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Vagisil responds to backlash from doctors over teen 'cleansing' products

Doctors urge women and teens to skip vagina, vulvar cleansers because "the vagina is like a self-cleaning oven."
TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Last week Vagisil launched a new line of products called OMV! that made a huge splash — but it's most likely not for the reason the company wanted. The company's OMV! products are being marketed to teens, encouraging them use the scented wipes, cleansers and “anti-itch” creams on their vaginas and vulvas.

Across social media, doctors criticized the company for targeting teenagers with a product that sends a message that something is wrong with their bodies and encourages them to use potentially dangerous cleansers on and inside their bodies.

“Every study shows intravaginal cleaning — even with water — is damaging to the ecosystem. The vagina is like a self-cleaning oven. Your products are for the vulva. Do you not know the difference?” Dr. Jen Gunter, author of "The Vagina Bible: The Vulva and the Vagina — Separating the Myth from the Medicine," tweeted over the weekend.

Dr. Chavone Momon-Nelson agrees. People don't need any specially-designed products to clean their vulvas.

"They don't need anything specific. They need water and soap. And even when I say soap, it's important to lean towards something hypoallergenic," the OB-GYN at UPMC in Carlisle, Pennsylvania told TODAY. "Those perfumed soaps are not good."

The reason? Scented products can aggravate skin or cause allergic reactions.

"It can cause a lot of irritation. The other big thing is that it can throw off your vaginal pH, which can lead to another whole host of issues," Momon-Nelson said. "They're just not good for your external vagina or the internal part of your vagina."

Even external wipes used on the vulva can cause problems. Many can destroy the body's good bacteria, which can lead to soreness and itchiness.

“Wipes can be irritants,” Gunter explained to TODAY in 2019. “If you develop an irritation from wiping, then the inflammation could cause some subtle changes in odor.”

While many people feel worried when they experience vaginal discharge or a different odor, sometimes it's just the body changing during the menstrual cycle.

"Vaginal discharge in women is normal. Depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle, your discharge changes," Momon-Nelson explained. "If the discharge is thick and white or itchy or has a color, then I would be concerned. If you have vaginal discharge that has an odor that is another reason to reach out to your doctor."

Itching can occur, but Momon-Nelson recommends that people first talk to their doctor instead of looking for over-the-counter products.

"It could be normal, that is just from shaving," she said. "If you're having a yeast infection, then you need adequate anti-fungal treatment, but that is something that needs to be diagnosed."

On social media, doctors pointed out how products including scented washes, anti-itch creams and perfumed wipes often create odors or itches that drive patients to see their doctors for treatment.

“Honestly, the @vagisil marketing campaign is a brilliant one because using their products while your vagina is perfectly fine will destroy your microbiome, give you real bacterial vaginosis, and prompt you to buy more Vagisil,” Dr. Jocelyn Fitzgerald, an OB-GYN at Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh, wrote on Twitter. "DON’T FALL FOR IT GIRLS YOUR VAGINA IS FINE."

A dermatologist also chimed into the social media debate about the potential problems with such cleansers.

“This is the genesis of a totally unnecessary and possibly harmful practices. Their Wipettes, like most wet wipes, are chock-full of potential allergens and irritants. You know what’s anxiety provoking? An itchy vulvar rash that lasts well beyond your period. No thank you!” Dr. Rita Khodosh tweeted.

TODAY reached out to Vagisil for a comment, but they initially declined and pointed to their statement on Twitter.

“We wanted to clarify any confusion or the underlying belief that OMV! was developed because there is something wrong with teens or that their vulvas/vaginas are inherently dirty. That is not the case,” the statement reads, in part. “ ... The line was created by our skincare experts together with teens and their moms, because young women are athletes and active in so many ways, and shared with us that they get sweaty, worry about period hygiene and odors, and want their own cleansing product with scents they enjoy for themselves."

Shortly after this story was published, Vagisil reached out to TODAY with an additional statement:

“Our female-owned and female-run brand has been a worldwide leader in personal care for nearly 50 years. Our cleansing products are specifically formulated at an appropriate pH level for the external vulvar area. Independent dermatologists and gynecologists test our products to ensure they are gentle, non-irritating and safe for everyday use. OMV! was created with moms and their teens to offer young women their own cleansing product line. We respect that Vagisil products may not be for everyone. Our commitment has always been to provide safe, effective products for those who trust us with their personal care needs,” the brand shared with TODAY.

The company also stressed that their products are intended for “external use only,” and the ingredients are hypoallergenic and non-irritating.

Experts still balked at the company’s characterization that periods and odors should be thought of as worrisome rather than natural.

“Nothing to see here, just @vagisil and their ‘It’s OMV’ teen line telling young girls in 2021 that clementine-vanilla ‘smells like confidence’ and selling them neon scrub brushes for their dirty *vaginas,” Fitzgerald shared.

Momon-Nelson said she hopes that discussions like these change the messages surrounding periods and having a vagina.

"We shame that part of the body. We do need to do a better job," she said. "If we just made people and young girls feel more confident about their bodies, in general, we wouldn't be (making) products to make them feel uncomfortable about normal changes and normal things that happen with their vagina."

This story was updated on Feb. 9, 2021 to include an additional statement from Vagisil.