A new case study is warning against the trend of vaginal steaming — and for good reason.
A 62-year-old unnamed woman suffered second-degree burns after undergoing a vaginal steaming treatment, according to the study published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada. The woman was using vaginal steaming to “attempt to reduce vaginal prolapse,” the report says.
The study reported vaginal steaming has increased in popularity, and some view it as a method to tighten or “freshen” their vaginas. It can involve squatting over a pot of boiling hot water mixed with herbs as a “cleansing” method.
But vaginal steaming is not only a home remedy; many spas offer a version of the service, too. Some spas claim that it can help treat issues related to menopause, fibroids and bacterial vaginosis — claims health experts say are false.
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“We have no science to support this… there’s no evidence for any benefits,” says Dr. Yolanda Kirkham, an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Toronto and obstetrician-gynecologist at Women’s College Hospital.
“The steam cannot actually penetrate into the vagina, let alone into the uterus.”
What’s more, steam can actually damage the skin. Research shows that burns caused by water vapour “are often particularly malicious” and it doesn’t take long for steam to do damage. These types of burns are also hard to spot.
“We know that the upper level of the skin, the epidermis, doesn’t prevent against water vapour, and so it can cause swelling and damage to the lower levels (of skin) very quickly,” Kirkham says.
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“People could have after-burn effects that they’re not aware of.”
Plus, steam can simply dry the skin out, says Dr. Caroline Mitchell, director of the vulvovaginal disorders program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
“Hot water, hot steam, any of that is really not great for skin,” she says. “It’s very drying — even though we think steaming is going to make things moister.”
Why you don’t need vaginal steaming
Vaginas take care of themselves and don’t need to be cleaned by products or treatments, says Mitchell. All that’s needed to wash around the vulva is water.
“Even soap is really disruptive to the healthy bacterial community,” Mitchell says. “The vulva, or the outside skin, can be washed with soap and water. But for folks who have vulva irritation, sometimes even soap is a little too irritating.”
Kirkham echoes this and says nothing should ever go inside the vagina for cleaning. Cleansing products can irritate the area and do more harm.
“Douches should actually all be removed from the shelves,” she says. “I liken the vagina to the mucous membranes in our eye; when you get soap or shampoo in your eye, it stings. The vaginal tissues are similar.”
Vaginal steaming is dangerous
While there is no evidence vaginal steaming is beneficial, Kirkham says there is evidence to show it’s dangerous. While the 62-year-old woman’s second-degree burns have highlighted the treatment’s danger, it’s likely many more women have experienced burns, too.
“I think it’s under-reported,” Kirkham explains. “Just like with waxing injuries that we see in the emergency room… people are embarrassed or it’s just not studied.”
Kirkham says that there’s a lot of misinformation around vaginal health, as well as the societal belief that the vulva is “dirty” and needs to be improved. She says spas and companies capitalize on this and try to sell women services and products they really don’t need.
To combat this, there needs to be more education and body positivity around genitalia. There also needs to be more awareness around the harms of vaginal steaming.
“The only things we need to steam are carpets, veggies and dim sum,” Kirkham says. “But there’s no need to steam the vulva.”