"Just let the water get hot, and steep the herbs, then lift that lid and enjoy." These were the frank instructions I received from my roommate via text, when I asked her if I could use her at-home vaginal steamer.
Allow me to provide some context. At one point I lived with two friends who were at opposite ends of the health and wellness spectrum: one roommate was in medical school, and the other swore by homeopathy and acupuncture. Then there was me, a skeptic who frequently debunks health trends on the internet. Each of us had our own uniquely informed health philosophies, which often led to playful debates.
Needless to say, when my one roommate ordered a vaginal steamer last year, I lectured her about how vaginas are basically self-cleaning ovens, and warned her of the potential unknown dangers, while my med school roomie rolled her eyes at both of us. I mean, Gwyneth Paltrow famously said you have to try vaginal steaming! My more holistically-inclined roommate didn't really care what we had to say (completely within reason), and explained why she was down to steam. According to her, the practice is good for regulating the menstrual cycle, relieving cramps, and even preventing certain vaginal infections.
Even though I knew that vaginal steamers were probably B.S., I was still intrigued. I've tried kookier vaginal products and home remedies for recurring bacterial vaginosis, so what's a little steam and herbs? When my med school roommate moved out of the apartment, an opportunity (aka BV) presented itself, and I asked my more woo-woo roommate about her steamer.
Well, first I asked an unbiased gynecologist with no knowledge of me or my roommates, Adeeti Gupta, MD, FACOG, an Ob/Gyn at Walk-In Gyn Care in Manhattan, what she thought about the vaginal steaming trend. "There is no medically proven benefit to vaginal steaming," she says. "It does not reduce infections. In fact, it can increase infections by adversely affecting the vaginal lining and affecting pH of the vaginal secretions." Specifically, she says that it could make you more prone to bacterial vaginosis, which is exactly why I was interested in vaginal "cleansing."
Not only are vaginal steams pointless, but they could also be dangerous, because you could get burned from the hot steam, Dr. Gupta says. In certain cases, "the vaginal tissue may not be able to sense an extremely hot steam or extremes of temperatures," she says. In other words, vaginal steaming is not something that Dr. Gupta would ever recommend to patients. This gentle warning tracks with what other Ob/Gyns have said about the practice, but I still wanted to try. For all the whacky health stuff my roommate does, sometimes she is right.
The at-home vaginal steamer that we have is from the website Steamy Chick, and it's essentially a large box made from pine wood with a hole in the center. (I texted a photo of the apparatus to my partner, and he said, "Oh, sweetie that's a toilet. That's a potty.") To use it, you place a pot filled with water on a hot burner. Then, you add the herbs, which are held in big tea bag satchels.
The one I used was a "disinfecting herb blend" containing things like cnidium, sophora root, atractylodes, cornshilk, dandelion, witch hazel, chamomile, white sage, peppermint, lavender, and mugwort. (I have literally no idea what any of those things before dandelion are. But the package says that together the herbs are supposed to have cleansing properties.) From there, you transfer the pot to the box, and let the herbs steep. After 10 minutes, you can lift the lid, check the temperature with your hand, and sit on the box.
I think there's a common misconception that vaginal steams violently blow steam up your vagina like Old Faithful — but that ain't it. I sat on the toilet potty box, with a towel over my waist, and the steam just sort of accumulated around my undercarriage. It felt warm and moist, but in a not bad way. I sat for the suggested 15 minutes scrolling my phone and texting my old med school roommate, who replied, "HAHAHAHA STOP IT." All in all, it was pretty anticlimactic. I felt refreshed, but also completely the same.
So, would I steam my vagina again? Sure, if I had nothing to do but sit pants-less for 15 minutes. The whole process took more prep time than I'd prefer, and considering you have to do it for 10 days straight, I can't really imagine it being part of my daily routine. Also, according to people like Dr. Gupta, it's not exactly a safe, research-backed method for managing vaginal issues.
To be clear, some people really shouldn't vaginal steam, such as those who are pregnant or have their period, according to the Steamy Chick website. And if you are going to use a vaginal steamer, you should really talk to a doctor who understands your health history and can advise you appropriately.
While vaginal steaming didn't make my vagina glow, or make me immune to vaginal infections, I didn't hate it. The experience was a good reminder not to knock people's weird health habits. But, then again, because something "worked" for someone else's vagina doesn't mean it'll work for you.