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Happy, healthy vaginas: What’s safe to use down there?

A handy guide on how the things we put in our vaginas impact our bodies and the environment.

Between getting it on, having our periods, and just generally staying healthy, there are a whole lot of products we use on—and in—our vaginas. There’s also a whole lot of public talk about the potential risks of things we use down there. What’s the real impact of all of those products on our bodies and on the earth? We researched condoms, toys, lubes, scented soaps, and menstrual products, and came up with this handy guide for understanding how the things we put in our vaginas impact our bodies and the environment. Just in time for Earth Day.

Sex toys and lube: what should I know?

Sex toys are made of all kinds of materials, but not all of them are safe to put inside of our vaginas. Many of the more flexible “jelly” sex toys are made with chemicals called phthalates that make them soft and fun to use. The problem is that phthalates can be toxic and harmful to our bodies. As an alternative, look out for toys made from materials like silicone, glass, stainless steel, or wood. If you can, read the packaging before you buy a toy—if it contains, PVC, vinyl, or phthalates, you’re probably better off without it.

Lubes can also be made with lots of stuff we might not want inside of us. According to TIME, “Most of the personal lubricants in the US contain chemicals found in oven cleaner, brake fluid and antifreeze.” Say what? For lubes, we researched a bunch that are body friendly and will make your sex life greener. As a general rule, try to avoid parabens. As for chemical-free brands of lube, try Sustain Natural, Good Clean Love, BabeLube Natural, Blossom Organic’s Natural Moisturizing Lubricant, and Sliquid Organics.

Are some condoms better for the environment than others?

Condoms come in all shapes and sizes and can be made of all kinds of materials, though latex is most common. Depending on the type of condom and the brand, some contain added chemicals like silicone, glycerin, parabens, and petrochemicals. All condoms are safe to use as far as we know, but if you prefer to minimize the chemicals in your body and in your trashcan, you’ve got options. Companies like Sir Richard’s, GLYDE, and Sustain are now making vegan, chemical-free, organic and fair trade condoms.

While latex allergy is uncommon, some people can be sensitive to products made of latex. If you have a latex allergy, you can still use condoms made of polyurethane or lambskin. Polyurethane condoms aren’t as eco-friendly as latex condoms since they don’t biodegrade as quickly. On the plus side, they protect from STIs just like latex condoms do. Lambskin condoms (which are made of sheep intestine) are really biodegradable, but they definitely aren’t vegan—and they don’t protect against STIs. The bottom line is that if condoms are your thing, there are lots of options to choose from. And using any condom is better for the environment and your health than skipping the condom and risking an accidental pregnancy or an STI.

What about douching?

Just don’t. While lots of feminine hygiene products make it sound appealing to wash out the inside of your vagina, it can actually be quite harmful to you, increasing the risk for yeast infections, UTIs, and other health issues. It’s just one of those things you just shouldn’t do to your vagina. “Lots of different kinds of bacteria live in the vagina,” says Dr. Anne Burke, Associate Professor of Gynecology and Obstetrics at the Johns Hopkins University. “That’s totally normal and important for having a healthy vagina. Douching can upset the vagina’s PH balance and kill off the good bacteria your body needs to stay healthy.”

Even if you’re not douching, using scented sprays, soaps, and even tampons can irritate the vulva. Dr. Burke recommends avoiding scented products altogether. They aren’t necessary to keep things clean. “Washing daily with warm water is enough. If you want to, you can use a mild unscented soap, but stay away from the scented products, especially inside the vagina.” As far as environmental impact, that’s a whole host of chemicals that you won’t be washing into the waterways. The earth, your body, and your wallet will thank you.

Tampons and pads: are they toxic?

There has been a lot of research and public conversation recently about the potential health concerns of using bleached menstrual products, which may contain dioxin. So, should we avoid bleached cotton when buying tampons or pads? According to the FDA, the detectable levels of dioxin from tampons are basically at or below the minimum of what is considered to be safe, but some folks say the FDA should regulate the ingredients in menstrual products more closely.

Dr. Burke says that bleached cotton and dioxin do not need to be a big concern. “Tampons have moved away from the strong chlorine bleaches and are now less likely to produce dioxin. We can be reassured that it’s safe to use what’s on the market today, but it’s also reasonable for women to make their own choices about what they want to use.” Dr. Burke does recommend staying away from scented tampons. Like douching and fancy soaps, you just don’t need them to stay fresh down there.

If you’re concerned about dioxin, there are plenty of products that are bleach and dioxin free. Some alternatives brands include Seventh Generation, Natracare, and Organic Essentials, all of which claim to be a little more earth and body friendly. You can also try a menstrual cup, washable menstrual pad, tampons without applicators, and those super cute period panties from Thinx. As for trying a menstrual cup, Dr. Burke offers this advice: if you were comfortable inserting a tampon, you’d be comfortable inserting a cup.

“Reusable products seem more expensive up front,” says Dr. Burke. “But if you do the math about how much we spend on disposable products, you could probably make that difference back pretty quickly.” And if you think about the thousands of tampons we use in a lifetime that end up in landfills and waterways, it’s definitely worth it to consider reusable products—for your health and the health of the environment.

Looking for other ways to get sexy and eco-friendly this Earth Day? Using birth control is one of the greenest things you can do.

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