Article

An Odor of Racism: Vaginal Deodorants in African-American Beauty Culture and Advertising

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Abstract

The use of vaginal deodorants such as douches and feminine sprays is a troubling phenomenon due to its association with many adverse health consequences. Complicating this issue is the fact that African-American women are four times as likely to use these products as Caucasian women. This essay seeks to explain this practice as an element of African-American beauty culture. By reframing the use of vaginal deodorants as an aesthetic rather than hygienic practice, the historical racist underpinnings of vaginal deodorization are made evident. Moreover, an examination of advertisements for douches and related products provides significant insight into the historical and contemporary meanings of vaginal deodorization practices in African-American women’s lives. The essay begins by examining how pervasive olfactory discrimination against African Americans established personal deodorization as a key to social and legal acceptance in White society. The supposed malodor of African-American women was also linked to damaging sexual stereotypes that made Black women highly vulnerable to predation and violence. The essay continues by showing how manufacturers of vaginal deodorants attempted to exploit racist notions by appealing to African-American consumers’ insecurities about personal odors. This appeal is still evident in targeted marketing strategies today. Finally, the essay concludes that aggressive advertising is no longer necessary to maintain the practice of vaginal deodorization among African-American women. The habit has been institutionalized as a cultural norm and is now perpetuated outside the market. Nonetheless marketers have embraced the image of cosmetics for the vagina and are using it to stimulate sales without regard for women’s health.

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... Comparisons with other racial/ethnic groups are challenging given the dearth of data on exposure to phthalates. Differential patterns of personal care product use across racial groups [10,11], due largely to discrimination based on skin tone [12][13][14] and hair texture [15][16][17]; persistence of European beauty norms; misinformation about the risks and benefits of use of particular products (e.g., feminine douching products) [18]; and targeted advertising of specific beauty products to Black women (including hair relaxers, skin lightening cream, and feminine hygiene products) [19][20][21] have likely contributed to racial disparities in phthalate exposure [22][23][24]. These patterns of use may differ by socioeconomic status [25]. ...
... However, not all associations were in the expected direction. Previous studies have documented higher use of feminine hygiene products among Black women due to targeted advertising of these products [19][20][21] and misinformation regarding their benefits and risks [18], and have shown that increased vaginal product use is associated with higher concentrations of MEP and MBP [22]. However, we did not find that exposure of the genital area to products, particularly genital powder, vaginal douches, and feminine hygiene deodorant in the past 24 h was associated with higher concentrations of these phthalate biomarkers in SELF. ...
Article
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Background: Phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are widely present in consumer products. In the United States, Black women are more highly exposed to phthalates than other racial/ethnic groups, yet information on predictors of phthalate exposure among Black women is limited. Objective: We evaluated the association of demographics, lifestyle, reproductive history, and personal care product use with urinary concentrations of phthalate and phthalate alternative metabolites, using cross-sectional data from a study of 754 Black women from Detroit, Michigan (2010-2012). Methods: Women completed questionnaires and provided urine specimens which were analyzed for 16 phthalate and phthalate alternative metabolites. We used linear regression models to estimate mean percentage differences and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) in concentrations across levels of correlates. Results: Monoethyl phthalate (MEP) and MBP concentrations were positively associated with personal care product use, particularly nail products. Educational attainment was positively associated with high molecular weight phthalate concentrations but inversely associated with monobenzyl phthalate (MBzP) concentrations. Parity was positively associated with MBzP concentrations and inversely associated with concentrations of MEP and high molecular weight phthalates. Significance: We found that sociodemographics, reproductive characteristics, and use of certain personal care products were associated with urinary phthalate concentrations among Black women. Our results emphasize the importance of examining exposure determinants among multiply marginalized populations.
... While tampon use was higher among White women, Black women more often selected scented tampons when they use tampons. Historical and ongoing odor discrimination, particularly against Black women [58], may contribute to these product use patterns. ...
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Background Personal care product use may contribute to elevated body burdens of consumer product chemicals among women of color; however, racial/ethnic differences in product use has been understudied. Community-engaged research can support the recruitment of diverse participants. Objective To document personal care product use among a diverse group of women (aged 18–34 years) living in California. Methods Through a community-academic partnership, we surveyed 357 women in California about product use information for 54 cosmetic, hair, menstrual/intimate care, and leave-on and rinse-off personal care products. We compared type and frequency of product use among Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian, and White women. We also summarized use of scented products and reasons women select products. Results Women reported using a median of 8 products daily, with some women reporting up to 30 products daily. Hispanic/Latinx and Asian women used more cosmetics, and Black women used more hair and menstrual/intimate products than other women. Of the 54 products compared, there were significant differences in use by race/ethnicity for 28 products, with the largest number of significant differences between Black and White women. Significance There is growing information on chemical exposures from personal care products and consequent adverse health effects, with implications for health disparities. Yet, there remains limited information on the range and types of products used by diverse racial/ethnic communities. This study helps close an important gap on product use inventories that can enable more informed public health interventions to limit exposures from personal care products.
... As another example, Abbie, a skilled black athlete who derived a lot of social benefits from participating in various sports, gave up her involvement in team sports as the anxiety related to a fear that she was giving off an unpleasant body odor became overwhelming. This fear of body odor can be seen, at least in part, as the result of the intersection of racial and gendered oppressions (Ferranti, 2011). Women in America and other Western nations are taught that their natural odor is bad and must be covered up through deodorants, perfumes, or other personal hygiene products (Roberts & Waters, 2004). ...
... African-American women spend more money on fragrances, feminine hygiene, and deodorizing products than other US women (Nielson, 2013), potentially resulting in greater product use and exposures. Use of fragrances was positively associated with urinary metabolite levels of diethyl phthalate (DEP) in a study of pregnant African-American and Dominican women in New York City (Just et al., 2010), and data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) showed that reported use of vaginal douches, which are heavily marketed to Black women as aesthetic products (Ferranti, 2011), was associated with higher urinary metabolite levels of DEP in Black women (Branch et al., 2015). ...
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Background: Personal care products are a source of exposure to endocrine disrupting and asthma-associated chemicals. Because use of hair products differs by race/ethnicity, these products may contribute to exposure and disease disparities. Objective: This preliminary study investigates the endocrine disrupting and asthma-associated chemical content of hair products used by U.S. Black women. Methods: We used gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) to test 18 hair products in 6 categories used by Black women: hot oil treatment, anti-frizz/polish, leave-in conditioner, root stimulator, hair lotion, and relaxer. We tested for 66 chemicals belonging to 10 chemical classes: ultraviolet (UV) filters, cyclosiloxanes, glycol ethers, fragrances, alkylphenols, ethanolamines, antimicrobials, bisphenol A, phthalates, and parabens. Results: The hair products tested contained 45 endocrine disrupting or asthma-associated chemicals, including every targeted chemical class. We found cyclosiloxanes, parabens, and the fragrance marker diethyl phthalate (DEP) at the highest levels, and DEP most frequently. Root stimulators, hair lotions, and relaxers frequently contained nonylphenols, parabens, and fragrances; anti-frizz products contained cyclosiloxanes. Hair relaxers for children contained five chemicals regulated by California's Proposition 65 or prohibited by EU cosmetics regulation. Targeted chemicals were generally not listed on the product label. Conclusions: Hair products used by Black women and children contained multiple chemicals associated with endocrine disruption and asthma. The prevalence of parabens and DEP is consistent with higher levels of these compounds in biomonitoring samples from Black women compared with White women. These results indicate the need for more information about the contribution of consumer products to exposure disparities. A precautionary approach would reduce the use of endocrine disrupting chemicals in personal care products and improve labeling so women can select products consistent with their values.
... These habits became embedded as a cultural norm and now persist outside of marketing efforts. 75 Comment Obstetrics-gynecology providers should be aware of the potentially toxic effects of commonly used beauty products, recognize disparities across these demographics, and be prepared to counsel patients who have questions about these and other environmental exposures. Although there are few published clinical guidelines, emerging consortiums with published scientific consensus statements can provide support to clinicians. ...
... These habits became embedded as a cultural norm and now persist outside of marketing efforts. 75 Comment Obstetrics-gynecology providers should be aware of the potentially toxic effects of commonly used beauty products, recognize disparities across these demographics, and be prepared to counsel patients who have questions about these and other environmental exposures. Although there are few published clinical guidelines, emerging consortiums with published scientific consensus statements can provide support to clinicians. ...
Article
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The obstetrics-gynecology community has issued a call to action to prevent toxic environmental chemical exposures and their threats to healthy human reproduction. Recent committee opinions recognize that vulnerable and underserved women may be impacted disproportionately by environmental chemical exposures and recommend that reproductive health professionals champion policies that secure environmental justice. Beauty product use is an understudied source of environmental chemical exposures. Beauty products can include reproductive and developmental toxicants such as phthalates and heavy metals; however, disclosure requirements are limited and inconsistent. Compared with white women, women of color have higher levels of beauty product–related environmental chemicals in their bodies, independent of socioeconomic status. Even small exposures to toxic chemicals during critical periods of development (such as pregnancy) can trigger adverse health consequences (such as impacts on fertility and pregnancy, neurodevelopment, and cancer). In this commentary, we seek to highlight the connections between environmental justice and beauty product–related chemical exposures. We describe racial/ethnic differences in beauty product use (such as skin lighteners, hair straighteners, and feminine hygiene products) and the potential chemical exposures and health risks that are associated with these products. We also discuss how targeted advertising can take advantage of mainstream beauty norms to influence the use of these products. Reproductive health professionals can use this information to advance environmental justice by being prepared to counsel patients who have questions about toxic environmental exposures from beauty care products and other sources. Researchers and healthcare providers can also promote health-protective policies such as improved ingredient testing and disclosure for the beauty product industry. Future clinical and public health research should consider beauty product use as a factor that may shape health inequities in women's reproductive health across the life course.
... Among African American and white women, common motivations for douching include: to feel fresh and clean, to remove menstrual blood, to remove vaginal odors, after sexual activity, and in response to vaginal discharge or irritation [30,38]. Ferranti hypothesizes that structural forces, such as historical odor discrimination against African Americans and targeted advertising of these products to African Americans, have helped to establish the practice of douching as a beauty norm specifically among the African American community, and that norm is now perpetuated through cultural and familial traditions [39]. Thus, environmental justice advocates and practitioners may view the disproportionate chemical exposures from douching as an "environmental injustice of beauty", a framework that could also be applied to other beauty practices used predominately by women of color such as hair straightening and skin whitening. ...
Article
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Diethyl phthalate (DEP) and di-n-butyl phthalate (DnBP) are industrial chemicals found in consumer products that may increase risk of adverse health effects. Although use of personal care/beauty products is known to contribute to phthalate exposure, no prior study has examined feminine hygiene products as a potential phthalate source. In this study, we evaluate whether vaginal douching and other feminine hygiene products increase exposure to phthalates among US reproductive-aged women. We conducted a cross-sectional study on 739 women (aged 20-49) from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2001-2004 to examine the association between self-reported use of feminine hygiene products (tampons, sanitary napkins, vaginal douches, feminine spray, feminine powder, and feminine wipes/towelettes) with urinary concentrations of monoethyl phthalate (MEP) and mono-n-butyl phthalate (MnBP), metabolites of DEP and DnBP, respectively. A greater proportion of black women than white and Mexican American women reported use of vaginal douches, feminine spray, feminine powder, and wipes/towelettes in the past month whereas white women were more likely than other racial/ethnic groups to report use of tampons (p < 0.05). Douching in the past month was associated with higher concentrations of MEP but not MnBP. No other feminine hygiene product was significantly associated with either MEP or MnBP. We observed a dose-response relationship between douching frequency and MEP concentrations (ptrend < 0.0001); frequent users (≥2 times/month) had 152.2 % (95 % confidence intervals (CI): (68.2 %, 278.3 %)) higher MEP concentrations than non-users. We also examined whether vaginal douching mediates the relationship between race/ethnicity and phthalates exposures. Black women had 48.4 % (95 % CI: 16.8 %, 88.6 %; p = 0.0002) higher MEP levels than white women. Adjustment for douching attenuated this difference to 26.4 % (95 % CI:-0.9 %, 61.2 %; p = 0.06). Mediation effects of douching were statistically significant for black-white differences (z = 3.71, p < 0.001) but not for differences between Mexican Americans and whites (z = 1.80, p = 0.07). Vaginal douching may increase exposure to DEP and contribute to racial/ethnic disparities in DEP exposure. The presence of environmental chemicals in vaginal douches warrants further examination.
Article
Objectives Observational studies demonstrate an association between vaginal douching and bacterial vaginosis (BV) characterised by Gram stain. We sought to describe the effect of a douching cessation intervention on the composition and structure of the vaginal microbiota and molecular-BV, a state defined by low levels of Lactobacillus spp evaluated by molecular tools. Methods 33 women self-collected mid-vaginal swabs twice weekly (982 samples) during a douching observation phase (4 weeks) followed by a douching cessation phase (12 weeks) in a 2005 single crossover pilot study conducted in Baltimore, Maryland. Vaginal microbiota were characterised by 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequencing (V3-V4) and clustered into community state types (CSTs). Conditional logistic regression modelling allowed each participant to serve as their own control. Wilcoxon signed-rank tests were used to evaluate changes in microbiota between phases. Broad-range qPCR assays provided estimates of bacterial absolute abundance per swab in a subsample of seven participants before and after douching. A piecewise linear mixed effects model was used to assess rates of change in bacterial absolute abundance before and after douching. Results There was no statistically significant change in the odds of molecular-BV versus Lactobacillus- dominated CSTs comparing the douching cessation interval to douching observation (adjusted OR 1.77, 95% CI 0.89 to 3.55). Removal of L. iners -dominated CST III from the outcome did not affect the results. There were no significant changes in the relative abundance of four Lactobacillus spp and no meaningful changes in other taxa investigated. There was no significant change in bacterial absolute abundance between a participant’s sample collected 3 days prior to and following douching (p=0.46). Conclusions In this pilot study, douching cessation was not associated with major changes in vaginal microbiota. Douching cessation alone may not durably shift the vaginal microbiota and additional interventions may be needed to restore optimal vaginal microbiota among those who douche.
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Some studies indicate that Black women have higher exposure to multiple non-persistent endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) than white women, but little is known about correlates of exposure to EDC mixtures. Using baseline data from a prospective cohort study of reproductive-aged Black women (N = 751), we characterized profiles of EDC mixtures and identified correlates of exposure. At baseline, we quantified biomarkers of 16 phthalates, 7 phenols, 4 parabens, and triclocarban in urine and collected covariate data through self-administered questionnaires and interviews. We used principal component (PC) analysis and k-means clustering to describe EDC mixture profiles. Associations between correlates and PCs were estimated as the mean difference (β) in PC scores, while associations between correlates and cluster membership were estimated as the odds ratio (OR) of cluster membership. Personal care product use was consistently associated with profiles of higher biomarker concentrations of non-persistent EDCs. Use of nail polish, menstrual and vaginal products (e.g., vaginal powder, vaginal deodorant), and sunscreen was associated with a mixture of phthalate and some phenol biomarkers using both methods. Current vaginal ring use, a form of hormonal contraception placed inside the vagina, was strongly associated with higher concentrations of high molecular weight phthalate biomarkers (k-means clustering: OR = 2.42, 95% CI = 1.28, 4.59; PCA: β = −0.32, 95% CI = −0.71, 0.07). Several dietary, reproductive, and demographic correlates were also associated with mixtures of EDC biomarkers. These findings suggest that personal care product use, diet, and contraceptive use may be sources of exposure to multiple non-persistent EDCs among reproductive-aged Black women. Targeted interventions to reduce exposure to multiple EDCs among Black women are warranted.
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There is an evolving body of literature that links chemicals commonly found in personal care products (PCPs) to an increased risk of both developing asthma and worsening existing asthma. Phthalates, parabens, environmental phenols, such as triclosan and bisphenol A (BPA), and other endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) have been implicated in asthma and related allergic conditions in epidemiological studies. Because Black individuals have increased exposure to these chemicals through hair care products and feminine hygiene products, disproportionate exposure to these chemicals through PCPs could contribute, in part, to the disproportionate asthma prevalence and morbidity among the US Black population. Increased exposure to these chemicals among Black individuals is explained, in part, by more frequent use of hair care products that can contain higher concentrations of these chemicals and greater use of feminine hygiene products, which are also sources of exposure to these chemicals. Epidemiologic evidence using urinary biomarkers of exposure demonstrates associations between PCPs and exposure to these chemicals and that the US Black population has greater exposure to these chemicals compared with the non-Black population. Should chemical exposures through PCPs contribute to the excess burden of asthma among the US Black population, reducing these exposures would reduce this disparity.
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Odors define many things: plants, foods, people. Although the rise of instrumental flavor and odor analysis techniques from the 1950s to 1980s, largely driven by the food and perfumery industries, allowed scientists unprecedented access to knowledge about the structures and origins of odorific molecules, these techniques and their influence on the social imagination remain relatively unexamined. Working at the intersection of Gender, Food, and Science and Technology Studies, this paper examines how the technique of gas chromatography-olfactometry (GC-O), key to how perfumers and flavorists managed sensory experience, was mobilized to scientifically categorize the bodily odors of immigrants and women as other. Through analysis of the instrumental and sensory techniques used to quantify as well as qualify bodily odor, I examine how researchers mimicked patterns for ordering the world of taste and smell in their efforts to characterize and master women’s bodily odors. The indexing of bodily odors through GC-O highlighted the porous nature of the body and its smells, even as researchers, physicians, and producers of feminine “hygiene” products promoted commercial anti-fungal medications, douches, and suppositories for their promise to reign in the excess smells of the body and its microbial and mycobial companions.
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