Why Douching Won't Die

The practice can cause lasting damage—but around the world, women continue to do it, encouraged by advertising, cultural norms, and sometimes even misguided doctors.

In the shower I share with my three roommates in my apartment in Mexico City, there are all the things you’d expect to see: a few bottles of Body Shop-brand shampoos and conditioners, and a bar of soap—the organic-looking brown kind with tiny splinters of unrefined material protruding from the surface. But there are also two bottles of Lactacyd, a brand of feminine wash.

“You should use it,” my roommate tells me. She’s an astute, outspoken woman in her early 30s who works as a journalist for one of Mexico’s most well-known liberal magazines. “It’s meant to get rid of or prevent infections,” she said.

For more than half a century, douches, or feminine washes, have been a staple in pharmacies throughout the world. Yet, here in the Distrito Federal, douching is a trend that seems to have gained serious momentum in the last two years, according to Karla Font, a Distrito Federal-based gynecologist with many patients who actively douche. A worker at Farmacía Paris in the Historic District told me that every day they sell at least 30 bottles.

I asked some friends in Mexico City why they used it. One told me she uses it because her sister kept a bottle in their shower, and she thought “Why not?” Selen says she only uses it when she has bacterial vaginosis. Alexandra told me that she started using it because her mom insisted she do so when she was a teenager, and ever since then she has been too afraid to stop.

“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.

Lisa Mihaly, a family nurse practitioner at the Women’s Community Clinic in San Francisco, says, “Most women who douche have been led to believe that there is something wrong with them. They think of douching almost as a medication that they can take [at] home to ‘restore’ their vagina. Douching can seem like a quick fix to something that is not even a physical problem. The problem is really that women are made to feel this way about their bodies.”

This sort of logic seems to be at play in Mexico City. The term “vaginal shampoo” has entered the personal care market here disguised as a more medically conscious alternative to douching. The only aspect differentiating douching from vaginal shampoo is that douching has the option to be done with a nozzle-and-bag contraption—vaginal shampoo isn’t promoted with that function. Advertisements boast its abilities to balance a woman’s pH and prevent odor and irritation.

2001 was the first year that Mexican public high schools and middle schools began teaching sexual health, which means the oldest Mexican who has taken a sex-ed class is 34. According to schoolteachers, Carlos Alberto Lopez Flores, a middle-school teacher at Montes de Oca, and Citlalli Lopez Renón, a high-school teacher at Colegio Madrid, it wasn’t until 2011 that it became a requirement that elementary schools in Mexico teach parts of the body and basic hygienic practices. Elena Langurica Naves, a social worker at Clínica Especializada Condesa, the largest HIV/AIDS clinic in Latin America, says she’s frustrated with the state of sexual education in Mexico. “To many people here, teaching sexual education is practically a sin,” she says. “They believe it’s a sin that teachers are even talking about sexual issues. Families think that if you start talking about sexual health then their children are going to start having sex.”

Naves and the schoolteachers I spoke with told me that in the Distrito Federal there is a quiet disagreement going on over who should be teaching sexual health, parents or teachers. Youth and adults alike may fill in the gaps with whatever information they can find, including that of TV advertisements.

Font, the gynecologist, believes that television publicity is mainly responsible for vaginal shampoo’s rise in popularity. Yet, she believes that vaginal shampoo can be beneficial for maintaining good hygiene. “I recommend whatever brand of vaginal shampoo. However, it should only be used outside of the vagina, and daily, whenever you shower,” she says. “I can’t speak for Lactacyd’s abilities to balance the pH because I’ve never tried it myself, but there are many other cheaper brands out there that serve the same purpose.”

Font isn’t the only gynecologist who recommends vaginal shampoo to her patients. Gustavo Quiros Licona is another who remarked upon the benefits of daily use of Lactacyd. When Googling gynecologists in Distrito Federal, Licona’s clinic is one of the first search results, and the space is a true testament to its impressive SEO techniques. While in the waiting room, I stared in awe at the enormous sign advertising a promotion for 30 percent off consultations, 20 percent off prescription drugs, 5 percent off surgery, and 50 percent off spa treatments in exchange for a two-hour photo shoot for promotional photos for the clinic.

Licona speaks enthusiastically about Lactacyd, and tells me, “It will help you have fewer allergic reactions and less inflammation.” One of his pamphlets reads: “To avoid vaginosis, wash daily with warm water and hypo-allergenic soap (Lactacyd, Ph5 Eucerin lipid gel, Phemeday gel, etc.).”

When I mentioned that to Teresita de Jesus Cabrera López, a gynecologist at Clínica Especializada Condesa, she said she’s never seen a study published by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) or any other reputable source that touts the benefits of Lactacyd or any other vaginal shampoo.

Almost every woman in Distrito Federal I’ve spoken to about Lactacyd uses it, or a different brand, or knows someone who does. There were a few who said they never had and thought the concept silly. But it seems like, around here at least, vaginal shampoo has become just another normal bathing accessory.

Throughout North America and other parts of the world, feminine shampoo commercials continue to propagate the notion that a woman needs a product specifically for her vagina in order for it to be healthy and smell fresh. In one of Lysol’s douching ads from the early 1900s, a woman stands outside what is presumably her and her husband’s bedroom door, gripping the door knob with a look of devastation on her face. Superimposed on the photo are drawings of three locks, with the words “doubt,” “inhibitions,” and “ignorance” stamped underneath. In a modern ad for Lomecan, another brand of feminine wash, a young woman enters a classroom, and she and a male student make flirty eyes at each other. As she takes a seat next to him, he covers his nose and sprints away from the desk—for reasons that, the voiceover explains, have to do with her vaginal odor. She might have ended up like her early 20th-century counterpart in the Lysol ad, had she not been saved by a bottle of Lomecan.