I’ve talked before about the perils of using douches—douching messes with your vagina’s natural flora and can upset its pH balance, leading to infections and worse. But what about organic herbal vaginal cleansers?
Recently, a company called Embrace Pangaea out of Tallahassee, Florida, began offering a product called Herbal Womb Detox Pearls. These small, round satchels are filled with herbs and meant to be inserted into the vagina for no more than 72 hours—which, objectively, seems like a long period of time to have anything up in your vagina. The satchels contain plants commonly used in natural health remedies around the world.
According to Embrace Pangaea's website, their products will “cleanse the womb and return it to a balance state,” as well as treat vaginal health issues including bacterial vaginosis, "foul odor," yeast infections, endometriosis, and fibroids—which seems ambitious, to say the least.
On the chance you're reading this and thinking SIGN ME UP!!!, I've got some sobering news: Despite some lifestyle bloggers singing their praises, putting herbs in your vagina probably won't help whatever you're trying to fix—and may lead to serious health conditions, according to physicians. As part of my ongoing quest to get women to stop trying to "detox" their vaginas, allow me to walk you through the science.
I first learned about the pearls when Dr. Jennifer Gunter, a San Francisco Bay Area OBGYN, published an impassioned blog post against the products last week, insisting, "Your uterus isn’t tired or depressed or dirty and your vagina has not misplaced its chakra." She went on to explain that none of our organs want help "unless there is something wrong and they will tell you there is something wrong by bleeding profusely or itching or cramping badly or producing an odor."
(Gunter's post spread like wildfire, with outlets from Yahoo! Health to New York Magazine echoing her plea not to stick herbs up in there—and detailing the risks, from infection to toxic shock syndrome.)
Curious where these products originated, I called up the founder and owner of Embrace Pangaea, Tamieka Atkinson, and asked her to elaborate on her website's claims. “The herbs help to remove toxins, break down tissue cells, and also because the herbs are fragrant, like peppermint, when you insert them into your womb, it helps create a fresh smell,” the 24-year-old entrepreneur told me over the phone.
(I've said it once and I'll say it again—whether you're using a giant corporation's douching product or natural herbs, your vagina does not need to smell like anything other than a vagina.)
Atkinson explained that a few years ago, she had developed bacterial vaginosis, a common condition that occurs when the vagina experiences an overgrowth of bacteria. She found that the medicine she was prescribed at a clinic did not help her condition, so she decided to take matters into her own hands and turned to Google to look for a holistic approach.
“I was just researching what herbs are good in strengthening the reproductive system, seeing what herbs can I specifically use,” she said. As Atkinson explained, and many of us know, the internet is chock full of natural vaginal home remedies, from apple cider vinegar douches to frozen yogurt popsicles (for your vagina) to garlic suppositories (which some women swear by). You can even find herbal products similar to Atkinson's on Etsy and Amazon.
From there, Atkinson put together her own bunch of herbs—motherwort, osthol, angelica, borneol, and rhizoma—and made her own vaginal suppository. She only tried one formula, explaining that the first combination of herbs she came up with worked for both her and her friends, who also had a variety of vaginal issues. And then she decided to start selling the product, enlisting a manufacturer in China to put the pearls together.
While the sentiment of self-empowerment is rad, nothing in conventional medicine backs up Atkinson’s experiences—something that Atkinson, who graduated in 2014 from Florida A&M University with an undergraduate degree in chemistry, knows. And her website includes disclaimers to this effect:
Still, Embrace Pangaea offers pearls that claim to address conditions from ovarian cysts to yeast removal to vaginal tightening, all of which are priced differently. “This is a choice, this is an option," Atkinson explained. "This is an alternative that you can take."
But what are the consequences of that choice? I asked Dr. Rebecca Brotman, an assistant professor of epidemiology and public health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who has researched bacterial vaginosis. "I can’t imagine it would be a good thing," she said.
Brotman explained that, for many women, bacterial vaginosis is a recurring condition, which can be frustrating. (Nearly 30% of women between the ages of 14 and 49 have bacterial vaginosis at a given time in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) But it's important to continue communicating if you suffer symptoms.
"Self-treating is not the optimal way to go," Brotman said. "Usually when people use these [herbal] products, they're chasing down symptoms, so we don't know if the condition is BV, or a yeast infection, or trichomoniasis." She reiterated that the vagina has its own microbiome and that the herbs may actually cause damage to the epithelial tissue that lines the vagina.
I also spoke with Gunter, the OBGYN who wrote the blog post about the pearls, and she doubled down on the importance of talking to a doctor about any vaginal issues.
“First of all, if you have vaginal symptoms, you should see your provider because women are inaccurate at self diagnosis 50 to 70% of the time,” Gunter said. “Those are pretty bad odds, right?”
Gunter also explained that when she saw the photos that accompany Embrace Pangaea’s products illustrating the herbs' effects—that is, the vaginal discharge following the use of the pearls—she didn’t recognize them as proof of purged toxins but as evidence of damage.
“Those pictures they have on their website are actually evidence that the product is harmful. Anything that is producing that much discharge, then you know that’s a problem,” she said. (Check out the photos at your own risk.)
“You should not put herbs in your vagina," Gunter told me straight up. "That’s up there with smoking. Don’t smoke, don’t put herbs in your vagina. And don’t douche. Don’t do that either.”