Like Chrissy Teigen and Gwyneth Paltrow, I too have sat on a pot of boiling water and herbs for the sake of my nether regions. And while my experience was nothing short of lovely (they even gave me watermelon to snack on while I was getting steamed, which was weird but kind of nice), it's something most OB/GYNs would say is not the best idea. Case in point: A woman in Canada was recently left with second-degree burns after trying the treatment for herself, which, ouch. (Her case was even published in a medical journal.) Upon hearing the news, UK-based gynecologist Philippa Kaye took to Twitter to beg people not to steam their lady parts, filing it under #thingsntotodotoyourvagina.
What is vagina steaming, exactly? "Think of a V-Steam as a facial for your vagina. It creates the same effects as a facial but it does so internally for your uterus and vaginal canal," the YinOva Center, a center for acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine in New York City, writes on their website. The practice is apparently rooted in some global traditions: In Korea, for example, it's known as chai-york, and the treatment often used mugwort and other medicinal herbs. It also reportedly was part of Mayan medical practices (known as bajos).
"The idea is [that] having a medicated steam with mugwort and wormwood sprayed at the vagina will ultimately be a uterine cleanse as well," says Sherry Ross, MD, an OB/GYN and author of She-Ology, who says there would need to be medical research studies that support the health claims before she recommends the treatment to her patients. "The end result, so [supporters] claim, is help in treating irregular periods, vaginal cysts, bladder infections, yeast infections, uterine fibroids, infertility, and even hemorrhoids."
"There are no known medical benefits or accepted medical literature that supports the claims that vaginal steaming is effective, for the purposes of cleaning the vagina or increased fertility." —Jen Villavicencio, MD
Having tried the treatment for myself while traveling through Bali—another place where it's been popular for centuries—I can give you a little insight into what it was like (so that you don't have to try it for yourself and risk the whole "burning your vagina" thing). Mine started with a full-body massage, and then I sat on a pot of herb-filled hot water for 30 minutes. The experience of having steam wafting into my lady bits was weird—not good, but not necessarily bad—and I left feeling pretty much exactly the same as I had when I walked in. I had a theory that it cleansed the evil spirits of all of my exes out of there, but that was about it.
Admittedly, the meh-ness of the experience makes sense, because there is no research out there to support any of the benefits associated with vaginal steaming. “There are no known medical benefits or accepted medical literature that supports the claims that vaginal steaming is effective, for the purposes of cleaning the vagina or increased fertility," Jen Villavicencio, MD, an OB/GYN and member of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) said in an e-mailed statement. “As far as whether steaming is dangerous, there have been reports of severe vulvar burns from the steam being too hot or prolonged exposure."
Burning isn't the only potential side effect to consider with these types of treatments. "My concern would be that steam cleaning could have a similar consequence of douching—it’s important to clean the vagina on the outside but you don’t have to do too much internal cleaning," agrees Dr. Ross. "The vagina has its own internal washing machine that keeps it cleaned and balanced. It’s really all about the pH balance. As soon as something disrupts this balance, such as extreme heat or taking antibiotics, you can get a yeast or bacterial infection."
Experts also say to take the fertility-boosting claims with a hefty grain of salt. "There is no medical evidence or plausible biological theory that vaginal steaming would improve chances of becoming pregnant," Dr. Villavicencio continued in her statement. "Becoming pregnant is a complex process that requires many components to work in harmony," she says, including a person's partner, age, weight loss, fertility medications, contraceptive usage, timing of sexual activity.
Despite the fact that there are no proven health benefits and some real potential risks, Dr. Ross isn't totally opposed to vaginal steaming. "There is no doubt an herbal steam on the outside of the vagina has a relaxing, calming and cleaning effect which clearly is beneficial to your mind and vagina," she says. And as director of gynecology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine Charles J. Ascher-Walsh said in a 2012 article for Whole Living, “It’s reasonable to think that steam could soften the cervix and cervical mucus to make fertility-related procedures easier,” adding that the herbs could also have an "aromatherapy-like" effect that can help with de-stressing.
Personally, I think from now on I'll try de-stressing my vagina (and mind/body/soul) the good, old fashioned way: with the help of a battery operated assistant instead of a pot full of herbs.
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