Should You Try a Vaginal Steam?

Once again, Gwyneth Paltrow is in the spotlight for doing something nobody seems to understand. At least this time it’s not “conscious uncoupling”: now, she’s advocating vaginal steams.  Since the news broke (hooray for celebrity vaginas being big news, amirite?), we’ve seen a number of articles both for and against vaginal steaming.

Vaginal steams are a fairly well known practice in natural health communities, and here in the weird world of Pacific Northwest it’s not a totally mind-boggling concept. That said, none of us at GladRags have ever tried steaming anything but our faces. Born skeptics, we asked our friend Zoë Etkin to shed some light on the topic of v-steams. Zoë is a birth & postpartum doula, menstruation educator, and poet in California.


GladRags: How do vaginal steams work?

Zoë Etkin: There are a few different set ups, but the basic idea is that you sit over a pot of steaming water (with or without herbs). The set up I have is a box with a hole drilled in the back where you thread the cord of a hot plate/burner. You set a clay pot on top and fill it with water and dry or fresh herbs. Then you put a toilet seat on top and take a seat. It’s important to keep your feet and upper body warm, so socks and a blanket are good to have with you. Also a towel or blanket over your lap to keep the steam in. I use herb sachets made by a local company called Chick Food. 

GR: Why would someone do a vaginal steam?

ZE: I will preface this by saying that there are no medical studies supporting these claims, however, vaginal steaming is an ancient practice and has been passed down for generations in Korean, African and Mayan cultures. Someone might steam because… they have an irregular menstrual cycle, they have lower back or pelvic pain, they have hemorrhoids or perineal lacerations from birth, they have an imbalance in their vaginal pH, they experience vaginal dryness, etc. 

GR: Generally we think of vaginas/uteruses as “self-cleaning.” What makes vaginal steams different from interference we see as harmful, like douching?

ZE: This is an excellent question. Vaginas are absolutely self cleaning most of the time, however sometimes imbalances do occur and women don’t always want to use the typical treatments. Vaginal steaming offers a gentle, non-invasive way to help restore balance. Douching is forcing water and scents and other yucky things up into the vaginal canal. Steaming touches the outside, the vulva.

I was arguing the benefits of v-steams with someone and they were under the impression that v-steams were done by spreading the labia and somehow funneling the steam into the vaginal opening. Not so. The steam is not funneled in any manner–it lifts up from the pot of herbs and warms the vagina from the inside out. Just as a body steam does. The steam increases blood flow and oxygenation to the pelvic area–which is healing.

I’m reading more and more that the common practice of “RICE” (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) to muscle injuries is being discouraged in favor of heat. Ice restricts blood flow, and does decrease swelling, but in restricting blood flow, it makes it so that healing properties in new blood are unable to make their way to the area. Heat encourages the new blood to come, and thus bring repairing properties to the injured space. Same concept with the v-steam–especially for perineal healing. In Squat Birth Journal’s issue a few months ago, a midwife described how she saw better outcomes by applying hot packs to the perineum after birth rather than ice. She said she had to do less suturing to those women and that if they continued applying heat in some form (sitz bath, etc.), they would heal much faster. 

GR: It sounds like the steam is the most important part. What purpose do the herbs serve?

ZE: The steam element is very important. I can’t speak to the precise efficacy of the herbs because I’m not an herbalist–which is why I get my herbs from Chick Food. Mugwort is used a lot in steaming and is said to be helpful in regulating the menstrual cycle. There’s even a hot tub full of mugwort at the Korean spa I frequent. There are other herbs that would be good for various situations–good to do your own research about which herbs to use. 

GR: Some articles about vaginal steaming claim that the practice can solve all kinds of feminine woes, including ovarian cysts to uterine prolapse. Is there reason to believe that vaginal steaming can actually help these conditions, or is it more of a general health/relaxation practice?

ZE: I think there is reason to believe it can help particular ailments, but since there aren’t clinical trials, it’s hard to give a resounding YES. It’s definitely good for general health–but many women claim it to have helped them with specific issues. I tread the line on yes/no since I’m a doula and can’t be giving medical advice. It’s hard with these non-western practices because they have stood the test of time and I do believe in ancient wisdom. In regards to other people’s health, I always say: check with your care provider. 

GR: Can you tell me about any personal experiences of vaginal steaming?

ZE: My personal experience is that I have seen it benefit a lot of women I do steams for. But me personally, personally, I have found it to be very relaxing for my low back (sciatica), 

GR: You offer vaginal steaming sessions as part of your services, correct? What’s a typical session like? Do your customers tend to be first-time steamers or seasoned vaginal steaming pros?

ZE: I do, mostly offering them to women healing perineal lacerations after birth. Always first time customers. Basically, I offer mine as an intro to the experience and then encourage them to create their own home set up and to do them regularly. 

GR: Does it matter when in your cycle you do a vaginal steam? Should you do it before your period? After? DURING??

ZE: Yes, contraindicated times would be pregnancy and menstrual bleeding. I think steaming before and after can be nice. Can clear out the old brown blood. 

GR: What would you say to someone who thinks vaginal steaming is just another annoying Gwyneth Paltrow-inspired fad?

ZE: I would say they probably haven’t done any research into the practice. From the anti-steam articles I read, none of them demonstrated any understanding of what steaming entails. They all likened it to douching–which I would never do, nor recommend to anyone. Someone even accused those who steam of perpetuating anti-woman notions like the female body is dirty and needs to be cleaned up. I find that to be a ridiculous assertion. Yes, the vagina self cleans and should generally be left alone, but there are reasons to support our vaginal health, and I do believe steams can do that in a very gentle, non-invasive way. Furthermore, I question why people are up in arms about hot water near a vulva when people are still putting toxic cotton tampons IN their vaginas… talk about changing the vaginal flora! I liken v-steams more to sitz baths. Gentle, external, but the warming properties have a lot of benefits. 

GR: Anything else you want to add?

ZE: Paltrow might not be the best v-steam ambassador, but she’s not the first celebrity to try it publicly. Tia and Tamera (Mowry) went to the same spa on their tv show years ago! No one freaked out back then…

Our verdict? V-steams may not have any proven medical benefit, but you might find them relaxing! Plus, the practice itself comes from ancient traditions that deserve our respect. As always, be careful about the herbs you use, and (obviously) don’t squat over water so hot that the steam will scald you.

In the spirit of science, a few members of the GladRags team have agreed to try vaginal steams for ourselves. Check back in a week or two when our periods end for our reviews! Until then: have you? would you?