Researchers have found that some women's feminine hygiene practices like vaginal douching -- the practice of washing or flushing the vagina with cosmetic fluids or water -- and the use of feminine powder - may be associated with higher levels of potentially cancer causing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in their blood.
The study, published in the Journal of Women's Health, used special biological markers that linked the use of some feminine hygiene products such as tampons, sanitary napkins, sprays, and wipes to VOC exposure. According to the study, certain VOCs have been associated with acute toxic effects like neurological disorders, and respiratory symptoms, with long-term exposure known to cause cancers and adverse effects on reproductive systems.
The researchers from Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. in the US used data on 2432 women from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) during the period of 2001?2004, and self-reported questionnaire data. They also estimated the whole blood concentrations of VOC in a subsample of the survey participants who were of reproductive age between 20 and 49 years.
The researchers wrote in the study that some compounds like 1,4-dichlorobenzene (DCB) which cause cancer in experimental animals, are also reasonably anticipated to be carcinogenic to humans. Compared to women who never attempted vaginal douching, those who did a maximum of once a month had 18 per cent more blood concentrations of 1,4-DCB, the study noted.
The researchers said that women who used vaginal douching more than twice a month had 81 per cent higher concentrations of the compound than non-users.
According to the researchers, black women used vaginal douching significantly more, and had significantly higher whole blood concentrations of 1,4-DCB. They found a positive relationship between frequency of vaginal douching, and 1,4-DCB concentrations, indicating that the process was as a potential source of the VOC, and might also account for racial differences among reproductive-aged women.
The study also noted that the use of feminine powder was significantly associated with higher blood concentrations of ethylbenzene, another VOC.
These products, the researchers said, may be a direct source of VOC exposure, or may be related to other activities that increase exposure to the compounds. The researchers cautioned that using the products with VOCs may be particularly harmful if introduced to the body through the vagina.
"Vaginal and vulvar tissues are more permeable than exposed skin due to differences in tissue structure, occlusion, hydration, and susceptibility to friction," the study noted. The researchers emphasised that manufacturers of female hygiene products must disclose what materials are used in their products.
"Given the potential toxicity of these compounds, it is important for manufacturers to disclose the identity of materials contained in their products, rather than general terms such as 'cleaning agent' or 'fragrance'," the researchers wrote in the study.
The researchers concluded that the safest approach is to let the vagina clean itself -- which it does by secreting mucus -- rather than using vaginal douching, wipes, or other products.