Fad detox programs have managed to convince thousands of seemingly intelligent people that a restricted diet can restore their body to a purer state. But what’s the next step for women who have already cleansed their blood, GI tracts, and chakras? Thankfully, they no longer need to rely on the time-tested combination of anatomy, physiology, and medical care to keep their reproductive tracts footloose and toxin free. Now you can place a ball of herbs (or “pearl”) wrapped in a piece of gauze into your vagina to “detox your womb.”
According to Embrace Pangaea, one of the companies that manufactures detox pearls, the cleanse treats the “toxins from a poor diet, chemical based environment, and emotional stress (that) can get stuck in your womb.” These ominous, unspecified toxins are allegedly/reportedly responsible for “major imbalances” like bacteria vaginosis, yeast infections, endometriosis, infertility, vagina pain, excess bleeding, vaginal dryness, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and fibroids. These imbalances are sometimes referred to by another, better known term: medical conditions.
Your womb and vagina are self-cleaning organs. Helpful bacteria, natural secretions, a carefully maintained pH, and your hormone cycle all help to keep the female reproductive tract healthy. In most cases, no intervention is required. In general, your body will signal you when something is awry through symptoms like dryness, bleeding, pain, unusual discharge, itching, or foul odor. There are scientifically-supported medical treatments and therapies available for these gynecological conditions. There are also hoax treatments that may do more harm than good—like detox pearls.
Detox pearls are cloth-covered balls containing herbs like mothersworth, osthol, angelica, borneol, and rhizoma. Purveyors claim that they can detox your womb and reset your natural balance by, among other things, increasing elasticity, regulating the menstrual cycle, killing parasites and (bad) bacteria, improving fertility, reducing discharge, and removing toxins (there’s that undefined word again).
You might notice a rather glaring error in the system here. Despite the urging of the woman in the instructional video, you cannot place one of these detox pearls in your womb. The womb is separated from your vagina (and the outside world) by the cervix. There is a hole in the center of your cervix, the os, that opens naturally to release the contents of your uterus during labor and (to a lesser degree) during menstruation. When closed, it keeps your uterus off limits to things you place in your vagina—tampons, penises, sex toys, and magical herb balls.
Naturally, there is no given explanation for how the detox herbs, once placed in your vagina, manage to open the cervical os, penetrate the uterus, and allow the accursed toxins, fibroids, and excess endometrium to exit your body and restore balance. This is because detox herbs and reproductive organs do not work that way.
In addition to the myriad of benefits offered by Embrace Pangaea, womb detoxes from Sacred Blood Womb Wellness claim to treat pelvic inflammatory disease, sexually transmitted infections, postpartum hemorrhage, uterine polyps, and ovarian cysts. These claims are bald-faced lies. Despite customer testimony accompanied by some rather graphic user submitted photographs on the company websites, there is no evidence of these benefits—or any benefits—in the use of these or any other womb detox products. Peer-reviewed studies indicate that some of the herbs mentioned on the Embrace Pangaea site do have beneficial medical properties, but none of the above medical conditions are included. These studies focus on intravenous and oral use of the herbs (and are largely conducted on rats). I found no data on whether inserting these herbs in the vagina has any effect on the uterus.
The sales portion of the Embrace Pangaea site walks back its claims slightly, warning users that “Information and statements regarding dietary/herbal products have not been evaluated by the food and drug administration, and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or health condition.” Since they acknowledge that the pearls serve no health function, it leaves one to assume that the only purpose of using these is to make your vagina smell like a garden party.
Of course, companies behind womb detox programs neglect to inform you of the very real risks that may come with their use. Like douching, these herbs may disrupt the good bacteria (lactobacilli) in your vagina, causing harm to the natural balance that it claims to restore. The textured mesh wrapping of the pearls may irritate and scratch your vaginal walls, increasing susceptibility to infection. As is the case with tampons, a foreign object left in your vagina for 24 hours can put you at risk for toxic shock syndrome (despite the outraged blog post on Embrace Pangaea’s site strenuously denying this, it’s true that leaving any foreign object in the vagina can serve as a potential nidus for bad bacteria to grow).
Whatever success these companies have had can be attributed to the factors they implicitly prey on: a combination of fear, miseducation, and lack of access to health care, as well as a heavy dose of pandering to ideas of female strength and purity. Womb detox enters the scene under the guise of empowering “wombmen” (!) to protect and restore the “foundation (of their) stability.” It reduces women to their wombs, positioning the uterus as the biological equivalent of a Captain Planet ring—the source of our power and how we interact with the world. The deliberate use of the word “womb,” which evokes images of motherhood and femininity, rather than the word clinical word “uterus,” is a clever PR trick. Lifting the uterus up in importance with the heart and brain, detox companies urge women to purge all of the emotional grief and trauma from their wombs, the conduit for “bringing souls into this world.”
In reality, women who use these products in their vaginas are either throwing their money away or risking very real damage to their reproductive health. Your womb naturally purges itself via the menstrual cycle. There are no emotions and toxins stuck in your uterus. It does not need to have its balance restored, it needs to be left alone (or attended to by a healthcare professional). Do not torture it by stuffing a ball of herbs inside your vagina.
In general, the word “detox” should immediately set off alarm bells; programs that claim to cleanse your body of dreaded toxins are either pointless exercises in ascetic living or dangerous practices that can have a serious effect on an individual’s wellbeing. But people continue to be duped into believing that these strange, often grueling regimens will do a better job of detoxifying their body than their liver and kidneys. They won’t. I wish every dollar spent on detox pearls could have been spent on a doctor’s visit, or a donation to Planned Parenthood: two institutions that might actually do a “wombman” some good.
Caroline Weinberg has previously written about science and health at Eater, Vice Motherboard, Aeon, the Washington Post, and a few dry academic publications. You can find her on Twitter @ckw583.