These Probiotics Will Do Way More Than Make Your Vagina Smell Peachy

Last month, we (and the rest of the Internet) heard about a little project called SweetPeach. According to the original story, the startup was something along the lines of "two dudes who want to make your vagina smell like a peach." But, it turns out that the actual idea behind SweetPeach is very, very different. And, Audrey Hutchinson, the company's 20-year-old founder and CEO, was shocked to hear how her concept for personalized vaginal probiotics had been twisted into something so bizarrely sinister. So, we caught up with Hutchinson to get the real scoop on how SweetPeach could help women everywhere learn a little more about their bodies.
Advertisement
How does the service really work?
"Women would sign up for this product like a subscription. When women initially sign up, we’ll send them a kit [for] a self-collected vaginal sample. It’s really easy and not that invasive or uncomfortable. Then, they send it back to us and we do genetic sequencing and analysis. [From that] we’ll design a probiotic that complements the community [of bacteria that the woman] already has, and then, as we go on categorizing microbes and their specific antibacterial functions, we can introduce more of those microbes that create compounds that are lethal to pathogens...We would send [each woman a personalized] probiotic at the beginning of every month.
"So, if a woman says, 'I’m getting UTIs every month,' we can look to the wealth of information on the vaginal microbiome and look to the human microbiome project and say, 'Well, Lactobacillus crispatus has a tendency to totally inactivate E. coli, which causes UTIs a lot of the time.' So, it’s...using our understanding of the microbes to [find a solution]."
Somehow, your story got twisted into "two guys who want your vagina to smell better." How did you feel about that?
"I was terrified, largely because I knew in my mind I could rectify the image of the company...but I was also just really overwhelmed...I wasn’t really ready for it to be public. And, it’s such a complicated and delicate topic that I wanted to make sure all my ducks were in a row. So, it came to light before I was ready.
"I’m so upset that it happened, and I’ve heard a lot about what it means to be a woman in the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] world. I guess, in a way, I was naive...but, at the same time...I’m so ready for people to stop feeling sorry for me and kind of just listen to what my company actually wants to do. Because, I figure the only way to beat the system is to be bigger than it."
Advertisement
What was your reaction to the media's coverage of SweetPeach?
"I’m obviously opposed to the idea of vaginas smelling like peaches, but at the same time, I was reading comments from women on these articles saying, 'I would get this product if I could.’ It’s a weird thing where, as a feminist, I have to step back and say, ‘If this product were available on the market and it was safe and tested and women had access to it, they obviously should have the right to buy it and use it.’
"But...I think trying to piggyback something I see as cosmetic onto something I’ve been trying to build to be a women's health initiative just felt insincere and was definitely sending the wrong message of ‘Having a healthy vagina means you should smell artificially like peach,' which just doesn’t make sense."
Where did the idea for SweetPeach come from?
"I was in college studying biology, but meanwhile suffering from really, really terrible recurrent UTIs almost every month...and it was getting really costly. Almost every month I’d have to go to a clinic and pay to be prescribed antibiotics. And, every time, my antibiotics seemed to get more and more expensive...It was getting really terrible, so I spoke to a bunch of women in my family and it turned out I wasn’t the first Lady Hutchinson to suffer from genital infections. So, I decided that I would do as much research as I could about vaginal regulation, and how we ward off pathogens from causing infections, and what sort of defense mechanisms our body has in place to keep things from happening. I discovered the human microbiome and became totally fascinated."
What is the microbiome?
"It’s like another ecosystem inside of our bodies. There are microbes with really specific and unique functions that have co-evolved with us to prevent pathogens...The [vaginal] microbiota is the community of beneficial bacteria that reside in a woman. Research has shown that they can be completely different from woman to woman, and those are differences we need to take into consideration if we want to design probiotics that are really effective."
Advertisement
What is a healthy vaginal microbiome like?
"There is no such thing as [one] healthy vaginal microbiome, because even in an individual woman it’s constantly in a state of flux. It changes over the course of her life, and her hormones play a huge role in which bacteria are going to thrive at any given point... I looked at the vaginal microbiome [as an] innovative solution... I just thought, 'Why not focus on it some more and try to translate it into something women can use?'"
What kind of ethical issues do you think SweetPeach's sample collection might run into?
"It really is data collection. The world is really wary of that right now, and that’s not totally unwarranted. I understand that there’s hesitation, but in my mind there’s no reason for me to want to do anything invasive or unlawful with anyone's data. The women give us a sample, we make sense of it, and then we give it back. At no point do we want to take people’s information away from them. It’s more about making this information about their own bodies available to them.
"If women [do want to] let us use the data to contribute to nationally funded efforts like the human microbiome project...this communal catalog that the scientific community is trying to put together, then that’s awesome. That’s the ultimate goal — showing women that if we want to, we can be the research that is going into the vaginal microbiome. We can unlock it and understand it and use it to find cheap and accessible solutions."
Advertisement