After years of being discussed behind cupped hands, discreet whispers, and under covert nicknames (hoo-ha, lady bits, nether regions, to name a few) the vagina is finally getting its due. According to a 2021 report by Brandessence Market Research, the feminine hygiene market is currently at $19.24 billion and set to hit $27.8 billion by 2027. The rapid rise is likely due to an increased awareness around the vagina and all its components and concerns, from menstrual- and hygiene-related to sexual. In fact, entire countries are recognizing the power of the V: Just last year, Scotland became the first country to make tampons and sanitary pads free, stating on the country’s official Twitter account that “free access to period products is fundamental to dignity, equality, and human rights.”
And while the Brandessence report cites major personal care players like Johnson & Johnson and Proctor & Gamble as leaders in this movement, one could argue that it’s the newer crop of social-media savvy brands targeting millennials and Gen-Zs who’ve been instrumental in expanding the feminine care sector beyond hygiene and anti-itch formulas and changing the way people with vaginas view the vital organ. No longer seen or perceived as something messy that needs to be cleaned, the intimate area is now being honored as something precious to care for and keep happy, similar to the way one might approach skin care.
“In the past, there was definitely a huge stigma [around the vagina] and it was kind of a taboo topic,” says Dr. Tamika Cross, board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist and advisor for SweetSpot Labs. “There definitely wasn't as much talk about it as far as publicly in commercials and media. There was a limited amount of things that you could buy in terms of vaginal health.”
Companies like The Honey Pot Company, Love Wellness, Queen V, DeoDoc, Lola, Cora, This is L, and SweetSpot Labs have have been avidly adding and ideating around the personal care category, which long consisted of the same legacy brands and products. “Back in 2014, when I was just launching the business, [the personal care space] was mainly legacy brands — Monistat, Vagisil, Summer’s Eve,” explains Lauren “Lo” Bosworth, founder of Love Wellness. “We were basically stuck with products that had been invented decades ago, by men for women without our input. So, we were dealing with products full of chemicals, marketed as safe and effective but overwhelmingly that was not really the case.”
It was Bosworth’s own experience with gut health issues that brought to light a major need in the market for clean, organic, and non-toxic female personal care options. “We all know now that there’s a gut-vagina axis, a gut-brain axis, a gut-skin axis when it comes to microbiomes of the body,” she says, referencing Love Wellness’ installment of new probiotics, Gut Feelings and Clear Skin, as well as its bestselling probiotic Good Girl, which is targeted at vaginal health and urinary tract health.
Honey Pot founder Beatrice Dixon says her brand’s clean and natural approach to feminine care also came from personal experience — and a prophetic dream from an ancestor. “The catalyst for me to launch the brand was simply because I had bacterial vaginosis [BV] for almost a year,” says Dixon. “Literally, nothing I did worked. I went to the doctor, took medicine, put all kinds of things in my vagina trying to get relief, to no avail. The problem was that everything I was doing was throwing my pH off and restarting my BV.”
Dixon recalls a vivid dream from her grandmother in which she handed her a piece of paper with a list of ingredients that would solve her problem. “I woke up saying these ingredients and wrote them down,” she says. “Everything on the list was natural, and I was working at Whole Foods at the time. So I went to work, got all the ingredients and made [the formula]. After I started using it, about five days in, I realized my BV was going away.” From this supernatural experience came Honey Pot’s beloved plant-based feminine washes, wipes, creams, suppositories, and menstrual products.
Bosworth explains that the beauty and wellness industry has gotten a lot smarter from a “clean beauty” perspective in raising awareness around the harmful ingredients and chemicals that are commonly found in popular formulas. Some of these culprits include the usual suspects like parabens, phthalates, synthetic fragrances, and sodium lauryl sulfate(SLS) which can cause irritation, as well as traditional soap, which can throw off your vagina’s pH balance. (Vagina pH levels determine how acidic and healthy the environment is within the vagina. An unbalanced pH level that’s too high can lead to infections and allow bacteria and yeast to flourish.)“If you take a look at the ingredients [used by] a lot of these legacy brands they’re just making products as cheap and effectively as possible to mask symptoms instead of treat root causes,” Bosworth says. “If you pair that with the advertising approach that most of these companies have taken over a number of years and decades, you have a recipe for disaster when it comes to wellness and health care.”
A supercut of feminine hygiene or personal care advertisement and marketing campaigns of yore would likely show perky, shiny-faced subjects on a mission to conceal any signs that they had a vagina at all — the focus was instead on hiding menstrual cycles, yeast infections, or vaginal itch. In fact, some commercials in the ‘80s and ‘90s would avoid using the proper terminology in their marketing materials, further perpetuating an already rampant stigma. Phrases like “feminine protection,” “feminine itch,” “flow,” and “sanitary napkins” were sometimes thrown around, making something natural seem unnatural.
“The vagina was thought of as something dirty and should be constantly cleaned,” says Dr. Jodie Horton, MD, FACOG, and Chief Wellness Advisor for Love Wellness. The doctor explains that, for years, the vagina was portrayed as something by which to be embarrassed. This created a domino effect, leading to sentiments of fear, shame, insecurity, and inadequacy surrounding one’s intimate parts, with the main purchasing goal surrounding vaginal care being to keep it clean and tidy.
There’s also a lot of misinformation floating around because of these approaches, says Dr. Hedieh Asadi, gynecologist and co-founder of intimate care brand DeoDoc. “There has been and still is a huge misunderstanding about the female anatomy,” she explains. “Products are often marketed towards the ‘vagina’ or for ‘vaginal health,’ but the vagina is self-cleansing and does not need any ‘cleaning’ products.” In fact, the medical professional explains that washing inside one’s vagina could be harmful and irritating as it could offset the natural pH balance and disrupt the vagina’s lactobacillus or ‘good’ bacteria which could lead to infection. “The female anatomy consists of the vagina (internal canal leading up to the uterus) and the vulva (everything external – outer labia, inner labia, mucus membrane, external part of the clitoris, urethral opening and vaginal opening). The vagina is self cleansing, but the vulva is not.”
Dr. Barbara Sturm, who recently added a vulva wash and serum to her highly successful eponymous skin care brand, says the feminine care sector has long been focused on disguising problems by adding fragrances or ingredients that might change, disguise, or alter how the bodies smell or even look. “We need to embrace our natural body and make sure that it’s taken care of instead of trying to change its natural environment,” says Dr. Sturm, whose latest launches — titled V-Wash and V-Drops — contain pre- and probiotics to help keep the skin’s microbiome in tact to prevent unhealthy bacteria and yeast from forming and causing infection.
While it’s easy to blame personal care predecessors for antiquated marketing principles and formulating, Honey Pot founder Beatrice Dixon has a different sentiment. “I’m actually eternally grateful for those conventional brands,” she says. “Had it not been for them, there may not have been a Honey Pot. They kind of created the road for brands like me, and Lola, and Cora, for us to have ground to stand on. They created the feminine hygiene and wellness marketplace ... I wouldn’t call [how they make their products] incorrect. They just happen to not work for me.”
With the self-care being a major buzz word for the past few years (and 2020 in particular), it’s not entirely surprising intimate care has risen in the ranks of priority, says obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Sarah de la Torre of intimate care brand Joylux. “Self-care extends far beyond a massage or a few minutes alone to knowing what your body needs and addressing those needs,” she says. “Some of the trends that occurred during the pandemic will shape our new normal and the focus on wellness will continue to grow. We can also credit the #MeToo movement for normalizing the conversation around sexuality and framing sexual harassment as a public health issue while addressing it more holistically within the context of health promotion.”
Dixon reasons that the newly booming personal care space just proves that there’s indeed room for everyone. “The landscape now is dope, it’s colorful,” she says. “It’s still pretty small. There’s loads of brands on the market, but only 10 to 15 of us who are actually doing it at scale. I just think it’s really dope that we’re at this place where people are starting to really apply innovation and color to a feminine wellness routine. I think it’s really beautiful and there’s enough business for all of us. I want all of us to win.”