Recently our esteemed colleague Akilah Hughes came to us with a major wrong against girlkind. As a preteen, she had been lured by the bright packaging and fruity scents of a bath bomb, given to her as a fourth grade Secret Santa gift. After she used the soapy ball, however, she noticed that her downstairs felt “itchy and dry.” Her mom, tired of hearing the endless complaining, took a look and saw that she had a rather tenacious yeast infection. Hughes was dismayed when she later learned that this is a common issue for bath product users.
The experience was enough to scare her away from the sweet, soapy bubbles—but she (rightfully) felt we should let people know that bath bombs can explode your vagina.
“Even now as an adult going to popular, environmentally friendly stores, I get a little angry,” she says. “Bath bombs aren't healthy, and the way they've been glorified on Instagram (with glitter and all manner of nonsense that shouldn't be in your hoo-ha) is a little disappointing.” Sure, yeast infections aren’t life-threatening, she admits, “but I'd want to know in advance that there could be a risk if I was using something that posed one.”
This led me to wonder: Is it possible that baths indeed do us more harm than good? That something so relaxing, so intrinsically linked with iconic femininity—from Audrey Hepburn’s soak in Paris When It Sizzles to Julia Robert’s sudsy Prince sing-along in Pretty Woman—could actually be bad for one's vajay?
According to WomensHealth.gov, three out of four women will have a yeast infection at some point in their life. But what causes yeast infections? As you may have heard, the vagina is a “self-cleaning oven”—and when we introduce foreign substances, its ecosystem can get thrown out of whack. Sometimes this leads to an overgrowth of bacteria, which, as the site explains, can lead to the tell-tale itching and burning down there. It should be noted that the site also recommends staying out of the tub as a precaution.
Can baths, sold to us by “women’s lifestyle brands” and the media as a means of keeping our delicate lady parts clean, actually cause the growth of bacteria? THE LIES HAVE NO END.
After I stepped away from our desks for a breather, and TBH a chocolate break, I called in the experts. First I hit up nurse practitioner, writer, ladies health shaman, and general all-around vagina expert Lola Pellegrino for her thoughts. “Bath bombs are no good because, like all scented products, they can raise the alkalinity of your vagina,” she told me. This makes your woman-peach way more susceptible to yeast infections, bacterial vaginitis, and vulvar irritation.
While she admits that the bubbles are a “medical evidence-free zone,” or at least haven’t been rigorously explored by researchers, which I blame on Big Bath and the oppressive Mr. Bubble patriarchy, her non-medical opinion is that “they can’t be helping the cause.”
So what did others in the field have to say about it? Had they seen a correlation between bubble baths, bombs, and generally girl-scented bath products and yeast infections in their patients?
“Yes!” says Dr. Carolyn DeLucia, a gynecologist at VSPOT MediSpa and founder of the ViVa Rejuvenation center in Hillsborough, New Jersey. “Bubble bathes, especially those with strong fragrances, affect women in two ways. Soap can seep into the vagina while sitting in a bath and alter the delicate acid base balance of the vagina.”
“Generally our bodies keep this balance favoring our healthy bacteria, lactobacilli, but other bacteria and yeast are ever-present in small quantities in our vagina,” she said. “When the pH changes to favor yeast, and if an environment is created that kills the healthy bacteria, yeast will jump in and grow and take over.” This is when symptoms appear and infections begin. Which is intensely lame on its own, but did you know that baths can also cause UTIs?
“In regards to bladder infections,” DeLucia continued, “the bubbles and fragrances cause irritation of the urethra, the small tube that urine passes through to exit the bladder.” With this irritation “the natural defense mechanisms are weakened and bacteria may creep up into our bladder and cause a urinary tract infection.” You know how it feels when you get soap in your eyes? According to DeLucia, the tissues of the vagina and urethra are similar and “can be irritated much in the same way from the strong bath bombs.”
She says that if we want to avoid this, we can simply take a bath without any product-induced fanfare. She also explained that any item that creates bubbles or a lather with fragrance runs the risk of causing irritation and will lead to either a yeast or bladder infection. She instead recommends trying a drop of lavender or rose oil in the bath (be sparing) and using a gentle pH balanced soap, like BASIS, Dove unscented, or classic Ivory.
According to Dr. Jennifer Conti, an OBGYN at Stanford University (and contributor to Fusion), we should probably avoid tampering with the area altogether. “It's a common misconception that women should be cleaning their vaginas with soaps, douches, and vaginal cleansing products,” she said, “but that is not at all true.” It seems the vagina's got itself covered and we should all step off—especially since your vag is “extremely sensitive to chemicals like that in a bath product. All you really need is warm water.”
This is again when the patriarchy rears its ugly head. “Douching destroys not only the bad bacteria in the vagina, but also the good. The good bacteria, like lactobacillus, helps to protect it from yeast and bacterial infections. Douching is basically a huge hoax aimed to make money, and make women believe their vaginas are dirty and need cleaning. Don't be fooled.”
Despite the potential for scented soaps and baths to cause yeast infections and UTIs, they’re not the ultimate deciding factor. There are also issues of personal cleanliness, pH, hormone fluctuations, medication, and even lifestyle. As DeLucia explains, sex is still the most common cause of UTIs. That’s because irritation from the friction of intercourse “helps bacteria travel from area of our female anatomy to the other. The openings are too close together making the architecture convenient in some ways and less than perfect in others.”
So, at the end of the day, if you want to avoid yeast infections and UTIs, you should also probably avoid sex and bubble baths. But, in our totally non-medical opinion, if you want a great a Saturday night, I recommend throwing caution to the wind.
Laura Feinstein is the Head of Social Stories at Fusion. Formerly, she held staff roles as the East Coast Editor of GOOD Magazine and the EIC of The Creators Project at VICE, and has contributed to The Guardian, T/The New York Times, Paper Magazine and many others. She specializes in the niche, the esoteric and the un-boring.