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Women's Health

Petroleum Jelly Tied to Vaginal Infection Risk

Use of such products doubled odds of bacterial vaginosis, researchers find
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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 account.

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 concentrations."

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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