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Douching: your health down under

Bonne Marie Bautista

Douching on a summer’s eve can leave you feeling more than fresh. It can also leave you feeling an itch.

“Being your best starts with feeling fresh … So feel fresh and clean with Summer’s Eve Douche.”

This advertisement, prominently displayed on Summer’s Eves Web site, boasts of the benefits of douching to feminine hygiene. Such an ad leaves many women, like Mills senior Liz Hoover, with puzzling questions.

“I’ve never douched before,” Hoover said “I don’t even know if it’s safe to douche, I don’t have any friends that do. Is douching good for you?”

The Planned Parenthood Web site lists douching and similar irritants as a cause of vaginitis, or bacterial vaginosis (BV), which is any irritation of the vagina that often results in an abnormal discharge, the most common cause of vaginal infection. Dr. Harris, a gynecologist of the Bay Spring Medical Group in San Francisco said that “while BV can be cured by antibiotics, it has an exceptionally high rate of recurrence.”

“I do not recommend that my patients douche because it removes the naturally protective mucus from the cervix, and that just gives bacteria a more receptive place to grow,” said Harris.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the word douche originates from French, and means to wash, shower or soak. A douche is an apparatus that is used to introduce water or mixtures of fluids into the body. Douching typically refers to washing or cleaning out the vagina, while having an enema refers to the same process done to one’s rectum. A douche bag is a bag that is used to hold the water or fluid used in douching. Yet the term “douche bag” has also come to be a flippant and degrading insult that can be used for either gender.

The practice of douching is fairly common in the U.S. According to The National Women’s Health Information Center, an estimated 20 to 40 percent of American women aged 15 to 44 douche regularly, with about half of these women douching on a weekly basis. sells douche products that range in price from $16.59, for Goodhealth, to $4.69, for Massengil, to $4.29, for Summer’s Eve. They are also available in most drug stores. The Summer’s Eve brand douche can be purchased in Medicated, Vinegar and Water, Tropical Rain, Island Splash and Sweet Romance ‘flavors.’

The latter, Sweet Romance, contains: purified water, octoxynol-9, citric acid, sodium benzoate, disodium EDTA and fragrance, and is advertised as a “light fragrance that leaves you feeling clean and refreshed in seconds.” The box instructs users to insert the nozzle no more than three inches into the vagina and gently squeeze the bottle and then allow the solution to flow freely out of the vaginal passage.

Though douching is commonly practiced, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advises against it on their Web site, suggesting that women avoid douching altogether. The ACOG says that all healthy vaginas have vaginal flora, comprised of bacteria and other organisms.

The normal acidity of the vagina also ensures that the amount of bacteria in it stays low. Douching can interrupt this balance and make a woman prone to vaginal infections. Additionally, douching has been known to spread existing vaginal infections farther inside of a woman, into her uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries.

The ACOG also states that the imbalance of the vaginal flora caused by douching is linked to Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID), inflammation of the uterus, fallopian tubes and/or ovaries, a leading cause of infertility. According to the fifth edition of Cecil’s Essentials of Medicine, “a single episode of PID results in infertility in 13 percent of women,” and this rate of infertility increases with each infection.

Joanne, a receptionist for Planned Parenthood, said that the reasons women give for douching include: to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, to prevent pregnancy immediately after sexual intercourse, to clean the vagina of an unpleasant odor and to clean the blood out of the vagina following periods.

A senior at Mills who lives on campus and chose to remain anonymous said that she douches regularly because “otherwise my vagina doesn’t feel as clean as it could be.”

“I douche when I’m on my period and I want to have sex,” said another Mills senior, a commuter who chose to remain unnamed.

In contrast, a Mills sophomore that chose to remain anonymous said that she and her boyfriend have sex when she’s on her period, but has never douched and doesn’t plan to. “We have had sex on days of my period that are light, it helps me with cramps. I heard that douching was bad for you or something,” she said.

The information available on the Planned Parenthood Web site estimates that douching only reduces the chances of contraception by 15 to 25 percent, whereas the proper use of a condom reduces the chances of contraception by as much as 97 percent. “In some cases douching may force the ejaculate further into the vagina, increasing the chance of pregnancy,” the Web site said.

What of claims that are completely opposite, that douching after sexual intercourse prevents pregnancy? In a study performed by the National Institute of Environmental Health and published in the June 1996 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, the results showed that while not preventing it completely, douching can delay conception. The study found that it took women who douched longer to conceive than women who did not.

A 1985 study carried out by W.H. Chow et al cited vaginal douching as a potential risk factor for ectopic pregnancy, which is when the fetus forms inside of the fallopian tubes instead of the uterus and that is often life-threatening.

Harris said she gets a mixed response when she advises her patients against douching. “Some of my patients are fine with following my advice, while others do not really believe that the best way to clean your vagina is to let it clean itself. They believe that they must use some sort of product.” says that the vagina cleans itself naturally by producing mucus, and women do not need to douche to wash away blood, semen or vaginal discharge, as the vagina rids itself of these on its own.

The Mills sophomore said that to keep her vagina clean, she just regularly washes with soapy water when she showers., Harris, the ACOG and the Planned Parenthood Web site all agree that this is the best way which to keep one’s vagina not only clean, but healthy as well.