Intimate cleansing has never been so popular - but do we really need to do a Gwyneth? Peta Bee looks into the ever growing market

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There is a new trend for cleansing, one that goes beyond the usual means of flushing toxins from your body and urban grime from your skin. Sales of feminine hygiene products, from vaginal shampoos to deodorants, are on the rise and women are turning to controversial techniques such as douching – the practice of washing out the vagina with water, soap or, yuck, vinegar - all in the name of a squeaky clean uterus.

A recent survey by Mintel revealed that around 25 per cent of women aged 16 plus admitted to using feminine wipes or wash products in the 6 months up to January 2015. There’s no shortage of choices on the market, with the likes of Balance Activ Fresh pH Balanced Intimate Wipes, Vagisil Odour Shield Intimate Spray and Canesfresh Gentle Refreshing Mousse appearing on the shelves of supermarkets and pharmacies with an increasing frequency, and even the arrival of Sass, a whole brand created around the topic. Women I know now carry them in their handbags in the way they might a breath freshener product, ever fearful that a personal odour will let them down.

Undoubtedly, the market for female cleansing was fuelled by Gwyneth Paltrow’s revelation that she is a fan of the bizarre practice of vaginal steaming. Writing on her lifestyle website  earlier in the year, the Hollywood actress gushed about the benefits of steaming with mugwort, an aromatic herb used in Chinese traditional medicine, claiming it boosts energy levels, rebalances female hormones and balances the PH of the vagina. “The real golden ticket here is the Mugwort V-Steam,” wrote Gwyneth. “You sit on what is essentially a mini-throne, and a combination of infrared and mugwort steam cleanses your uterus, et al.” It sent women into panic mode that they had somehow neglected their vaginal health and many invested in the promise that products were on hand to enhance freshness and prevent bacterial infection.

“There is an obsession with detoxing, ridding ourselves of toxins,” says London-based psychologist Dearbhla McCullough. “But there’s a danger that many people are taking it to extremes.” Experts fear that, rather than improving their health, women are risking it with this burgeoning trend. Like the gut, the vagina is home to a complex flora of bacteria that co-exist to maintain a healthy balance. Within minutes of using a feminine cleanser or douche, a percentage of these beneficial bugs are killed, throwing everything off kilter. Levels usually return to normal within three days but the time lapse allows less healthy bacteria to multiply, increasing the risk of yeast infections, pelvic inflammatory disease and even chlamydia in the process. With Paltrow-style steaming, the temperature of the procedure exacerbates the risk of thrush, a condition that thrives on warm, damp conditions.

Douching, in particular, is thought to be risky. A 2004 study in the American Journal of Nursing, showed that women who douched were more likely to get bacterial vaginosis. In fact, science has pretty well proven that perfuming your lady parts increases risk of infection by disturbing a healthy vaginal ecosystem. Earlier this year, researchers at George Washington University reported finding high levels of hormone-disrupting phthalates - potentially harmful chemicals linked to problems of the reproductive system, including hormonal changes and thyroid irregularities - in the urine of women who douched. Of 739 women tested and surveyed about their personal hygiene for the study in the journal Environmental Health, those who douched more often were more likely to be exposed to the industrial metabolite, or breakdown product, diethyl phthalate (DEP) found in many beauty and cosmetic products.

The more frequently a woman used a douche, the higher the concentration of DEP. Women who cleansed down below more than twice a month had 152 per cent higher concentrations of the metabolite than women who didn’t. Ami Zota, the assistant professor of environmental and occupational health who led the study, found no link between DEP levels and products such as scented tampons, sprays or towels. But “it doesn't mean that these other products aren't a source of chemical exposure”, Professor Zota said, adding, reassuringly: “A healthy vagina has an effective self-cleaning system.”

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