“I use it because I’m afraid of getting an infection or some kind of disease, because I’m dating a few different people right now,” says Daniela. Two friends told me they use it just because they like the “clean feeling.” Which made me curious as to what, exactly, that feeling was.
In one of Lactacyd’s many television ads that came out this year, a middle-aged actress in a tight white dress crosses her legs and says, “Finally we’ve arrived at the day that we can sleep without panties! Using the feminine soap Lactacyd every day is a healthy habit that’s good for us and our intimate parts!” In Mexico, out of all the feminine washes—Femfresh, Lomecan, Miss Glamour, Summer’s Eve—Lactacyd and Benzal (Mexico’s rebrand of Vagisil) seem to be the most popular. They have the most Facebook fans, anyway: over 330,000 and 500,000 followers respectively.
Douching made its commercial debut in the mid-19th century, when the Éguisier Irrigator appeared in French pharmacies. Women used the device—consisting of a nozzle and plunger—to prevent pregnancy. In the 1920s in the U.S., Lysol—yes, that Lysol—became the most popular douche product, according to an article by Mother Jones. On the pages of McCall’s and Ladies Home Journal, it claimed to act as a spermicide, and “the perfect antiseptic for marriage hygiene.” Rinsing out the vagina post-coitus was believed to kill any sperm left in the body and decrease a woman’s chances of getting pregnant. These Lysol products came in the form of inserts, foaming powders, effervescent tablets, jellies, and sprays. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that U.S. health experts realized the toxic effects of washing out your vagina with Lysol. It was causing permanent damage, and in many cases was actually burning women’s labia and cervixes.
However, even today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has a lax grip on douche products. In the United States, women spend more than $2 billion dollars annually on feminine-hygiene products, a number that includes tampons and pads as well as feminine washes, sprays, and wipes. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that one out of four women in the U.S. uses douches, the majority of them being Latina and black women. Researchers hypothesize that its popularity among these demographics has to do with culture and education, but it doesn’t seem that there has been any thorough investigation on how it became prevalent in these communities in the first place.
In other parts of the world, douching is a staple of a daily hygiene routine. According to a Turkish study, 80.6 percent of women living in rural towns in Southeastern Turkey douche regularly with water or hot water and soap, and 69.8 percent douched more than once a day. All study douching participants had recurrent or treatment-resistance vulvovaginitis. In Nairobi, Kenya, a study found that 72 percent of female sex workers douched after sex. 81 percent of them used a mixture of soap and water, 18 percent used salt water, and 5 percent used a commercial antiseptic. All douching methods had a strong correlation with cases of bacteria vaginosis.