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The carpet after a rowdy wine and dine. Your hair during a “screw them!” breakup high. Your grimy toilet bowl. These are things you bleach.
But your intimate bits??? It’s complicated.
The intent behind vaginal bleaching is similar to hair bleaching: to lighten. Beyond just the location, however, the difference is that vaginal bleaching isn’t done with bleach — ever.
For more intel on how vaginal bleaching is done, why, and whether it’s safe, keep reading.
Vaginal bleaching is a procedure that involves using topical creams, chemical peels, or laser treatments with the intent of lightening the skin around the bikini area.
While it’s most commonly called vaginal bleaching, vaginal bleaching does not in any way involve the internal vaginal canal.
From dangerous DIY remedies and store-bought ointments to special serums and laser treatments, there are a wide variety of ways vaginal bleaching can be done.
But just because vaginal bleaching can be done in a variety of ways doesn’t mean it should be done in a variety of ways.
More on that below!
Again, despite the name, vaginal bleaching is never ever — and should never ever — be done with straight-up bleach.
So-called “bleaching ingredients” are often seen in creams and serums, but these ingredients don’t actually involve bleach.
“Typically, people do it with hopes of achieving the same complexion as the rest of their body,” says Tamika K. Cross, MD, FACOG, a board certified OB-GYN and owner of Serenity Women’s Health & Med Spa in Houston, Texas.
The problem? Most folks don’t realize that:
- Vulvar skin isn’t supposed to be the same color as the rest of the body.
- The pigmentation of the labia can change for a number of reasons, including age, pregnancy, and hormone levels.
“People have unrealistic expectations of what their vulvar area is supposed to look like, and as a result go to extreme lengths to achieve certain looks rather than accepting the physiologically normal appearance of their vulva,” she says.
Yes, yes, yes!
“The skin all over our body changes over time, including the delicate and sensitive area of the vulva and vagina,” explains Sherry A. Ross, MD, women’s health expert and author of “She-ology” and “She-ology, the She-quel.”
“Changes in color of the vulva are normal and not unhealthy or unattractive,” Ross adds.
There are a number of reasons change could occur.
It could also be a result of frequent bikini waxing. “Waxing can cause the vulvar skin to callus, which gives it a darker shade,” Fosnight explains.
“Genetic skin types, aging, and weight gain are other typical causes of these skin color changes,” Ross adds.
That said, if your vulvar skin has gone through a sudden and severe change, reach out to a healthcare provider. The change could be pointing to a larger medical issue.
There are absolutely no health benefits to intimate area lightening.
But in some instances, it may be happiness boosting.
As Fosnight says: “If a person understands that the quest for a lighter vulva is rooted in racist and sexist ideals and is doing work to unlearn those messages, and still believes it is going to make them happy, well, that happiness is a benefit.”
In fact, the
“These procedures are not medically indicated, and the safety and effectiveness of these procedures have not been documented,” the ACOG writes.
Fosnight notes that part of the reason vulva owners have trouble accepting their vulvas as normal is because they’re not usually shown the wide variety of shapes and colors a vulva can be.
So, get your eyeballs on some vulvas! The following resources are a good place to start:
- The Labia Library, a photo gallery of unaltered photos of the vulva and vagina
- The Great Wall of Vagina, which is made up of 400 plaster casts of vulvas that belong to adults all over the world
- “Petals: Fine Art Photography of Vulvas” by Nick Karras, a photo book of 48 fine art images, which is available for purchase online
You might also work with a therapist who can help you weed through some of the messages you’ve received over the years about what “counts” as beautiful.
If you have the energy to educate your partner about vulvar care, then consider doing so.
“Explain to your partner that it’s natural, normal, and common for the vulva to be a darker shade compared to the surrounding skin,” Foresight suggests.
“You might even show your partner other vulvas to help them understand,” she adds.
If, once better educated, your partner stops making comments like that, great!
But otherwise, dump them! You deserve better than a partner who shames you for the way your genitals look.
“It’s not possible to make a blanket statement about whether or not all vaginal bleaching treatments are safe or unsafe,” Cross says.
It depends on a wide variety of factors, including:
- what treatment you’re using
- where on the vulva you apply the treatment
- how often you’re using it
- how long you use it when you do
- your personal body chemistry
- who, if anyone, is supervising or performing the treatment
That said, salon-supervised topical creams or lasers are generally considered safer than at-home options.
It can hurt.
“It totally depends on what you’re having done, your own body’s physiology and reactions to the treatment, what exactly you’re putting on your body and where, and for how long and how often,” Cross says.
Ultimately, it depends on what you have done.
In the short term, “certain over-the-counter products could cause vulva and vaginal irritation, swelling, burning, inflammation, and infections [like yeast infection or bacterial infection],” Ross says.
Longer term, certain procedures like lasering and bleaching creams could cause loss of sensation. Or the opposite: too much sensation (aka pain).
“Certain bleaching treatments could burn the vulva, which leads to permanent scarring, which could lead to either loss of sensation or pain to the touch,” Ross explains.
“Occasionally, the scarring will happen over the clitoral hood, which can cause the clitoral hood to adhere to the clitoris, making it incredibly intense and painful to be aroused,” Fosnight says.
“When this happens, there really isn’t much [doctors] can do for relief,” Fosnight adds.
Anyone who doesn’t understand the laundry list of risks associated with vaginal bleaching should not try it.
As the ACOG
Work with a professional
“If someone insists on bleaching their bikini area, the best option is to work with a trained medical professional to guide them through the process,” Ross says.
Note: If you go to a laser center and the provider is willing to laser your inner labia, leave!
The risk of unwanted complications is higher for the inner labia than the outer labia, and as a result most practitioners won’t laser (or “bleach”) the inner labia.
Don’t DIY anything
“Using a wacky at-home bleaching kit or DIY treatment can increase the risk of unwanted side effects,” Ross says.
If you use something at home, take certain precautions
“If you’re going to try something at home, test it on a small patch of skin on your forearm first,” Cross suggests. Wait at least as long as it directs on the package to see whether you have an adverse reaction.
If you have an adverse reaction — like pain, itching, or discoloration — on your arm skin, you probably will on your genital skin.
Even if you don’t have an adverse reaction on your arm, one may appear on your genital skin.
Still, this little trick can reduce the risk.
Has your vulvar skin recently gone through a dramatic change in color? If so, reach out to a healthcare provider. They’ll help suss out whether there’s an underlying medical reason.
Is your vulva simply darker than you think it should be — or maybe want it to be? Rest assured, your vulva is likely very healthy and normal!
As Ross puts it, “Vulvas and vaginas are like snowflakes. No two are alike. Different is normal! Darker labia skin is normal!”
If you decide to move forward with lightening treatments anyway, be sure to take the above necessary precautions to reduce the risks of long-term damage.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.