Gwyneth Paltrow and the myth of vaginal steaming

    26 September 2019

    After Gwyneth Paltrow’s high-profile promotion of vaginal steaming, many women are asking why this treatment might be necessary.  One UK clinic claims that it can be used to treat everything from irregular and painful periods through to fibroids and ovarian cysts. It has also been touted as a useful treatment for postpartum women and fertility problems.

    They charge a fee of £250 per session. As most vaginal steamers point out that the benefits are only felt after a lengthy series of treatments, the total cost might easily rise to £1000 or more. But Gwyneth is convinced that it’s well worth it: “The first time I tried v-steaming I was like, ‘This is insane’. My friend Ben brought me and I was like ‘You are out of your f**ing mind. What is this. But by the end I was like, ‘This is so great’.”

    While some women might be bowled over by such expertise and eloquence, others would wonder whether any of the expressed or implied claims are true. Is there reliable evidence to show that vaginal steaming does anything other than empty your wallet? The answer, I am afraid, is not positive. On the contrary, New Zealand researchers called vaginal steaming ‘sorcery for the vagina’ and found that:

    “online accounts of vaginal steaming appear both to fit within historico-contemporary constructions of women’s bodies as deficient and disgusting, and contemporary neoliberal and healthist discourse around the constantly improving subject.”

    Some say that vaginal steaming must be good because is a traditional treatment known to ancient many cultures. But, come to think of it, so is genital mutilation. And, speaking of the dangers, vaginal steaming is certainly not risk-free: recently, the case of a 62-year-old woman has been reported who sustained second-degree burns following vaginal steaming. She had been suffering from a prolapsed vagina and led to believe the vaginal steaming could help avoid surgery. Magali Robert, the doctor who authored the case-report, said the injured woman attempted to steam her vagina on the advice of a traditional Chinese doctor. The woman sat over the boiling water for 20 minutes on two consecutive days before presenting at an emergency department with her injuries. She sustained burns of her vulva and had to delay reconstructive surgery while her painful genials healed.

    Experts have long warned that vaginal steaming can be dangerous. Dr Vanessa Mackay, a consultant and spokeswoman for the UK Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, has been quoted stating it is a “myth” that the vagina requires extensive cleaning or treatment. She recommends using plain, unperformed soaps on the external vulva area only.

    “The vagina contains good bacteria, which are there to protect it. Steaming the vagina could affect this healthy balance of bacteria and pH levels and cause irritation, infection (such as bacterial vaginosis or thrush) and inflammation. It could also burn the delicate skin around the vagina, the vulva.”

    The Canadian gynaecologist and formidable debunker of quackery, Dr Jen Gunter, is more outspoken:

    “…what she [Gwyneth Paltrow] has described is of course vulva steaming. If she is so interested in “health” she should at least get her anatomy right… There is no possible way how Paltrow has described her experience that steam from the vulva can reach the uterus (and even if it did there could not be any health benefit). Squatting over a pot of steam will not access the vagina. As a gynecologist I can recommend neither vulva nor vagina steaming. At best vulva steaming will do nothing but make you feel good because you spent a lot of money (the placebo effect increases the more you spend), at worst it will cause rashes and burns.”

    Thank you, Jen, I could not have expressed it better myself!

    Prof Ernst has researched so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) for more than 25 years. His latest book is entitled ‘Alternative Medicine, a critical assessment of 150 modalities’ (Springer 2019).