Exposure to chemical called phthalates is just another reason not to douche, according to a new study at the George Washington University’s Milken School of Public Health.
Even though many medical groups, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), have discouraged women from the practice of douching, many women still believe that it’s a safe and effective way to clean the vagina. In fact, according to TIME magazine, health experts estimate that as many as 25% of women in the U.S., ages 15 to 44, still use douches.
The problem with douching is very basic, regardless of whether a woman is using plain water or a mixture of feminine cleaning products: when the liquid “cleans” the far interior of vaginal walls, it washes away the good bacteria that keeps women fertile and healthy.
According to the GWU research group, which published their findings in the academic journal Environmental Health, it gets worse. Women who use douches, Reuters and Live Science report, are also increasing their exposure to chemicals called phthalates.
Phthalates are already found in many personal care products in the form of diethyl phthalate (DEP); sanitary wipes, tampons, and douches are all known to contain DEP. At higher levels, phthalates interfere with hormone production; estrogen, testosterone, and thyroid hormones can all be affected by the chemical.
The researchers analyzed phthalate levels in 739 women, ages 20 to 49, by examining urine samples and comparing the levels with the types of feminine care products the women already regularly used — six different products were considered, including tampons, sanitary napkins, feminine sprays and washes, and douching products.
The women who stated that they used douches were found to have high levels of phthalates; according to Reuters, the levels of phthalates were 52% higher on average.
Although most of the women said that they didn’t use douches, certain demographics within the subjects were more likely to use them: about one-third of black women said they used a douche at least once in the past month, while only 11% of white women and Mexican-American women did. In fact, 20% of black women reported douching at least twice a month, while only 7% of white women and 3% of Mexican-American women reported doing so.
The study did not analyze the side effects of higher phthalate levels within these groups, but it may be possible to correlate the data with other studies on women’s health concerns. In 2013, for example, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine reported that black women are more likely to have uterine fibroids, with an average of 9.9 fibroids in this group, compared with 4.5 average fibroids in white women.
Ultimately, the lesson is clear: keep the cleaning to the exterior, and let your body clean itself out naturally each month during your period.