what is vaginal steaming

What is Vaginal Steaming? Steaming Benefits Vs. Safety

Dr. Jolene BrightenPublished: Last Reviewed: Balancing Your Hormones, Cycle Self Care™, Mind-Body, Wellbeing Leave a Comment

Are you curious about vaginal steaming? With deep cultural roots, vaginal steaming is an ancient practice that has recently become popular. Proponents of vaginal steaming claim it’s a “cure” for PMS, infertility, hormone imbalances, and more, but are these claims valid? And is it safe? 

We all know the importance of self-care. This article will dive into vaginal steaming as a self-care practice and tease out the benefits you can expect (or not) for your vaginal health. 

What is Vaginal Steaming?

Vaginal steaming, also referred to as yoni steaming or vagina steaming, involves sitting over a pot of hot water and herbs, undressed from the waist down, to expose the vulva and vaginal opening to the steam. 

If you get a vaginal steam treatment at a spa, they might have a special chair with a hole in it where the pot of herbs are warmed below. This steaming chair or bench is popularly referred to as the “throne.”

Instead of heading to a V-spa, some people set up their own vaginal steamer at home using a slatted chair, using a toilet adapter, or squatting over the steaming bowl or pot. Some people also place the bowl in an empty (and clean) toilet and sit on the toilet over the steam. Wrapping a towel or blanket around the lower body helps to keep the steam in and the body warm.  

To prepare the herbs, add around 1 cup of dried herb (or 4 cups fresh) to a large pot or bowl, and fill with around a gallon of hot water. 

Vaginal steaming is often done once per month, either before or after someone’s period. Some recommendations suggest steaming more often at first. A typical steam session is around 20-40 minutes, and the herbal formula used can be customized. 

Anatomy of the vulva

Origins of Vaginal Steaming Practices

Vaginal steaming is mentioned in ancient medical texts and part of indigenous practices passed down by midwives, medicine women, and different women in the community. 

There isn’t thought to be a single culture of origin. Steaming practices have a history around the world. 

Vaginal steaming has roots in: 

  • Korea and Korean spa services
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine
  • Ayurvedic medicine 
  • Mayan healing traditions

In Ayurvedic medicine, vaginal steaming is called “doophan,” which translates to fumigation. In Latin cultures, it’s known as “bajos.”

In the U.S., vaginal steaming rose in popularity after Gwyneth Paltrow promoted it in 2015, but this wasn’t her invention (although many critics assert it is). 

A 2017 study looked at how the media has framed vaginal steaming. The typical story that you hear suggests that the female body is dirty and needs cleaning, modern life is harmful, and steaming helps to optimize the physical body and your life. 

This line of marketing is not dissimilar from other messages women receive about their body, often designed to sell douches and other feminine hygiene products. Unfortunately, some of the outlandish promises made may not hold up to reality. 

Possible Vaginal Steam Benefits

If you read popular articles about vaginal steaming, you’ll see this practice mentioned to “clean” the vagina and reproductive tract. In actuality, the vagina is self-cleaning. The normal odors and discharge do not need to be washed away or detoxified. (Read more here.) If there’s odor, then there’s a concern and you should see your provider.

You’ll find many claims and anecdotes from vaginal steaming experts and enthusiasts touting the benefits, but not much information backed by science. Advocates of vaginal steaming suggest it to be a cure or treatment for: 

In addition, some people claim that vaginal steaming will improve sexual health, general health, and well-being. 

I want to be clear that vaginal steaming is unlikely to cure a gynecological issue, especially on its own as the only intervention. And I would caution you from pursuing this and forgoing a medical exam or necessary treatment.  

Let’s look at some of the vaginal steam benefits you can expect. 

Postpartum Healing

Looking back to the cultural traditions of vaginal steaming, it was most often used for postpartum healing from a vaginal delivery. This makes sense as heat improves circulation and brings blood flow to the area, which could be helpful for tissue healing. 

In a study published in the International Ayurvedic Medical Journal, studied women recovering and healing from a vaginal delivery. The study participants were given vaginal steaming treatments beginning at six weeks postpartum, and then compared to women that received standard treatment of antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medication. 

Those receiving the vaginal steaming intervention experienced pain relief like the control group, normal wound healing, reduced inflammation and infection, and a beneficial change in vaginal pH. Granted, this was a small study, and there isn’t much additional modern research to corroborate.  

After the birth of my second son I was so desperate for something to ease the discomfort from the tear I endured that I decided to give steaming a try. Personally, I did find that it was relaxing and soothing to the tissue. Of course, this is just my experience and if you were going to try this, I would recommend running it by your birth provider. My provider had suggested I tried it and they were right, it was soothing.

Menstrual Cramps

A small study of 20 women in Korea in 2009 suggests that vaginal steaming may be a consideration to relieve dysmenorrhea (menstrual pain and cramps), reducing intensity and inflammation. 

In addition, vaginal steaming is soothing, warming, and relaxing. As mentioned, heat improves circulation and relaxes the muscles around the reproductive organs. The experience of taking time to sit, rest, and practice self-care may reduce stress and have other health benefits. 

In fact, I see the most benefit in vaginal steaming when used for self-care. 

Common Herbs Used in Steaming

Your Vagina is self-cleaning

Herbs used in vaginal steaming blends are similar to the herbs you’ll find in herbal teas. Each herb has a specific quality and is often used in combination with other herbs in a formula. 

Some herbs have much more significant antimicrobial properties, while others can be more soothing. If you’re not familiar with herbs, speak with a provider who is to help guide you. You don’t have to use herbs either—this can be done with just water too.

Vaginal steaming herbs might include: 

  • Ashwagandha
  • Basil
  • Calendula
  • Chamomile
  • Damiana
  • Dandelion 
  • Ginseng 
  • Hibiscus
  • Lavender
  • Lemon balm 
  • Milk thistle
  • Mint
  • Motherwort
  • Mugwort 
  • Nettles
  • Oatstraw
  • Oregano
  • Parsley
  • Raspberry leaf 
  • Red clover
  • Rose
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Uva Ursi
  • Witch Hazel
  • Wormwood 
  • Yarrow
  • Yellow Dock

Is Vaginal Steaming Safe?

While there isn’t much safety data on vaginal steaming, it is a gentle therapy and is safe when used appropriately, much like a facial steam or an herbal Sitz bath. 

There are a few caveats for safety worth mentioning:

  • Watch the temperature. The vulva and vagina are sensitive, and the steam must be at a comfortable temperature. There is at least one case report of a woman who experienced second-degree burns from vaginal steaming. If you wouldn’t stick your face over it (think hot water on the stove) then don’t put your vulva over it.
  • Skip during pregnancy. Some herbs are unsafe during pregnancy, and we don’t have any research on the safety of vaginal steaming during pregnancy. Just like you skip sitting in a hot tub or using a heating pad over the abdomen while pregnant, skip the steam too. 
  • Know your herbs. There are some herbs that may disrupt the delicate vaginal microbiome, or otherwise might not be a good fit for you. Seek guidance from an herbalist naturopathic doctor when in doubt.  
  • Avoid steaming during your period. Steaming can take place before or after your period. Again, not a ton of research, but this is one that is often recommended to avoid. 
  • Avoid steaming if you have an active infection. Work with your doctor to determine the best plan moving forward. 
  • Don’t use essential oils. Essential oils are highly concentrated and may be too harsh for your delicate tissues. Instead, use whole dried or fresh herbs. Or steam with just water. 

Vaginal Microbiome and Vaginal Ph Balance

The vaginal microbiome is the collection of bacteria and other microorganisms that live inside the vaginal canal. The microbiome environment is dominated by lactobacillus species that help to maintain vaginal pH balance. 

A healthy vagina has an acidic pH, but may change when there is an imbalance or pathogenic infection. If you have a vaginal bacterial infection, bacterial vaginosis, for example, the vaginal pH becomes more alkaline. 

One concern with vaginal steaming is that it may disrupt the vaginal microbiome or change the pH. While there isn’t much data on this, some of the herbs used in steams (like oregano) have an antibacterial effect. Some herbs, in theory, could shift the microbiome if steaming is done often and for longer periods of time. But to be clear, the steam isn’t entering the vagina like douching does because the tissue is folded in on itself as you sit.

The Ayurvedic medical article I mentioned above, noted that the postpartum women had a more alkaline vaginal pH and steaming helped reduce the pH. However, this may depend upon the specific herbs used and may be unique after a vaginal delivery and wound healing. 

The bottom line is that we need more information about vaginal steaming and its effect on the microbiome. Monthly steaming for self-care purposes is unlikely to shift the vaginal microbiome substantially or permanently.  

@drjolenebrighten #stitch with @Disbitch42 there’s been a lot of marketing telling us we need to wash down there, which makes it confusing. #downthereselfcare #selfcare #selfcaretiktok #hormonedoctor #hormonas #latinetiktok #douche #dontdouche #themoreyouknow #isthisnormal ♬ original sound – Dr. Jolene Brighten

Are There Alternatives to Vaginal Steaming?

If you’ve found vaginal steaming to be a helpful self-care practice, by all means, please continue. If it’s not your thing, there are plenty of other natural ways to support your symptoms and restore balance in the body. 

Alternatives to vaginal steaming depend upon what you desire to change about your health or what symptoms or period problems you are experiencing.  

For period pain and cramping, a hot water bottle or heating pad may be helpful. You can also try a magnesium supplement to help relax the uterus (and you). 

For irregular periods, PMS, or hormonal imbalances, you’ll find a lot of information and ideas in the Period Problems Solution course.  

Probiotics, and particularly lactobacillus, may help to maintain an acid pH and healthy vaginal microbiome. Including probiotics as part of a treatment approach is very supportive for vaginal dryness, vaginal infections, and other concerns. 

Dr. Brighten Women’s Probiotic is a powerful blend of probiotics, prebiotics, and antioxidants to support a balanced vaginal microbiome. By affecting the gut microbiome, and estrobolome (the part of the gut microbiome that interacts with estrogen), this blend supports hormone balance and a healthy vaginal pH. 

Importance of Self Care for Women

Why is self-care important? Self-care is vital to women’s health. When we don’t take the time to put our oxygen masks on first before caring for everyone else in our lives, our health suffers. When you are out of balance, the first thing you may notice is a change in your cycle, period problems, or a shift in the vaginal microbiome. 

Self-care is more than another thing on the to-do list; it’s about turning inward and creating the space to tend to ourselves. It can mean saying no, reading a book, going for a walk, and attending to the body’s needs. Vulva and vagina care absolutely fit into self-care, whether it’s a vaginal steam or taking a probiotic

Takeaway 

While vaginal steaming isn’t required to “clean” your vagina (and you shouldn’t trust anyone who says this is something you need to do!), it’s also not a magic cure for gynecological issues. Vaginal steaming is a gentle, self-care practice with a long history of use by women and midwives to support postpartum healing and relaxation.  

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References

  1. Vandenburg T, Braun V.. 'Basically, it's sorcery for your vagina': unpacking Western representations of vaginal steaming.. Cult Health Sex. 2017. 19(4). 470-485..
  2. IAMJ. Validation of the effect of an ayurvedic therapeutic procedure .... IAMJ..
  3. Lee, Kwang & Kim, Sue & Chang, Soon & Yoo, Ji.. Effects of Artemisia A. Smoke(Ssukjahun) on Menstrual Distress, Dysmenorrhea, and Prostaglandin F2??. Korean Journal of Women Health Nursing. 2009. 15.2. 150.
  4. Robert M.. Second-Degree Burn Sustained After Vaginal Steaming.. J Obstet Gynaecol Can. 2019. 41(6). 838-839.
  5. Chee WJY, Chew SY, Than LTL. Vaginal microbiota and the potential of Lactobacillus derivatives in maintaining vaginal health.. Microb Cell Fact. 2020. 19(1). 203..
  6. IAMJ.. Validation of the effect of an ayurvedic therapeutic procedure .... IAMJ..
About The Author

Dr. Jolene Brighten

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Dr. Jolene Brighten, NMD, is a women’s hormone expert and prominent leader in women’s medicine. As a licensed naturopathic physician who is board certified in naturopathic endocrinology, she takes an integrative approach in her clinical practice. A fierce patient advocate and completely dedicated to uncovering the root cause of hormonal imbalances, Dr. Brighten empowers women worldwide to take control of their health and their hormones. She is the best selling author of Beyond the Pill and Healing Your Body Naturally After Childbirth. Dr. Brighten is an international speaker, clinical educator, medical advisor within the tech community, and considered a leading authority on women’s health. She is a member of the MindBodyGreen Collective and a faculty member for the American Academy of Anti Aging Medicine. Her work has been featured in the New York Post, Forbes, Cosmopolitan, Huffington Post, Bustle, The Guardian, Sports Illustrated, Elle, and ABC News. Read more about me here.