So fresh: The rise and fall of the douche

Cleo Stiller and Isha Aran
Photo Illustration by Elena Scotti/Fusion

Held a douche recently? No, not the Adam Levine kind—the kind that claims to make you as fresh as a dewey spring morning. The kind that has been a part of some women's hygiene routines for way too long.

Flip through an issue of Cosmopolitan magazine from the 1970s, and douche ads are as ubiquitous as perfume ads are today. Yes, before our culture convinced women that they needed to wax off all their God-given pubic hair, it convinced them that they needed to spray a liquid solution into the vagina to make one's lady bits smell of sunshine.

Over time, doctors began to discourage douching, since it disrupts the vagina's natural pH balance and can lead to a number of health problems. (Vaginas are self-cleaning!) Today, however, almost one in four women between the ages of 15 and 44 still douche, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.


How does one douche, exactly? Basically, you fill a special bag (yes, a douche bag) or flexible applicator with a special "cleansing solution." You then insert the device's nozzle into your vagina and squeeze.

For this week's edition of #ThrowbackThursday, we explore the douche's past and present—and in the video below, challenge Fusion staff to test their douching knowledge.

When did douching begin?

Back in 1832, an American physician named Charles Knowlton suggested douching as a form of birth control. He advised that, after intercourse, women inject a syringe full of a water-based solution that included (but wasn’t limited to) salt, vinegar, liquid chloride, zinc sulfite, and aluminum potassium sulfite into their vagina. But as douching and other early birth control methods became more popular, the country saw some moral pushback. In 1873, as part of the “social purity movement,” Congress passed the Comstock Law, making it illegal to us the U.S. Postal Service to disseminate any information or paraphernalia regarding “erotica, contraceptives, abortifacients, or sex toys.”


Douches masquerade as 'feminine hygiene'

Douching companies eventually found a devious way around the censorship—disguising the birth control method as “feminine hygiene.” In the mid-twentieth century, Lysol (yes, that Lysol) managed to circumvent the Comstock Law by marketing its product as a "germ killer." Lysol’s ads basically told women that douches could solve their “one flaw” or “one neglect” and maintain what they called “daintiness.”


Of course, over time it became clear that douching was not a very effective form of birth control, and when The Pill became available in the 1960s, the douche completed its transition from contraceptive to feminine hygiene essential. The vaginal equivalent of deodorant.

The new normal: Smelling like a country road after a spring shower

Soon, magazine and TV ads began to constantly remind women that their vaginas needed to smell like flowers or meadows or other ridiculous artificial scents. Here's a brief sampling of douche ads from 1970s issues of Cosmo magazine. First, some practical advice:


And now for some flattery:


Because what woman doesn't want to smell like raspberries?


Because, duh.


And our personal favorite—a horrifying two-page spread:


The douche lives on

While women’s health experts today don't recommend douching, some of the misconceptions about the process as a means of staying "clean" still persist. Nearly one in four women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the U.S. still douche today, which seems like a lot. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more black and Hispanic women douche than white women, though douching is common in teens "of all races and ethnicities."


Douching doesn't have any health benefits, but it has been linked to many health problems, stemming from an "overgrowth of harmful bacteria" in the vagina, according to the HHS. The bacterial imbalance can lead to yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis, which can in turn lead to more serious health conditions.

Rebecca Brotman, an assistant professor at the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Maryland who has researched douche use, told Fusion that women today are most likely to douche in response to perceived vaginal odor or as a way to cleanse themselves after menstruation. But there ain't nothing dirty about a happy and healthy vagina, ladies.


Cleo Stiller is a digital producer covering the intersections of sex, tech and culture. Words to live by: get your money's worth.

Isha Aran is a staff reporter for Fusion's Sex & Life section and is worth her weight in salt. Really, she is. She's salty as all hell.

Share This Story