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“Clean and Fresh”: Understanding Women’s use of Vaginal Hygiene Products

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We explore Canadian women’s use of vaginal hygiene products including feminine washes, douches, sprays, deodorants, wipes, and powders. Vaginal hygiene products in North America are part of a two billion dollar industry, which focuses on cleanliness and freshness in their advertising toward women. In interviewing women who were currently using or had previously used vaginal hygiene products, we found that vaginal cleanliness and freshness were also frequently brought up as reasons for using these products. Using an inductive thematic analysis informed by Braun and Clarke (2013) we explore how attaining a clean-and-fresh vagina has become a subjective physical need for the participants in our study. In a society where female genitalia are constructed as unclean, we argue the marketing of vaginal hygiene products contributes to the problematization of women’s genitalia by suggesting women need to use these products to attain an ideal (i.e., clean and fresh) vagina. The reliance on vaginal hygiene products reported by participants in attaining sensations of vaginal cleanliness and freshness raises concerns in the context of medical literature suggesting adverse health risks that may result from using some of these products. Potential risks include bacterial vaginosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, and a higher susceptibility to sexually transmitted infections, among others. We believe that companies that advertise these products as beneficial for vaginal health and hygiene can be perceived as not just misinforming women but also profiting from products that are harmful.

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We would like to thank the VOGUE research team for valuable input on this project. We also thank our undergraduate research assistants, with a special thank-you to Jessica Gibson, who helped with conducting, transcribing and coding the interviews and members of the Discourse, Science, and Publics research group for their valuable comments on an earlier version of our paper. We also thank the editor and three reviewers for helpful comments for the development of this article.

The present study was funded by the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR) and Genome British Columbia.

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Correspondence to Kieran C. O’Doherty.

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This research was approved by the University of Guelph Research Ethics Board.

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Jenkins, A.L., Crann, S.E., Money, D.M. et al. “Clean and Fresh”: Understanding Women’s use of Vaginal Hygiene Products. Sex Roles 78, 697–709 (2018).

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