K-Beauty’s sexual wellness wave is not what it seems

On the surface, this growth of feminine care products among K-beauty brands might seem like an indicator of blossoming sex positivity and celebration of women’s bodies. However, Jiwon suspects there’s something more sinister behind big brands entering this market. The fact that feminine washes exist so prevalently is a sign of the K-beauty industry employing “shame marketing,” she says. 

Melissa Mauskar, MD, an associate professor of dermatology, as well as obstetrics and gynaecology, at UT Southwestern Medical Center, couldn’t agree more. “We are taught that vulvas and vaginas are ‘dirty,'” she says. “And if we ‘clean it,’ then, we can make the itch and pain go away.”

Vaginas don’t need to be cleaned, though. The doctors I interviewed even bring up a statement you may have heard before: The vagina is a self-cleaning oven. When it’s healthy, it is naturally acidic and has a low pH, which protects it from bacterial and yeast overgrowth, says Jill Krapf, MD, a board-certified OB/GYN who specialises in vulvar pain conditions at The Center for Vulvovaginal Disorders in Washington, D.C. 

Needless to say, washing your vaginal area yourself with cleansers and other products can throw off that natural pH and lead to everything you’re trying to avoid by using them: vaginitis, vaginal infections, discharge, and skin irritation. They can even worsen underlying skin conditions and strip away the vagina’s natural moisturisers. Instead of reaching for feminine washes, “People need to talk to their dermatologist or gynaecologist if they are having problems,” Dr. Mauskar adds. 

Jiwon learned that some K-beauty brands planned to break through the market’s saturation with shame marketing at a dinner party in South Korea in 2017. When she asked what the tactic entailed, a man in attendance explained that it “targets women’s insecurities to create an entirely new territory of the market,” recounts Jiwon. The man proceeded to list off a product that dyes vulvas pink to make them seem younger and more desirable to men as an example. “I thought that was super violent,” Jiwon tells me, “but that still exists anyway.”

Feminine washes were just the beginning. Right now, the market is starting to flood with “inner perfumes,” which are fragrances meant to be added to your underwear to supposedly help your vagina smell better and decrease any itching or discomfort.  Ads for them are all over social media, Jiwon says. 

When I tell Dr. Mauskar about these perfumes, she immediately says, “Yikes,” before clarifying that fragrances are some of the most common causes of allergic reactions on the vulva. Like feminine washes, inner perfumes can also exacerbate exasperate underlying skin conditions, such as psoriasis, lichen sclerosus, and atopic dermatitis, and make them harder to diagnose. And if you’re truly concerned about vaginal odors, “It is best to check with a gynecologist to rule out bacterial vaginosis or other vaginal infections that may require treatment,” instead of trying to cancel it out with harmful, irritating scents, Dr. Krapf adds. 

Focusing on Wellness 

Yanghee also attributes the rise of K-beauty’s sexual wellness sector to Koreans’ obsession with health and wellness. She believes women, in particular, will take any measure that they believe will protect their reproductive functions — whether that means maintaining their pH balance with the feminine washes, lubes, and condoms, or in Rael’s case, using organic period products, to “have a healthy womb and vagina,” she explains.