Earlier this month, the cult skincare and makeup brand Glossier posted an Instagram story about their Body Hero Daily Oil Wash. In it, a member of the Glossier product team explained that they had conducted a study and determined that the wash was "gynecologist-tested" and "safe to use everywhere." In other words, you can rub this wash all over your genitals if you want — and a gynecologist said it's cool.
Glossier isn't the first or only brand to claim their products are vetted by gynecologists; at this point, it's a common marketing claim on beauty and wellness products. Summer's Eve, for example, makes a "feminine" cleansing wash that reads "gynecologist-tested" right on the front of the bottle underneath "pH-balanced" and "dermatologist-tested." And the V Magic vulvar cream that Khloé Kardashian uses is also allegedly "gynecologist-tested." Certainly sounds legit, but there's more to this savvy marketing tactic than meets the eye.
What does "gynecologist-tested" actually mean?
From a medical standpoint, "gynecologist-tested" is absolutely meaningless, says Lauren Streicher, MD, associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University’s medical school and medical director of the Center for Sexual Health and the Center for Menopause. Sure, one gynecologist somewhere may have tested this product and given it their stamp of approval. But often, when a doctor recommends a product in this capacity, there's something in it for them, too.
Here's how this type of endorsement usually goes down: A company will hire a gynecologist, pay them a lot of money, and say something along the lines of, "Give this to five patients and see if their vaginas explode," Dr. Streicher says (yes, that last bit is probably hyperbole). "If they come back and say, Nope, no vaginas exploded, great; it's 'gynecologist-tested,'" she says. As a consumer, when you see "gynecologist-tested" printed on a bottle in the drugstore, you're probably going to buy the claim — and maybe even the soap — because it seems medically sound and trustworthy.
In a perfect world, every product that gynecologists "approve" would also be reinforced by scientific evidence and large-scale clinical trials, but that doesn't always happen. It's important to point out that there's a difference between a marketing study, which involves gathering information about customers and products, and a scientific study, which requires comprehensive research and proof to be published in a reputable journal. The trouble is that any brand can say they performed a "study," even if it was just an informal survey of a handful of people, which "is very different than if you have the blessing of, say, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology or you have published literature," Dr. Streicher says.
Who controls these claims?
The Food and Drug Administration's guidelines for labeling cosmetics (like body wash) are more lenient that those for products that are considered medical devices (like tampons). By law, cosmetic ingredients don't have to be approved by the FDA before they're put on the market; brands are just expected to be transparent in their labeling. If a company "misbrands," meaning the labeling contains false claims or "adulterates" meaning, they violate the FDA's product composition regulations, and the FDA can take action. But it's unclear what brands would need from a legal perspective to feature a claim like "gynecologist-tested" on their labels, says Miriam Pomeranz, MD, associate professor in the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at NYU Langone Health, who specializes in vulvar dermatology.
But really, are you supposed to use soap on your genitals?
At the end of the day, using a body wash on your genitals because a gynecologist who doesn't treat you said it was okay isn't as worrisome as, say, using a drug that falsely claims it will cure a medical condition. But suggesting that people use soap on their vaginas does go against the conventional wisdom that soap can irritate vulvar skin, negatively influence vaginal pH, and even lead to infections. So, it's easy to see how "gynecologist-tested" can be a misleading claim.
For starters, there's a common misconception that using a scented feminine wash or wipe will get rid of vaginal odors, Dr. Streicher says. But most of the time, vaginal odor is caused by an infection (like a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis) that occurs inside the vagina and requires oral or vaginal medication to treat. "If you use a vulvar wipe, it's like saying, If you have bad breath and you wash your face, thats going to help your bad breath," she says. Or, if you don't have an infection or odor, but want to use these products to "feel fresher," then they can introduce irritation that wasn't there to begin with, Dr. Pomeranz says. (Also, FWIW, if your vagina smells the way it always has, that's most likely 100% fine and there's no reason to be worried or ashamed or try to change that.)
The skin around the vaginal opening doesn't need special soap, either. The vulva contains both hair-bearing skin, which is resistant to irritants, and some "modified mucosa," which is easily irritated and inflamed, Dr. Pomeranz says. "[Mucosa] is kind of like what you think of in the mouth," she says. "I’ve heard vulva experts say, 'Don’t put anything on the vulva that you wouldn’t put in your mouth.'" In general, if you're someone with a vagina, it's okay to use gentle soaps to wash your hair-bearing skin, Dr. Pomeranz says. "But soap should never go beyond hair-bearing skin, as far as I’m concerned," she says.
So, what's the bottom line?
On Glossier's website, they specify that their Body Hero Daily Oil Wash doesn’t contain water, and therefore "won’t affect the pH anywhere on your body," which, okay. But hopefully people aren't putting body wash inside their vaginas. In the comments of a story about the body oil on Into The Gloss, the writer added that you should still talk to your own gynecologist before you use it on your genitals, so they can weigh in on your own personal routine, which is key.
The TL;DR here is that it's wise to be somewhat wary of marketing claims like "gynecologist-tested." Even if a product says it was vetted by a doctor, you should still check with your doctor to make sure it’s safe for you. If you like to use products on your vagina, and you cleared it with your gyno, go for it. These days, it's impossible to shop for a product without being swayed by some endorsement, whether it's sponcon or a convincing online review. But nobody's vagina is quite like yours — so you should treat it like the unique snowflake it is.