'Very predatory': Health Canada bars sale of vaginal detox products following Marketplace investigation

Health Canada has barred the sale of a natural health care product that is marketed as a way to "detox" vaginas following an investigation by CBC's Marketplace.

Product was never approved for sale in Canada

Goddess Vaginal Detox Pearls are filled with herbal ingredients, including borneol, a substance that Health Canada issued a warning about in 2002. (Jenny Cowley/CBC)

Health Canada has barred the sale of a natural health care product that is marketed as a way to "detox" vaginas, following an investigation by CBC's Marketplace.

Goddess Vaginal Detox Pearls are small, herb-filled balls that are inserted into the vaginal canal through the use of a plastic applicator. The instructions recommend keeping them inserted for up to 48 hours.

The company advertises that the pearls will help to "promote overall womb and vaginal health" and help with "painful menstrual cramping, detoxing an ex-lover, smelly odour, dryness, get back to their menstrual cycle after getting off birth control and overall vaginal reconnection."

Health Canada has previously advised Canadians about the risks of buying natural health products online that have not been assessed for safety, efficacy or quality. These pearls were never authorized for sale in Canada.

In a statement, the federal regulator told Marketplace that it contacted Goddess Detox and the company agreed to remove Canada as a shipping destination on its website.

The misconceptions and false claims around such products as these pearls is what pushed gynecologist Dr. Jen Gunter to write The Vagina Bible.

"I have a vagenda," said Gunter.

Dr. Jen Gunter is an obstetrician-gynecologist and a pain medicine physician who wants you to stop detoxing your vagina. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

"I've spent so much time debunking myths online about, you know, what not to put in your vagina, or what not to do to your vulva, or how women are told to think about their bodies," she said.

"I wanted to write a textbook for women … I wanted people to be primed with good information before they enter the library of the internet."

When Marketplace showed Gunter the Goddess Vaginal Detox Pearls, she recoiled immediately at the smell after opening the package.

"Oh gosh, yeah. So somebody has just stuffed a bunch of herbs in," she said. "It smells like mothballs."

The packaging of the pearls lists the following ingredients: Cnidium, stemona, fructus kochiae, motherwort, angelica, rhizoma, borneol and ligusticum wallichii.

In 2002, Health Canada issued a warning over a Chinese medicine containing borneolum syntheticum, a synthetic version of borneol, both of which are toxic. Health Canada said it had received one serious adverse reaction report through the Canada Vigilance database regarding borneol.

Goddess Vaginal Detox Pearls make claims about helping to regulate menstrual cycles, detox ex-boyfriends and sexual trauma, and assist with fertility. (CBC)

The herb-filled pearls' instructions state that after wearing the pearls for up to 48 hours, a "purge of toxins" from the vagina will occur.

"I think there's a lot of this sort of false idea about what the normal vagina should be like," said Gunter. "You don't need to detox … anything at all. There's nothing in your reproductive tract that needs to be detoxed. Your whole body, you've got liver and kidneys — they take care of that."

'Very predatory'

Not only does detoxing not work, she said, but it could be harmful.

"We know that just douching with water changes your ecosystem enough that it would increase your risk of getting HIV if you're exposed. That's just with water." said Gunter.

When caustic substances are added, it can damage the mucus layer of the vagina, the cells and its good bacteria, which are what keep bad bacteria out. 

"If you strip those off and then you have intercourse with a penis or even fingers, and then you rub, you're more likely going to get little breaks in the skin," said Gunter, noting that those breaks are how bacteria and viruses, like HIV, can enter the body.

Goddess pearls advertise that they could help the "many women who are not in their most optimal health due to stress, taking care of the world and more."

"The vagina is … affected by the stress of the world?" questioned Gunter. "You don't get ill in the way that they're describing from your vagina."

This paragraph comes from an instructional booklet for Goddess Vaginal Detox Pearls. (Jenny Cowley/CBC)

The more concerning claim for Gunter is that the pearls can detox ex-partners or sexual traumas — a concept she called both "offensive" and "harmful."

The instructional booklet that comes with the pearls reads: "Before inserting the pearl in the applicator, pray or speak your intentions of healing any trauma you have experienced or vaginal ailment you wish to be removed. Ask that this process removes old trauma, past sexual partners and abusers from your womb area."

"I think that's very predatory," said Gunter. "The idea that … there is any kind of remnant in your vagina from sexual trauma is simply not true."

Violent rape may leave physical scar tissue, Gunter said, but, otherwise, the vagina sheds a layer of epithelial cells often.

"Everything that was there three days ago is not there now, today," said Gunter. "And I think people should be ashamed of themselves for saying things like that."

'Even more harm to survivors of violence'

The claims also raised concern for the Canadian Women's Foundation, a public group that funds 74 programs across Canada and supports hundreds of shelters. 

 "Studies show that healing from trauma is a complicated, multi-faceted journey that can look different for different people," said foundation vice-president Andrea Gunraj. 

"Healing and cleansing 'aids' that make claims ungrounded in research can mislead people, create confusions and compound vulnerability. It causes even more harm to survivors of violence."

Further, Gunraj condemned the overall marketing of the detox pearls. 

"Where women and girls are made to feel like … their bodies 'need fixing' or 'cleaning,' there could be serious mental and physical health impacts."

A quick Google search reveals there are other similar vaginal detox or "womb-cleansing" products available for purchase online, though they're also not authorized for sale in Canada.

Health Canada told Marketplace that consumers are encouraged to report any information regarding the sale of Goddess Vaginal Detox Pearls or other similar products using Health Canada's online complaint form.

Marketplace reached out to the CEO of Goddess Vaginal Detox Pearls, Vanessa White, who goes by Olanikee Osi. She referred the request to a public relations agency, who did not provide a statement. 

Gynecological misconceptions

Misconceptions about vaginal health have been around for decades. In the 1930s, Lysol was advertised as a douche; the so-called "Lysol method" was advertised to women who had a "gross neglect of proper marriage hygiene" to aid women with "feminine health, daintiness, and mental poise." 

And 1950s folklore suggests women would also use Coca-Cola as a douche and spermicide. Douches were often advertised as "cleanliness" products — a euphemism when birth control and other contraceptive methods were not readily available.

Doctors have widely debunked douching for decades.

A 1933 advertisement for Lysol advises women to douche with its product, claiming that doctors have 'freely recommended the regular and continual use of Lysol for feminine health, daintiness, and mental poise.' (The New Movie Magazine)

"Your vagina's a self-cleaning oven," said Gunter. "It's a marvel of evolution how the cells turn over, how the good bacteria keeps everything in place. It is a finely tuned evolutionary miracle that you should just let it be and it will take care of you." 

Not long after douching went out of style, Gwyneth Paltrow came in. Her lifestyle brand, Goop, recommended unproven gynecological practices that doctors continue to condemn.

Vaginal steaming, a practice that involves sitting or squatting over steaming water infused with herbs, was recommended by Paltrow in 2015. In 2018, a case of a Canadian woman receiving second-degree burns during vaginal steaming was reported in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada

In 2018, Goop settled a consumer protection lawsuit over false claims made by the company about the Jade Egg — a product that was marketed for insertion into the vagina — including that it could balance hormones, regulate menstrual cycles, prevent uterine prolapse and increase bladder control. The company was fined $145,000 US. 

How to break through the misinformation

Gunter says the misconceptions about the female body often come from a lack of understanding. 

"I … think medicine really has to do a better job of listening to women, and to everybody, and to try to make office visits a better place," she said. "Most people want to do the right things with their bodies, most people are looking to try to get better — and that's why everybody's vulnerable.

"I know what it's like to be there at three in the morning and be so worried and you see something that pops up.… But you know, if the answers were easy … medicine wouldn't be this hard, I think."

So what are the best practices when it comes to vaginal health? Gunter says it is usually best to leave it alone. 

If needed, she recommends using an unscented cleanser externally or an unscented moisturizer around the vulva area for dryness. Coconut oil is Gunter's personal top pick as a moisturizer. 

And if you're experiencing problems, such as an irregular odour, pain or discomfort, opt to see your doctor.

"I believe information is the vaccine against this kind of stuff," she said. "And we just have to make getting the right information more attractive than getting the garbage.… I'm just trying to vaccinate women with good, quality information."

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