Vulva Balms Are Going Viral ― And Doctors Have Thoughts

We talked to several doctors, who fell into two clear camps: “Never, ever, ever” and “Sometimes, maybe, but be careful.”
Fragrances and other ingredients in vulva balms can actually cause more harm than good.
MirageC via Getty Images
Fragrances and other ingredients in vulva balms can actually cause more harm than good.

There are new products on the market that are once again aimed at women’s bodies. They’re “vulva balms” with names like VMagic, Revive-A Balm and Comfy Cream, and they’re popping up in the health and beauty space with increasing regularity. But even with the fun packaging and empowering marketing messages, are products to moisturize the vulva really necessary?

We talked to several doctors, who fell into two clear camps: “Never, ever, ever” and “Sometimes, maybe, but be careful.”

The “predatory” nature of this type of feminine hygiene product.

“Honestly, I worry that vulva balms and similar products are predatory,” said obstetrician and gynecologist (OB-GYN) Dr. Kristyn Brandi. “They’re trying to target people who may be insecure about the appearance or smell of the vulva. Most vulvas are totally normal, but women are getting so many messages that their bodies are gross and they need to alter them to meet a beauty standard. When it comes to the vulva and vagina, a lot of those beauty products and techniques leave people with problems they didn’t have before.”

“I think it’s important for people to know that there is a huge range of ‘healthy’ in terms of vulvar appearance,” said OB-GYN Dr. Amie Leaverton. “You don’t need to use fragrance to make vulvas smell a certain way. In fact, products with fragrance will likely cause burning, itching and discomfort from vulvar dermatitis.”

“I would not recommend these products at all.”

Leaverton’s concern is shared by many of her colleagues. “I wouldn’t recommend using any vulva balm product at all,” said Dr. David Matlock, a cosmetic surgeon and gynecologist. “Using them could result in infections and allergic reactions. And they could potentially mask more serious gynecologic conditions.”

Doctors struck an overall cautious tone about interfering with the function of this particular body part. “The vulva is a very sensitive organ with a thin dermis and dense innervation,” said OB-GYN Dr. Tarek Khalife of the Mayo Clinic Health System. “It’s one of the most anatomically and physiologically intricate body parts, which makes irritation and allergic reactions to foreign topical substances significantly uncomfortable.” While noting that the necessity of a vulva balm or moisturizer can depend on individual needs and circumstances, he added, “Healthy vulvar skin doesn’t need any special treatment or application.”

“Most people don’t require products that make the vulva skin softer or more moist, because the body naturally does that on its own,” Brandi said. “These products are not regulated by any organizations, so there is a chance that harsh chemicals can be used. Also, if you’re using these products in or near your vagina, they could potentially alter its pH and break down its natural protection, causing increasing chances of infection.”

What about using it after you’ve waxed?

Brandi spoke up about vulvar balms’ promotion as a relief for irritation after waxing and shaving.

“One way to avoid irritation like this is not to use those hair-removal techniques at all,” she said. “OB-GYNs like me recommend clipping hair, not pulling it out through waxing or shaving, which can irritate the sensitive skin of the vulva. If you avoid waxing and using these balms, you’ve solved two problems at once.”

But there CAN be some situations where it could potentially be helpful.

Others don’t rule out their use entirely.

“While not necessary for everyone, they can be helpful for individuals experiencing dryness, irritation or discomfort in the genital area,” said plastic surgeon Dr. Usha Rajagopal, founder of the The V Suite, which specializes in female rejuvenation. But she added, “Hydrating the vulva isn’t necessary as long as it feels normal. And normal hydration or creams applied to the thigh area can suffice, without the need for additional hydration in the vulvar region.”

Dr. Jill Krapf is an OB-GYN and director of the Florida location of the Center for Vulvovaginal Disorders. “Vulvar moisturizers can be helpful for people with vulvar dryness in times when estrogen levels are low, such as perimenopause, menopause, and after childbirth or while breastfeeding.” On her Amazon storefront, she offers a list of vulva balms “that my patients really like,” adding that, “In general, I recommend products with natural ingredients and no known irritants and allergens.”

“Some skin conditions or urinary incontinence, which requires the use of sometimes-irritating pads, may be helped by barrier creams on the vulva that may help protect from irritants and provide relief,” Leaverton said. “But my concern is that some products marketed for the vulva can be irritating, making these conditions worse. They also make people feel they need to be doing an elaborate vulvar care routine.”

Cautions and concerns (and what to use instead).

If you really want to use one of these products, shop carefully. Khalife suggested reading labels closely and avoiding products that contain estrogen, fragrance, soy, steroids, synthetic preservatives, dyes, petroleum and/or parabens. “And it’s always a good idea to test a small amount of a new product on a patch of skin to ensure you don’t have an adverse reaction,” he said. “Each person’s genitals are unique, and what works for one person may not work for another.”

“If you insist on using something, I recommend plain coconut oil,” Whitney said. “It can go on the vulva and in the vagina, so it works great as a lubricant during sex.” Leaverton suggested petroleum jelly, which “is a great barrier ointment that doesn’t have any potential allergens or irritants.”

“I’ve seen vulvar products that are way too harsh, including things like sugar scrubs,” said dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon Dr. Kristina Collins. “Not only would something like a sugar scrub worsen vulvar micro tears in the skin, but sugar would seriously offset the microbiome.”

When should you consider seeing a doctor?

“Vulva itchiness or dryness could be signs of a skin condition,” Brandi said. “Diseases like lichen sclerosis can present as itchiness or dryness that develop rashes. Conditions like vitiligo or other skin changes can happen on the vulva. Other skin disorders like psoriasis can present on the vulva, too. It’s important to get evaluated to figure out what’s going on instead of buying something on the internet and hoping your condition gets better from a product that isn’t backed up by science.”

“A common condition I treat is self-inflicted irritant and contact dermatitis among women who are using over-the-counter products that they don’t need,” said OB-GYN Dr. Margaret Whitney, a menopause and vulvar specialist. “Many of these women have been treated repeatedly for things like bacterial vaginosis, or yeast infections. Frequently, they aren’t getting better because no one has considered it could be because of a product they’re using.”

“Most products that market themselves as being designed for female genitals are preying on patriarchal ideals that many women have internalized,” she continued. “If you’re having bothersome vulvar symptoms, find a vulvar specialist. A good place to start is the Health Care Provider List of The National Vulvodynia Association.”

Also, if you’re already using these products, it’s a good idea to mention that to your health care professional. “Anyone using a vulva balm should check with their doctor to assure safety during pregnancy, if they are planning a pregnancy, or safety with contraception if they want to prevent pregnancy,” Collins said. “Not all vulva balms are a good choice for lube, because some could interfere with condom efficacy.”

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