Women will go far in their quest for the 'perfect' vagina. Cultural pressure and subpar education mean many believe there's something 'abnormal' about theirs, leading them to undergo procedures that pose a serious risk to their health. Now, many are using lasers to change the colour of their vulva, the external opening of the vagina.
It's perfectly normal for the skin around the vulva, including the outer lips (labia) and clitoris, to be slightly darker than the rest of a person's skin due to hormone changes during puberty. Nevertheless, vaginal lightening, or bleaching, appears to be gaining traction, and new treatments are popping up and being marketed to women in the UK.
Controversial skin lightening creams have long been (and continue to be) used by women in colourist societies that favour lighter skin tones, and now their use on women's private parts is becoming increasingly destigmatised. Cult makeup brand Huda Beauty saw fit to publish a series of "DIY vagina lightening hacks" in a blogpost earlier this year; and a cursory Google search brings up countless affordable products available to buy for the purpose, which involve chemically bleaching the sensitive area. (Amaira's "Natural Vaginal Bleaching Serum", £29.99, and Gyntima's "Intimate Whitening Cream", £24.99, are just two examples.)
Now, laser lightening treatments are available to help women deal with the so-called issue. An increasing number of private clinics in the UK are offering "intimate skin whitening" procedures (known, less euphemistically, as "vagina bleaching") to permanently remove darker coloured tissue in the area. These treatments can cost around £500 for a 10-minute session, with many clinics promising a "short" recovery period and no scarring.
The cavalier way they're being marketed is enough to make any woman feel insecure and even negligent for not getting it done. A recent article in The Sun (with the frankly unbelievable headline: "I tried vaginal bleaching on my lunch break as a treat for my boyfriend… and the sex afterwards was incredible") espoused the benefits of laser bleaching for a woman's sex life.
"With age, skin in your intimate area darkens and becomes more textured and prune-like. But this procedure helps to reverse that, leaving it soft and pink. It’s the ultimate makeover for mums," wrote 31-year-old Tracy Kiss. She was pleased with her "noticeably 'plumper' looking" vulva which, she concluded, "looks younger because it’s lighter and smoother". (The problematic assumption being that a vulva must be childlike and devoid of melanin to be sexually attractive.) Some clinics are even using before-and-after photos on their websites to showcase the "impressive" results and highlight the ease with which the procedure can be carried out.
We would strongly discourage the use of treatments to lighten the sensitive area around the vagina.
Dr Vanessa Mackay, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists
However, experts are now warning women against putting bleaching creams or lasers anywhere near their vaginas. Like so-called "vaginal rejuvenation", which involves inserting a heated device into the area, laser lightening procedures and creams are medically unnecessary and potentially even dangerous, according to gynaecologists.
"We would strongly discourage the use of treatments to lighten the sensitive area around the vagina," says Dr Vanessa Mackay, consultant gynaecologist and spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. "This could damage the delicate skin of the vulva, and disturb the fragile balance of good bacteria inside the vagina. This natural flora helps to protect the vagina and disrupting it could lead to irritation, inflammation and infection, such as bacterial vaginosis or thrush."
Mackay wants to reassure people with vulvas that theirs are normal, despite what private cosmetic clinics may suggest. "It’s important to remember that vulva are as individual as women themselves, and vary in colour, size and shape. Women should know that every vulva is unique, and that variation in appearance is normal in the vast majority of cases."
Applying bleaching creams to the vulva and anus (another common practice) can irritate the sensitive area because they often contain kojic acid or hydroquinone, ingredients that can cause an allergic reaction, burning or scarring. While laser whitening carries potentially even worse risks.
Consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Anne Henderson told Refinery29 that while the "trend" is relatively new in the UK, it's more common in the Middle- and Far Eastern countries, where white skin is still often perceived as "preferable to darker skin". In January, Thailand's Public Health Ministry issued a warning against a clinic offering both penis and vagina whitening procedures, saying that undergoing laser treatments on the genital area can cause pain, inflammation or scars, have negative implications for one's sex life and even on the reproductive system.
Henderson also blames the prevalence of the full genital hair removal, through treatments like the Hollywood wax, which have made women "much more aware of the colour of the vulval region". "I do not consider it safe under any circumstances for women to bleach their genital and vaginal area either at home or under medical care," she said, adding that there's a "high risk" of both short and long term complications and side effects, including infection, burns with permanent scarring and "permanent damage leaving women with discomfort during intercourse and related problems."
Henderson would encourage women who are dissatisfied with colour of their vulva "to be reassured that, as a gynaecologist, [she has] seen a huge range of different vulval colours, sizes and shapes throughout [her] extensive career."