FRIDAY, March 8 (HealthDay News) -- Women who use petroleum
jelly vaginally may put themselves at risk of a common infection
called bacterial vaginosis, a small study suggests.
Prior studies have linked douching to ill effects, including
bacterial vaginosis, and an increased risk of sexually transmitted
diseases and pelvic inflammatory disease. But little research has
been conducted on the possible effects of other products some women
use vaginally, said Joelle Brown, a researcher at the University of
California, San Francisco, who led the new study.
She and her colleagues found that of 141 Los Angeles women they
studied, half said they'd used some type of over-the-counter
product vaginally in the past month, including sexual lubricants,
petroleum jelly and baby oil. Almost as many, 45 percent, reported
When the researchers tested the women for infections, they found
that those who'd used petroleum jelly in the past month were more
than twice as likely as non-users to have bacterial vaginosis.
Bacterial vaginosis occurs when the normal balance between
"good" and "bad" bacteria in the vagina is disrupted. The symptoms
include discharge, pain, itching or burning -- but most women have
no symptoms, and the infection usually causes no long-term
Still, bacterial vaginosis can make women more vulnerable to
sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. It also sometimes
leads to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can cause
The new findings, reported in the April issue of
Obstetrics & Gynecology, do not prove that petroleum
jelly directly increased women's risk of bacterial vaginosis.
But it's possible, said Dr. Sten Vermund, director of the
Institute for Global Health at Vanderbilt University School of
Medicine in Nashville, Tenn.
Petroleum jelly might promote the growth of bad bacteria because
of its "alkaline properties," explained Vermund, who was not
involved in the study.
"An acidic vaginal environment is what protects women from
colonization from abnormal organisms," Vermund said.
He noted that many studies have now linked douching to an
increased risk of vaginal infections. And that may be because the
practice "disrupts the natural vaginal ecology," Vermund said.
Normally, the vagina predominantly contains "good" bacteria that
produce hydrogen peroxide. And experts say that this natural
environment "cleans" the vagina; women do not need special products
to do it.
Yet many women continue to douche, using products that may
contain irritating antiseptics and fragrances. Up to 40 percent of
U.S. women aged 18 to 44 douche regularly, according to the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services.
"The frequency with which American women use unnecessary and
harmful intravaginal products is unfortunate," Vermund said.
It's not certain that douching, itself, causes infections, but
the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advises
women against the practice.
The current findings are based on a group of racially diverse
women who agreed to screening for sexually transmitted diseases.
Slightly more than one-quarter were HIV-positive.
Overall, Brown's team found, 21 percent of the women had
bacterial vaginosis, and 6 percent had a yeast infection. Women
who'd used petroleum jelly in the past month were 2.2 times more
likely to have bacterial vaginosis than non-users. That was with
other factors, including race, age and douching habits, taken into
It did not appear that women were using the product because of
symptoms. Women with the infection were no more likely to report
vaginal symptoms than other women were. And none of those with
symptoms said they used petroleum jelly for relief.
In contrast to those findings, douching was not linked to
bacterial vaginosis risk in the study.
Brown said this could be the result of having only a small
number of women in the study "and the fact that women used various
substances for intravaginal washing -- which undoubtedly varied
substantially in their chemical constituents and
Similarly, sexual lubricants were not linked to increased odds
of bacterial vaginosis. That finding echoes what past studies have
found, Vermund said, so women who need sexual lubricants for
comfort can take some reassurance, he noted.
Still, Brown said that larger studies are needed to confirm
these findings, and to understand how various products can affect
women's health if they are used vaginally.
For now, she recommended that women ask questions before using
any product vaginally. "Women should talk with their health care
providers and ask them if the products they are using inside their
vagina are known to be safe for use in the vagina," Brown said.
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