Is vagina steaming safe? Here's what you need to know

PHOTO: Wildwood Birth Collective

You've heard of vaginal douching, the process of cleaning or washing out the vagina with a mixture of water and vinegar, baking soda or iodine. But have you heard of vaginal steaming? 

Also called V-steaming, this centuries-old practice is said to impart a range of health benefits, from detoxifying the womb after childbirth to tightening the vaginal opening, improving blood circulation to the pelvic area, minimising vaginal odour, helping with vaginal and urinary infections, relieving menstrual cramps, aiding fertility, and balancing your female hormones.  

Like a spa treatment for your vagina

It is not clear exactly where V-steaming originated, but the ancient Greeks, Mayans, Koreans and Indonesians were all known to practise some form of vaginal cleansing or other, using steam. In Korea, the ritual is called chai-yok; in Central America, it is called bajo; and in Indonesia, it is called ganggang. 

To do a vaginal steam, you sit on a toilet-like apparatus over a large bowl of steaming hot water containing a mixture of medicinal and aromatic herbs. A tented skirt or large towel prevents any steam from escaping. 

For about 20 to 30 minutes, the herb-infused steam travels upwards to your genitals. The vapour carries the volatile essential oils from the herbs to your labia, where they are supposedly absorbed through the delicate skin. The steam is also said to enter the vagina, where it detoxifies the tissue and warms the muscles.

In 2015, Hollywood actress Gwyneth Paltrow preached the benefits of vaginal steaming on her lifestyle blog, Goop. Of her regular mugwort-infused V-steam sessions at the high-end Tikkun Holistic Spa in Los Angeles, the 42-year-old wrote: "You sit on what is essentially a mini-throne, and a combination of infrared and mugwort steam cleanses your uterus, et al. It is an energetic release - not just a steam douche - that balances female hormone levels." 

A herbal remedy

In Singapore, vaginal steaming is offered at a few spas, including Babies Bellies Javanese Massage & Spa, which has outlets at Golden Landmark and Square 2, and Spa Jelita at Guthrie Building on Changi Road. 

Ally Vijay, owner of Babies Bellies Javanese Massage & Spa, says that the treatment is especially popular with women who have just had a vaginal birth.

Depending on which spa you visit, different herbs or herb blends are used. The steam produced is merely the channel through which the medicinal properties of these herbs are delivered to the skin and the vagina. 

Gwyneth Paltrow's favourite V-steam uses mugwort, a popular traditional Asian herb that is thought to have a detoxifying, energy-boosting, and comforting effect. 

For its ganggang treatment, Spa Jelita uses a variety of herbs combined with sandalwood. The mixture is then brewed over burning charcoal. Spa owner Fadilah Majid says that the steam or smoke produced cleanses the vagina as well as removes odour from the area, leaving you feeling fresh and clean.

A DIY home kit

You can also buy portable vaginal steaming kits online if you want to try a do-it-yourself (DIY) treatment at home. A typical kit comes with the special toilet-like seat and bags of different herbs, with instructions on how to set everything up. 

You can expect herbs like mugwort, wormwood (another therapeutic herb common in traditional Asian medicine), and more common herbs and flowers like lavender, rosemary, camomile, yarrow, dandelion root, calendula, oregano, jasmine, peppermint, thyme, sage, rose and basil. Each herb has a special property or purpose. 

Too hot to handle 

While practitioners of traditional medicine may rave about the benefits of vaginal steaming, Western doctors are not so sure. Dr Christopher Chong, an obstetrician and gynaecologist at Gleneagles Hospital, says he does not think that steam or herbs can tighten the vagina.

"There are muscles in the vagina, and in order to tighten them, you would have to contract those muscles or have them surgically tightened," he stresses. 

He is also doubtful about claims that the steam can cleanse the vagina internally, saying that, in the first place, nothing can enter the vagina unless the opening is manually parted. "It is not possible to clean or treat the inside of the vagina this way," he explains. "The vagina is a closed passage. Even when you go for a swim, water cannot get in. You would have to manually open the vagina for water or steam to find its way in."

The treatment may work to cleanse the external genital area, however. If the steam is hot enough, then theoretically it should eliminate germs that are on the surface of the skin. 

If vaginal steaming is something that leaves your private area feeling more refreshed, "cleaner", or better in some other way, then there's no reason why you shouldn't do it. However, Dr Chong warns that because the treatment uses heat and steam, there is always the possibility of your skin getting scalded or burnt. 

"If you want to try vaginal steaming, make sure that the temperature of the steam isn't so high that you end up scalding or burning yourself," he advises.

Something else to be wary of: if the opening to your vagina somehow parts during the treatment and moisture gets in, you raise the risk of infection, particularly if this moisture is also carrying germs and bacteria from outside your vagina.

Don't try vaginal steaming if you have a genital infection, as the infection may find its way into your womb and cause even more complications. Pregnant women should also avoid vaginal steaming, as some herbs may induce labour. If in doubt, get advice from your general practitioner or gynaecologist. 

"Vaginal steaming is my monthly indulgence"

Stay-at-home mum Sheryl*, 38, says she feels cleansed and relaxed after her regular V-steam treatment.

"I always look forward to my V-steam treatment, which I indulge in monthly, either in Singapore or when I visit Jakarta, Indonesia for business. The first few minutes always feel a little weird, because the vapour is wet and hot, and you can actually feel it entering your vagina. 

Once you allow yourself to relax, however, you can feel the steam travel upwards into your uterus, warming it ever so slightly. This is a real Zen moment for me because it feels so good, so comforting. And the heady sandalwood aroma really calms my mind. 

Post-treatment, I always feel squeaky-clean down there. It's a sensation that's difficult to describe - my vagina just feels fresher and more rejuvenated."

*Name has been changed

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This article was first published in Her World Online.