Why Do Marketing Companies Push Vaginal-Cleansing Products on Black Women?

by Xara Aziz
Voiced by Amazon Polly

There’s a growing social awareness movement surrounding Black women and health and it has shown significant strides this year. Last month, NBC News reported that chemical straightening products led to increased risk of uterine cancer, causing many Black women to ditch relaxers and perms completely. And now, a new report shows another product can cause harmful effects, specifically among Black women who some companies market the product to.

Vaginal cleaning products have been linked to health defects, and one woman is questioning companies that push such products on Black women. “This broad swath of products marketed towards women includes everything from menstrual products like pads and tampons – to cosmetic products aimed at reducing vaginal odors, like scented wipes, powders and douches. The latter category can still be found on drugstore shelves, even though researchers have documented adverse health effects from the use of vaginal cleansing products since the 1980s,” wrote Paige Curtis for The Guardian.

For Black women, the risk can be even more threatening. According to the U.S. Department for Health and Human Services, “one in five women aged 15 to 44 douche. One study from 2015 found that a higher rate of Black women – nearly 40% – reported douching, compared with white and Mexican American women.”

The study also found that Black women had 48% higher levels of a metabolite of diethyl phthalate – a toxic chemical used to prolong the life of fragrances in products – in their urine, compared with White women, concluding that douching could be a source of Diethyl Phthalate exposure.

Further research reveals that Black women use vaginal cleansers at higher rates than other groups because of “racist advertising” and “cultural norms” passed down through generations. “Black women are overexposed and underprotected when it comes to environmental health risks,” Astrid Williams, a representative at Black Women for Wellness told The Guardian. “In focus groups, we’ve learned that Black women are socialized to believe we need to smell better, by using highly fragranced products – odor discrimination is definitely at play.”

Even more so, some Black women are engrained to believe that they are less clean than other groups, so they are made to believe that enhancing personal care through scent-related hygiene products is of benefit to them, according to D Parke Gibson, the founder a prestigious Black-owned press relations firm.

“Undoubtedly, much of the desire for cleanliness is to overcome the prejudicial old wives’ tale that ‘all Negroes smell bad,” he wrote in his 1969 book on Black consumers.

Destructive marketing is not a scheme of the past, but still exposes Black women to toxic chemicals, Curtis wrote. To fix this, she recommends that “consumers shouldn’t have to muddle through the confusing cultural messages that I did. Vaginal cleansers and endocrine disruption maybe aren’t what you’d call polite dinner table conversation, but I make it a point to have open conversations with family and friends about the personal care products they use. You never know; it might save someone a lifetime of illness.”

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