Article written by Sarah Prager and expert reviewed by Hana Janebdar, CEO & Founder of Juno Bio
We’ve been taught we need to keep our vaginas clean, but there are many myths out there about how to properly do that. Should only sterile products go in a vagina? Let’s find out.
What does sterile even mean?
“Sterilization destroys all microorganisms on the surface of an article or in a fluid to prevent disease transmission associated with the use of that item,” according to the CDC’s Guideline for Disinfection and Sterilization in Healthcare Facilities. While preventing disease transmission is definitely a good thing, this level of protection isn’t necessary for every single thing that goes into your vagina.
When you visit the gynecologist, they’ll use one-use plastic or re-used sterilized metal equipment like specula on you. There are many different ways that medical professionals sterilize their equipment and those methods are always evolving as we learn the safest and most effective ways.
The most common types of sterilization your gynecologist’s office might use are steam or ethylene oxide gas. According to the CDC, steam is considered “the most widely used and the most dependable.” Ethylene oxide gas takes longer, is more expensive, and can be dangerous.
Now, this isn’t to say that what you insert into your vagina shouldn’t be clean—it definitely should be! While being clean refers to having dirt or smudges present (and you do not want something dirty inside your vagina), being sterile goes beyond that to say it is free of all bacteria and viable life.
These methods are for sterilizing the products that go into a vagina, not for sterilizing a vagina itself. “The bacterial flora of the vagina is a delicate balance that naturally protects the vagina,” shares Jen Villavicencio, MD, MPP. “Sterilizing the vagina by any means threatens that balance and potentially increases the risk for vaginal infections, vaginitis, and depending on the method of sterilization, vaginal injury.”
Can I use non-sterile products in my vagina?
You probably already put non-sterilized items into your vagina like fingers, tampons, menstrual cups, penises, or sex toys. While unclean objects can cause problems, there is no evidence that the bacteria that can cause issues with the vagina are transferred because of products not being sterilized.
Your vagina’s pH is actually more likely to get out of balance from a diet too high in sugar and starches according to a study published by the Journal of Nutrition.
Does using sterile products in my vagina do anything to support my microbiome?
If your microbiome is already out of balance, the best thing to do is consult with your doctor or a trusted healthcare provider. Traditionally, sterilization of products is necessary when products are re-used. For single-use home products that have been clean room assembled, utilizing a non-sterile product at home is safe. However, always consult your physician for what’s right for you.
Can bacteria cause infertility?
Certain types of bacterial infections can cause infertility, such as Chlamydia trachomatis, a common sexually transmitted infection. Untreated over time, chlamydia can cause scarring and obstruction in the fallopian tubes. However, chlamydia is usually easily treated with antibiotics as long as it is identified.
There isn’t current evidence to show that bacteria causing infertility is transmitted via non-sterile products like tampons or insemination syringes.
How to make sure an insemination device is safe
Look for a device that is registered with the FDA and see if there are any clinical studies about the device that have been published. While it does not need to be sterile (just like a tampon doesn’t need to be), it’s best if it is made of medical grade materials and is clean room assembled. Insemination products should be one-time use only, not re-usable.
Juno Bio offers women and people with vaginas an at-home vaginal microbiome wellness test that gives them an unprecedented insight into their vaginal wellness. All results are pooled, anonymized, and power up further research to close the gender health gap.