Take-up rates for cervical smear tests are worryingly low right now – they're at their lowest for 20 years, with a quarter of eligible women (aged 25 to 64) in the UK not attending their test, often out of embarrassment and fear, according to a recent survey. So, it's heartening to see efforts being made to re-brand the procedure in women's minds. Last month, the government launched its first national campaign and TV advert on the issue, shunning the term "smear test" altogether in favour of the more innocuous "cervical screening".
Today, a new initiative to encouraging women to attend their screenings has launched – but this time via a slightly less conventional route than traditional advertising. As part of its "Cervical Screening Saves Lives" initiative, Public Health England (PHE) is partnering with beauty booking platform Treatwell to bring the issue into salons.
The campaign, Life Saving Wax, will see beauticians starting conversations about cervical screenings with customers during routine waxing appointments. The aim is to normalise the simple, pain-free procedure – meaning you'll get a dose of health information alongside your routine bikini, Brazilian, Hollywood, or other intimate wax.
Around 500 salons across England are taking part in the campaign, placing information throughout their stores and having conversations with customers about the importance of screening as a preventative measure. Salons will have vinyl stickers in their windows to let the public known they're taking part, and will direct women, post wax, to further information, support, tips and advice about screening, and give women information leaflets to take home.
The figures on cervical cancer are stark – particularly when it comes to young women. Around 2,600 women are diagnosed with the disease annually in England, with roughly 690 women dying from it each year, according to PHE. More than eight in 10 (83%) of cervical cancer cases could be prevented if everyone attended regularly; yet attendance continues to decline, with young women the least likely to take up the invitation (38.9% of 25-29 year-olds and 31.2% of those aged 20-34), NHS figures show.
Thousands of women use Treatwell to book intimate waxes every day, and it was the aforementioned statistics that caused company bosses to consider how the company could help. "Our beauticians are not health experts, but they are human, and they speak to women all day everyday about many personal topics," said Liz Hambleton, Treatwell's Beauty Director. "Using this position of trust, they are uniquely placed to be able to empower women on the subject of cervical screening and provide them with the information needed to make an informed choice, in an environment where they are more likely to be engaged."
Life Saving Wax therefore aims to encourage women to talk openly about cervical screening, to feel confident to choose to accept their invitation to be screened from the NHS, or to book an appointment at their GP practice if they’ve missed previous invites. As an initiative with Public Health England, clients will be directed to the NHS website for further medical information.
The campaign's aims are inarguably noble, and anything that encourages just one more woman to book in for a potentially life-saving procedure is worth doing. But is it a beauticians' place to add their client's health to the conversational menu as they smear hot wax over the darkest crevices of their body? Will it place a burden on beauticians? And will Life Saving Wax reach its intended audience at all, given that women who receive regular intimate waxes are probably less likely to be embarrassed talking about their vaginal and vulval health?
A straw poll of the R29 UK office, comprised almost solely of women in their 20s and 30s, suggests women are torn on whether they'd be up for talking to a beautician about serious health issues. However, there's clearly a fine line between a reminder to book a cervical screening appointment and, say, being given in-depth health information about a serious disease by someone with no medical qualifications.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with a beautician pointing out a mole or reminding you to go for your cervical screening test, but that's very different to them offering you health information and advice," says R29's Beauty Editor, Jacqueline Kilikita, 26, who books in for an intimate wax between once a month and every few months. "They aren't qualified to do so and it takes years of training to be able to offer that kind of advice."
She added: "Saying the wrong thing could cause scaremongering and anxiety among clients. Also, from experience, I have really silly conversations with my waxer, like dating horror stories and friend drama, so to go from that to serious advice would be weird."
Indeed, while this in no way invalidates the campaign's aims, not every woman will want to discuss intimate health issues with their waxer, even if they are comfortable baring their bodies in front of them. Maria Stafford, 27, a lettings administrator in London who gets an intimate wax monthly, says she would consider taking health information from a beautician if they had been trained – but she'd rather not get into a serious discussion at the salon at all. "How do you get into these kinds of conversations with a waxer? The last thing I want when getting waxed is an in-depth conversation."
Others simply aren't sold on the idea of receiving health information from a beautician. Sinead Bacon, 21, a veterinary medicine student in Eastbourne, says she wouldn't be open to any health information during her monthly wax. "Being in the medical field myself, I wouldn’t want anyone non-medical to talk to me about it. I’d feel too uncomfortable," she says. "Training in it just isn’t enough for me and in my eyes, wouldn’t make them able enough to know signs [of cervical cancer], etcetera."
Laura Richardson, 30, is Marketing Salon Manager at White Haus Hair & Beauty in Liverpool, one of Life Saving Wax's partner salons. She admits that not every client will want to discuss the issue, but says she's got the wherewithal to deal with those with a "let's get this over with" attitude. "Life Saving Wax isn’t asking us to talk to every woman on our waxing table about cervical screening, but to make a judgement call on if it's appropriate. If they don’t seem like they’d be comfortable discussing it, then there are cards we can give them to take home and read later."
Provided the beauticians dole out information to willing clients straight from Public Health England's guidebook, as seems to be the plan, it's difficult to argue against the merits of Life Saving Wax. A poll of over 1000 25-34 year old women by Treatwell found that just under half (47%) are comfortable talking about personal topics with their beauty therapist, six in 10 (59%) consider them trustworthy, and three quarters (74%) listen to their advice. If one piece of that advice is to attend a hitherto neglected medical appointment, Life Saving Wax could make a real difference.