Douching involves cleaning the vagina with water and/or other fluids, such as vinegar or iodine, usually by squirting the liquid through a tube or nozzle inserted into the vagina.
A bunch of medical groups, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, say no women, pregnant or not, should douche. Even so, about a quarter of U.S. women 15 to 44 years old douche, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Women’s Health.
Douching at least once a month could make it more difficult to get pregnant, research suggests, but douching after sex won’t prevent you from getting pregnant. Plus, douching could raise your risk for an ectopic pregnancy, which can make it more difficult to conceive in the future. And douching during pregnancy might raise your risk of delivering your baby too early.
Other health problems linked to douching include bacterial vaginosis, an infection in the vagina; sexually transmitted infections, (STIs) including the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, which causes AIDS; pelvic inflammatory disease, often caused by an STI; and vaginal irritation or dryness. A study published in August found that douching in the past six months was significantly associated with a higher number of infections with all types of genital human papillomavirus (HPV)—there are more than 200 of them–as well as a higher number of high-risk HPV types. High-risk HPV types—there are about a dozen of them–can cause cervical cancer as well as other types of cancer, while other HPV types cause genital warts.
In addition, a study out in 2015 found that vaginal douches might increase women’s exposure to phthalates. You might have heard about phthalates, chemicals used to soften plastic and vinyl, as in toys, that are also used in cosmetics and personal care products such as douches. Phthalates have been linked to developmental and behavioral issues in children who were exposed in the womb.
You might wonder why anyone would still douche. In a study published earlier this year, researchers asked 141 Los Angeles women whether they douched and, if so, why. They found that 6 out of 10 African-American women reported having douched in the previous year, compared to 4 out of 10 white or Latina women, echoing previous studies that showed African-American women were more likely to douche than white or Latina women. The African-American women were also more likely to report that they learned about douching from their mothers.
Most of the women in that Los Angeles study who douched told researchers that they felt it was necessary for good hygiene. The problem is that douching disturbs the normal balance of good and bad bacteria in the vagina.
So what are you supposed to do if you want to clean your vagina? Wash the outside of it with warm water when you bathe, but as far as the inside, your best bet is to let your vagina clean itself by making mucus. Remember, a clean, healthy vagina is not supposed to smell like a rose garden. However, the Office of Women’s Health notes, you should call your doctor or nurse if you have a thick vaginal discharge, with or without an odor; burning, redness and swelling in or around your vagina; and pain when urinating or during sex.