Vaginal douching and racial/ethnic disparities in phthalates exposures among reproductive-aged women: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2001-2004

Environ Health. 2015 Jul 15;14:57. doi: 10.1186/s12940-015-0043-6.


Background: Diethyl phthalate (DEP) and di-n-butyl phthalate (DnBP) are industrial chemicals found in consumer products that may increase risk of adverse health effects. Although use of personal care/beauty products is known to contribute to phthalate exposure, no prior study has examined feminine hygiene products as a potential phthalate source. In this study, we evaluate whether vaginal douching and other feminine hygiene products increase exposure to phthalates among US reproductive-aged women.

Methods: We conducted a cross-sectional study on 739 women (aged 20-49) from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2001-2004 to examine the association between self-reported use of feminine hygiene products (tampons, sanitary napkins, vaginal douches, feminine spray, feminine powder, and feminine wipes/towelettes) with urinary concentrations of monoethyl phthalate (MEP) and mono-n-butyl phthalate (MnBP), metabolites of DEP and DnBP, respectively.

Results: A greater proportion of black women than white and Mexican American women reported use of vaginal douches, feminine spray, feminine powder, and wipes/towelettes in the past month whereas white women were more likely than other racial/ethnic groups to report use of tampons (p < 0.05). Douching in the past month was associated with higher concentrations of MEP but not MnBP. No other feminine hygiene product was significantly associated with either MEP or MnBP. We observed a dose-response relationship between douching frequency and MEP concentrations (p(trend) < 0.0001); frequent users (≥2 times/month) had 152.2% (95% confidence intervals (CI): (68.2%, 278.3%)) higher MEP concentrations than non-users. We also examined whether vaginal douching mediates the relationship between race/ethnicity and phthalates exposures. Black women had 48.4% (95% CI: 16.8%, 88.6%; p = 0.0002) higher MEP levels than white women. Adjustment for douching attenuated this difference to 26.4% (95% CI:-0.9%, 61.2%; p = 0.06). Mediation effects of douching were statistically significant for black-white differences (z = 3.71, p < 0.001) but not for differences between Mexican Americans and whites (z = 1.80, p = 0.07).

Conclusions: Vaginal douching may increase exposure to DEP and contribute to racial/ethnic disparities in DEP exposure. The presence of environmental chemicals in vaginal douches warrants further examination.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • African Americans / statistics & numerical data
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects
  • Environmental Exposure / analysis
  • Environmental Pollutants / adverse effects
  • Environmental Pollutants / analysis
  • Ethnic Groups / statistics & numerical data
  • European Continental Ancestry Group / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Feminine Hygiene Products / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Mexican Americans / statistics & numerical data
  • Middle Aged
  • Phthalic Acids / adverse effects*
  • Phthalic Acids / urine*
  • United States
  • Vaginal Douching / adverse effects*
  • Young Adult


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Phthalic Acids
  • phthalic acid