culture that encourages these things to be kept behind closed doors. 

What we need is progress, but instead, the feminine hygiene industry chooses to exploit this huge gap in women’s health information, which is present as a direct result of social stigmas around these conversations. In the process, they masquerade as progressive companies made by women “just like you”, when in reality they prey on these same insecurities of uncleanliness and shame fed to women for so long throughout history. That isn’t progress; that’s misogyny disguised as a vanilla-clementine-scented wipe. 

However, through more open and relaxed conversation, the stigma around women’s bodies can be eased little by little. With it, progress can be made regarding the implication that vaginas and periods are impure or unclean because they are absolutely not; they are normal, natural, and what’s more, something to be celebrated.

Rachel McLoughlin
Rachel McLoughlin

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