In This Article
Over the past few years, we've seen a rise in treatments aimed at improving vaginal wellness. One of the most popular ones is vaginal steaming. Marketed as an age-old spa treatment for your vagina, the practice has no scientific backing but tons of celebrity endorsements. Ahead, our expert OBGYNs discuss the physical and psychological dangers of vaginal steaming, and how to circumvent harmful well-woman messaging and practices.
Meet the Expert
- Dr. Kelly Culwell, MD, is a board-certified OBGYN and nationally renowned women’s health expert who has worked with the World Health Organization and Planned Parenthood.
- Dr. Sara Twogood, MD, is a board-certified OBGYN in Los Angeles and the co-founder of Female Health Education and the online magazine Female Health Collective.
- Dr. Kim Langdon, MD, is an Ohio-based, board-certified OBGYN with Medzino who has more than 20 years of experience in the field of gynecology.
What Is Vaginal Steaming?
Vaginal steaming is steaming of the vulvar skin. "Usually water and a mixture of essential oils or herbs are placed in a steamer, and a person sits above the steam with their legs open to let the steam reach the vulvar or vaginal area," explains Dr. Sara Twogood.
Dr. Kim Langdon adds that vaginal steaming involves a process where "hot water is vaporized (steaming), which contains a variety of herbs thought to relieve cramps and digestive issues and help the healing process."
Why Do People Steam Their Vaginas?
"A lot of it is marketing," says Twogood. "It became popular when Gwyneth Paltrow discussed it. That's the power of Goop."
But the trend also capitalizes on what Twogood calls a larger cultural narrative, or "concern people have about their vulvas and vaginas." Dr. Kelly Culwell adds that concerns about vaginal care are not inherently so problematic, especially because, as she explains, "women's health is such an under-researched area. There are many health problems that people with female reproductive organs face (such as recurrent vaginal infections, endometriosis, or severe cramping with periods) for which there are not many good diagnoses or treatment options." However, many times, brands or celebrities tap into a type of cultivated concern, which "leads to desperate folks looking for solutions outside of mainstream medicine."
The problem is when a practice like vaginal steaming is "marketed as a non-medical way to improve the vulvovaginal health," explains Twogood. So, what's the appeal? "I've heard some of my patients do it out of curiosity or just to say they've tried it," she says. "I've had some patients who were struggling with what they perceived to be an odor or abnormal discharge and wanted to see if it would improve their symptoms."
Culwell says people steam their vaginas in a misguided attempt to get a deep clean down there. "There is no evidence that this works; it does not make logical anatomic sense." Breaking it down, she says, "the vagina (the interior tube that leads from the outside—the vulva—to the cervix/uterus) is actually a potential space, meaning the walls are shut against each other unless something is put inside. Steam does not 'open' the vagina. It does not actually make it very far inside, and even if it did, the cervix (opening of the uterus) is designed to keep things out of the uterus to prevent infection." Finally, she says, "Steam cannot reach the uterus."
Twogood adds that there's also no medical backing to vaginal steaming. "It's not studied robustly even though the marketing promises more than it could deliver from a medical perspective."
Dangers of Vaginal Steaming
Vaginal steaming carries both physical and psychological dangers. "Anytime anything is put inside the vagina (such as douching or, in the case of steaming, the vapors of essential oils/herbs), this can cause an imbalance of the natural bacteria in the vagina which can lead to irritation or bacterial vaginosis," says Culwell.
Vaginal steaming may also result in burns. "There have been reports of skin irritation and even burns on the genital skin from the heat," says Twogood. "You could burn the delicate tissue that is inside the vagina, called mucosa," adds Langdon. "It is much thinner than the skin and absorbs chemicals more easily. The herbs are chemicals that can irritate this tissue and make you prone to scarring."
Infection is another concern. "Heat causes yeast infections and may cause other harmful bacteria to grow and overcome the normal vaginal microbiome," explains Langdon. Twogood adds that the equipment used in any steaming procedure can be a breeding ground for bacteria. "Cleaning and sanitation of the equipment and water itself would be very important," she says.
There are also psychological dangers associated with vaginal steaming and the dogma underscored by its practice. "One study looked at the marketing and promotion of vaginal steaming and found that it fit into the common theme of other vulvovaginal 'care' marketing—that female genitalia needs improving, that it's ugly, that it's disgusting, and that paying for products or services can help with this," explains Twogood. "Perpetuating this idea is detrimental to society as a whole."
Alternatives to Vaginal Steaming
Twogood encourages supporting vaginal hygiene by implementing simple daily practices and avoiding others. "Don't put fragrant products on the skin or inside the vagina—this means soaps, solutions, and scented tampons or pads," she says. "Don't douche. Wear breathable clothing. Avoid moisture-trapping clothing or athleisure wear. And change period products as recommended." She also likes sitz baths for any vulvar irritation. "A soak in mild temperature water for 10 to 15 minutes at a time, up to three times a day, can help with so many vulvar and vaginal concerns."
You can also do nothing. Langdon encourages people to "leave the vagina alone. It does not need to be cleaned," she says. "Only the external genitalia (vulva, labia, perineum) need cleaning with warm soap, water, and a rinse."
Culwell also encourages a minimalist approach. "The vagina is amazing because it is self-cleaning," she says. "The vagina has a delicate balance of bacteria which keeps the vaginal pH in the acidic range, which wards off other infections. Vaginal discharge also helps keep the vagina healthy by sloughing off old cells and mucous. The best thing for vulvar (external) hygiene is plain water or unscented soaps, used only on the outside."
She also underscores the importance of "wearing cotton underwear, regularly washing sex toys, and avoiding putting anything in the anus and then into the vagina (such as a penis or sex toys during sex) without washing first."
Given that there are no benefits of vaginal steaming, Culwell has a bottom line. "I recommend people practice good vulvar/vaginal hygiene and talk to their doctors if they are experiencing symptoms that they think might benefit from vaginal steaming, as there will surely be a better option," she says.