As the plethora of wacky treatments and products available to "cure" vaginal ailments – from painful sex and tightness to dryness and incontinence – continues to expand, there are signs that women's vaginas are in the firing line of a new potentially dangerous trend: "vaginal spas". That's right, spas that target their cosmetic and nonsurgical procedures primarily towards women's genitals.
Like vaginal rejuvenation and the so-called O-Shot (which claims to enhance women's orgasms), the vaginal spa is migrating from the US, the world leader in cosmetic procedures aimed at vaginas, to the UK. VSPOT Medi Spa, a vaginal spa which opened on New York’s Upper East Side two years ago, is planning an international expansion and the UK, along with Dubai, is the first destination on the company's hit list.
Cindy Barshop, 54, the company's founder, who appeared on Real Housewives of New York season four, recently told The Times it was her mission to make visiting a vaginal spa as customary as a trip to a nail bar, the hairdresser’s or hygienist, and based on what she tells Refinery29, the UK branch will open before the year is out.
"It should happen by Q4 of 2019," says Barshop, whose background is in spas focusing on laser hair removal, which means she plans to open her London franchise – near the world's most iconic department store, Harrods, in Knightsbridge – before the beginning of October.
Barshop says the space will specialise in "women’s intimate health" and will use all-women providers to deliver its treatments, 90% of which will be the same in the UK as those available in her NY branch. Procedures currently available in the US include "V-Tightening" and FemiLift laser vaginal rejuvenation, both of which involve heating the vagina's internal tissue, the O-Shot and "V-Steam" (vagina steaming), as well as a 24K Gold Bikini Wax and "Vajacial" (vagina facial) treatment, focusing on pubic hair and the area's sensitive skin. All of which will be priced the same as in the New York branch, Barshop adds.
For Barshop, the impetus behind her vaginal spas is "treat[ing] the changes that women go through" and "taking the taboo out of women's intimate health" and redressing the gender inequality that exists in how men and women experience sex. She believes that as long as vaginal treatments are conducted by trained gynaecologists, they're safe for women. (This contrasts with a warning from the US FDA last year, which stated that using energy-based devices to treat symptoms such as vaginal laxity, dryness or painful sex, "may lead to serious adverse events, including vaginal burns, scarring, pain during sexual intercourse, and recurring/chronic pain.")
I'm very concerned about the prospect of vaginal spas coming to the high street in the UK.
Dr Anne Henderson, consultant gynaecologist
In light of the first vaginal spa opening in the UK, several UK gynaecologists tell Refinery29 they're concerned about what it might mean for women. For one, several of the treatments are potentially dangerous, says Dr Anne Henderson, a consultant gynaecologist, British Menopause Society accredited specialist and member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
"I'm very concerned about the prospect of vaginal spas coming to the high street in the UK, effectively normalising the need to seek pseudo-medical and/or cosmetic treatments in the genital area, potentially creating a parallel market similar to the demand seen in the general cosmetic industry," Dr Henderson attests. There is, she adds, "a vast difference" between other nonsurgical cosmetic treatments such as Botox, fillers and lasers/radio-frequency treatments applied to the face, and cosmetic treatments on the vulva or vagina.
The risks, Dr Henderson argues, "are significantly greater than the complications which can arise when treating other parts of the body. Botox, for example, will wear off with time and in most cases is not a permanent treatment, and fillers can be dissolved with Hyalase. Whereas any damage in the genital area could potentially be permanent, particularly if this involves blood vessels, nerves or the vaginal mucosa."
What's more, she reiterates that there is a lack of evidence supporting the medical efficacy and safety of vaginal treatments like steaming (which she says is "potentially dangerous" and would "undoubtedly upset the delicate vaginal pH balance") and the O-Shot. "I would recommend that patients should avoid these treatments."
Others believe the presence of vaginal spas on UK high streets will only stoke women's bodily insecurities, which we already know are rife. Refinery29's own survey of 3,670 women's attitudes to their vaginas earlier this year found that 48% had concerns about the appearance of their vulva, while 32% said other people had made them feel their vagina was "not normal".
"Anything that makes women feel that a part of their body needs altering or regular attention to be 'normal' is likely to make women feel more negative about their natural bodies," says Dr Leila Frodsham, a consultant gynaecologist who specialises in psychosexual medicine. Henderson makes a similar point: "Women who have issues with confidence, body image, anxiety and similar issues could be inadvertently drawn in to this industry, and seek treatments in an attempt to address issues which should be addressed by alternative therapies, such as hormone replacement therapy, counselling and other input."
Instead of a vaginal spa, women's first port of call for problems with their genitalia should be their GP. Dr Anita Mitra, a leading gynaecologist otherwise known as the Gynae Geek, concurs that "there are many issues that can be solved without having to spend potentially thousands of pounds," and is worried that feminine healthcare products and treatments – like those available at VSPOT – "are turning a medical problem into a lifestyle one".
At one end of the spectrum, wanting to remove ingrown hairs with a vagina facial – or "vajacial" – could disturb the vagina's delicate microbiome and cause itching, irritation, excessive discharge and infections, Dr Mitra explains. More seriously, she says she's already noticed women slightly reluctant to see their doctor before they've tried over-the-counter products.
"I saw a lady a few weeks ago who had precancerous cells on her vulva and said 'I tried all the washes and creams I could before I came in to see you because I didn't want to bother anyone.' This is how this industry can potentially do harm," Dr Mitra concludes.
When we put such criticisms of vaginal treatments, made frequently by gynaecologists, to Barshop, she says: "A lot of the time they're afraid" and that they should "speak to the people that are getting these treatments" and benefiting from them. "People [who] can't have intercourse after menopause because it's too dry. People sometimes can't ride a bicycle because the labia minora is too long, or people [who] can't wear a bathing suit...I feel like these people that aren’t open-minded – if you could make somebody feel good and confident about themselves, why wouldn't you do it?"
While the prospect of vaginal spas gaining momentum in the UK is real, Dr Henderson believes British women are "more reserved and perhaps more easily embarrassed than their American – and possibly European – counterparts," and that the trend won't "catch on" in the same way it has among Barshop's American customers.
Professor Joyce Harper from UCL's Institute for Women's Health, says that while the prospect of UK vaginal spas is a "huge fear", there are signs that British women are savvy enough not to be seduced by their promises. "I think most UK women are more aware of their health than in some other countries and I hope they can see the issues surrounding vaginal spas."
Professor Harper believes we're becoming better educated about our health and "will hopefully see that a vaginal spa is not good for [our] health." She adds: "We talk about women’s health in the media more than other countries, and health is taught in schools." Is it extensive enough to discourage women from these potentially dangerous treatments? We'll soon find out.