I liked baths when I was seven, but I now find the concept both bizarre and off-putting. The notion of just basking in a container of stagnant, unfiltered water in an attempt to get clean seems paradoxical and kind of icky. And for those of us living in small New York city apartments, it's not always an option anyway. My general distaste for baths likely makes this news far less tragic for me than I suspect it will be for the droves of people Instagramming their fizzy pink bath bombs, but here it is nonetheless: Bath bombs might actually be wreaking havoc on your vagina.
Before you start virtually yelling at me, let me explain how I came to learn this. A few weeks ago I was on the phone with my best friend, complaining about the bath bomb's recent pervasive social media invasion, when she told me that her mother, Denise Poole, who happens to be a nurse practitioner midwife based in Pittsburgh, had actually called her that week to warn her to stay away from those exact bath products. Being both nosy and curious, I got in touch with her to see if her warning was medical or more related to not wanting to see her daughter participate in Instabait. It was, in fact, the former.
First, Poole clarified that when she talks about bath bombs, she's referring to "a group of bath products that are effervescent and contain chemicals and perfumes." Now, a quick primer on how woman parts work: Essentially, vaginas have "a mix of good and bad bacteria and even yeast," explains Poole. "The predominant good bacteria, which is called lactobacillus, produce hydrogen, which contributes the slightly acidic pH." It's this acidity that lends protection and prevents bad bacteria from growing.
So how do bath bombs play into this setup? Not well, it turns out. Apparently sitting in a pool of your flaked-off skin and body dirt (a.k.a. taking a plain, old, bath-bomb-less bath) isn't actually harmful at all — until you incorporate a fizzy scented product, that is. Using a bath product can mess with your body's pH level, rendering the lactobacilli less effective and unable "to contain the growth of bad bacteria or yeast."
Dr. Lauren Streicher, a Chicago-based Associate Clinical Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine agrees that staying away from bath bombs might be a good idea. "First of all, there are no benefits to bath bombs, and for a lot of women, they can be extremely irritating to the vulva tissue. People call it vaginal, but it’s really vulva," she says. Using a bath bomb or similar type of bath product can cause problems for women like irritation, redness and itching.
In fact, Streicher's words of caution extend beyond just bath bombs, potentially including any heavily perfumed products. Poole also notes that other issues that arise from using bath bombs can include "typical vaginitis, including bacterial vaginosis or yeast infections" — and it doesn't stop there. A change in pH can put women at a higher risk of contracting certain sexually transmitted infections (STIs), such as trichomonas, since the body's natural line of defenses becomes compromised.
But it's not all bad news, despite the bleakness of that last paragraph. Streicher does have words of solace for bath bomb devotees. If you haven't had issues using bath bombs in the past, you will most likely be fine to use them for the future. "I tell [my patients] if they want to use this stuff and it doesn't bother them, then it's fine go ahead. But if they are having any itching, redness or irritation, the first thing they should do is eliminate all of these products — not just bath bombs, but also perfumed pads or all of these [perfumed products]." And the especially good news for those of you who find baths relaxing? Baths (without fizzy, perfumey products) are just fine. "Sitting in just water isn't going to hurt you. So it's not water, it's the products," says Streicher.
The bottom line here is that less is more. In Poole's exact words, "This is not the kitchen floor. You don't have to scrub it. The vagina is perfectly capable of 'cleaning' itself." After years of misleading (and sexist) marketing campaigns conditioning women to believe that they need all the help they can get to stay "clean," it turns out there's not much merit to that notion. "So for women who suffer from changes in vaginal pH resulting in either yeast or bacterial vaginosis, I recommend no products at all — not even soap — to allow the balance to be restored," says Poole. When I asked Streicher if there were specific products or ingredients women should stay away from with respect to their vaginal health, she echoed this sentiment. "Yes, anything that’s not water. Anything that's not water can be irritating."
I'm not trying to scare you into throwing away your bath products — if they've worked for you so far and you enjoy them, you do you. But consider this a reminder to err on the side of caution when using bath bombs, bath salts or really anything else that could potentially have an adverse effect on your vaginal health. Just remember to pay attention to your body and consult a physician or OB-GYN if you suspect you're suffering from any irritation or infection.
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