Is the Vagina the New Face?
3 minute read
Suddenly marketers and beauty brands are acknowledging that their most avid shoppers have vaginas. But should you buy what they’re selling?
In Red Hook, Brooklyn, this March, advertisements for Vella, a buzzy female pleasure serum, were plastered all around the neighborhood. The campaign, which featured seemingly innocuous images of hands opening jars and tearing packages of Vella’s signature product, were immediately covered with stern notes from a neighbor: This is a school zone. Please take your business elsewhere. The 76th precinct has been notified. The complaint, which quickly went viral, seemed to take issue not with what was pictured, but what was suggested: female pleasure and—gasp!—the vagina.
A few miles down the road though, that same product being protested is stocked at Shen Beauty, a popular destination for a smartly curated selection of beauty and wellness products. “We cannot keep it [Vella] in stock,” says founder Jessica Richards of the CBD-laced serum designed by the inventors of Viagra and Cialis. Richards, who has worked in the beauty space for nearly two decades, says that the past year has seen a dramatic uptick in products geared towards the vagina and vaginal health. It’s something she credits in part to the more widespread accessibility granted by social media, and in general, a new openness and curiosity from women: “There’s been a turning of the tides and the vagina has become a different area for people to learn about and explore.”
In turn, the vagina has also become a growing area for brands, both new and established (see Dr. Barbara Sturm), to zero in on. And for mainstream retailers to pick up on. When former reality show regular Lauren Bosworth launched her new venture, Love Wellness, with a splashy event at The Jane Hotel, in New York City, last month, prominent among the offerings was an entire category focused on vaginal health (with, admittedly, excellent products like Love Killer, a boric acid-based suppository targeting yeast overgrowth). Before Cheeky Bonsai, a cheerily packaged brand of UTI solutions conceived of by two millennial Stanford grads, recently landed on the shelves at Target, they launched to a very eager audience on TikTok. And Quim, a chicly packaged indie line of vagina-centered serums and oils, can be purchased via their website or also, at Urban Outfitters and Madewell.
But all these new launches of serums and oils and washes for the vagina beg the question: what does the vagina really need?
First, it’s perhaps best to consider how the vagina changes. “Much like the skin on the rest of the body, the vulva is lined by skin which ages similarly over time, resulting in wrinkles and laxity,” says New York-based dermatologist Macrene Alexiades, MD, who has for over a decade been pioneering the use of fractional lasers and radiofrequency technologies to reverse the atrophy, thinning and dryness that occurs in the vaginal area. The natural shifts in our hormone levels, particularly estrogen, as we age has a noticeable impact. “Our skin has estrogen receptors, which are necessary for it to maintain its tone and elasticity,” adds Cindy Barshop, founder of VSPOT. “Peri- and post-menopause is when we produce the lowest levels of estrogen and the amount of healthy collagen drastically reduces.” That means the tissues and lining of the vagina and vulva become thinner, drier and less elastic.
Similarly, post-pregnancy, a period when women have the highest levels of estrogen, there is another dramatic dip. Then, as a woman transitions into menopause and hormonal levels decline, says obgyn and founder of LaMaria Manuela Maria Vazquez, MD, pubic hair can become scarce and the color of the tissue can pale due to decreased blood flow. “Her vagina may narrow, and the tissue may thin and come to lack elasticity, which may cause her to have vaginal dryness, itching, and pain with intercourse,” says Vazquez. “Declining hormone levels also change the pH of the vagina so the amount of healthy flora decreases and women are more prone to infections.”
But while there are a lot of changes to contend with, some products are not equipped, nor suitable, for the job. “Certain parts of the vulva have thinner skin and a higher concentration of blood vessels than the skin on the face and the body, therefore it is much more reactive and sensitive than the skin on our face,” says Barshop. Ingredient savviness is key, says Alexiades, for navigating any products you choose to use. Vazquez generally recommends avoiding anything that has parabens, glycerins, petroleum, alcohol, and perfumes or synthetic ingredients. “The majority of these are irritants, prone to drying out your tissue, or will put you at higher risk for infections,” she adds. But some skincare ingredients that have moisture-locking benefits for the face can also be helpful for the vagina, like vitamin E, coconut oil, and hyaluronic acid, which famously holds 1,000 times its molecular weight in water. “Hyaluronic acid provides similar benefits for the tissues of the vaginal canal, helping to prevent moisture loss and increase natural lubrication,” says obgyn Monica Grover, MD, who is also the chief medical officer at VSPOT. The same hyaluronic acid in Dr. Barbara Sturm’s famously spendy facial serum is now also in her just-as-spendy V-Drops for the vagina. When it comes to the vagina, a product’s pH is also critical. “It’s imperative to maintain the acid environment of the vulvovaginal area therefore any products need to be properly pH balanced [normal is between 4.0 and 4.5],” says Alexiades.
So, with a panoply of products to choose from for a vaginal routine nowadays, where does one even begin? Firstly, ignore all unnecessary items like douches, steams and sprays, which can disrupt your vaginal ecosystem, says Vazquez. Next, consider sexual wellness needs (like libido loss and dryness and discomfort during intercourse) separately from vaginal skin health. A pleasure serum like Vella and a great lubricant fall in the former category. Lubricants, unlike moisturizers, provide temporary moisture and have no long-lasting effects, says Barshop, adding buyer beware: water-based ones can sometimes lead to more dryness.
As for vaginal skincare, despite the plethora of washes available, the vagina doesn’t usually need one. “Our vaginas are self-cleaning,” says Vazquez, adding that from a hygiene perspective all that’s required is gentle cleansing with mild soap (hypoallergenic and fragrance-free is optimal) and water on your vulva (no need to wash inside your vagina). The benefit of a pH-balanced wash comes when advanced age or hormonal shifts causes an imbalance, says Barshop. What is most key may be a vaginal moisturizer or moisturizing product designed to increase and maintain hydration and protect skin’s outer layer. And if said moisturizer is an estrogen-based cream, even better—just as a lack of estrogen tends to lead to skin sagging and dryness, a cream with it as the primary ingredient has the opposite effect, plumping it up. And this is not just beneficial as we age and experience hormonal changes. “Breastfeeding and pregnancy, certain medications (including birth control pills, antidepressants and allergy meds), and certain medical conditions can all cause women to experience increased vaginal dryness,” explains Vazquez.
Are all these brands treating the vagina like the face simply giving women something else to stress about? Or is it a step in the right direction that there is a new spotlight on an area of the body that has historically been either ignored or cloaked with cutesy or abstract descriptions? (A note to brands: never use the term “down there.”) The answer may be a bit of both. Richards says women, as usual, will have to edit through the noise to ensure that what they are buying is not gimmicky. Vazquez agrees, and also sees the silver lining in all this new vagina-care: there is more discussion and more information than ever before on topics previously neglected. As for vaginal skincare, just as skinimalism has come for our multi-step facial regimens, it should also carry over here, says Vazquez: “If you don’t have any complaints, let your vagina be. My approach is less is more.”
Go ahead, you deserve to