A few weeks ago, my mother sent me a link to an article: "'Herbal womb detox' has women putting fragrant pearls in their vaginas." The piece detailed a supposed new trend in alternative women's health: Companies are selling tiny balls of herbs wrapped in gauze that are intended to be inserted into the vagina—for three days—to "cleanse" or "detox" the womb.
While outlets reported these herbal detox pearls were being sold on Etsy, eBay, and websites like Divine Sacred Space and Seanjari Preeti, the media fixated on the seller Embrace Pangaea. Not only was the company's founder, 24-year-old psychology major Tamieka Atkinson, willing to back up her product to skepticism, but Embrace Pangaea sold the largest variety of herbal pearls that promised different effects. The little balls of motherwort, angelica, borneol, and rhizoma are not only supposed to clean your "womb" of infection but also shrink your fibroids; treat your endometriosis, bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, cysts, pelvic inflammatory disease, and more; and tighten your vagina. More importantly, they will rid the uterus of all the emotional and mental stress that women tend to carry around there, and they will do it naturally. (According to Embrace Pangaea's YouTube channel, the top "root causes of a womb imbalance" include improper consumption, past abuse, and a lack of self-love.)
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"When people lack self-love, they normally try to seek it out from outside sources," one video explains. "Inevitably, they end up filling that void with false love from someone else, mainly in the form of various sexual partners. Engaging in sexual acts with various sexual partners has a negative effect on us because we are a vessel that was created to receive [the 'seed' from men] and carry [a baby through pregnancy]." This leads women to then, in turn, receive and carry "different energies" that "confuse" the womb. In other words, the detox pearls can help cleanse you of the promiscuous behavior that can lead to an unhappy womb and unhappy life. The idea is that both womb and woman need an herbal detox pearl to cleanse out this overwhelming negativity.
Herbal detox pearls were scrutinized by several major sites, but the treatments' most vocal critic was San Francisco gynecologist Dr. Jen Gunter. After someone sent Gunter an article praising the "amazing" effects of the pearls, Gunter wrote a blog post warning women that they were not safe.
"Your uterus isn't tired or depressed or dirty, and your vagina has not misplaced its chakra," Gunter wrote. "These mesh 'pearls' will just be a nidus for infection. The web site actually provides proof of this as they have pictures of what they proudly claim to be the 'discharge' users have removed from their vagina while using the pearls." Gunter is referring to graphic pictures of discharge from happy customers that the site promotes as benefits of using their products; this "discharge" ranges in appearance from clots of blood to a floppy white clump of something that resembles chicken skin. Dr. Gunter later told me over email that "the idea that this discharge was somehow 'hiding' in the vagina and needed to be drawn out with some kind of vaginal poultice is biologically not possible."
Gunter explained that the vagina and uterus are not only self-cleaning organs, but will also warn you with irritation, abnormal discharge, or discomfort when something is wrong; the unusual discharge shown by pearl customers a clear sign of a problem. What's more, leaving a mesh ball of materials inside your vagina for three days could cause toxic shock syndrome and disturb all the positive, anaerobic bacteria that are present in the vagina.
"None of your organs want the kind of help that comes with a 'detox' because they have evolved to take care of themselves in partnership with the rest of your body," warned Dr. Gunter in her blog post. "There is no such thing as a detox or a cleanse, they are fake terms used by snake oil salespeople to lighten wallets."
Many other gynecologists and expert physicians backed up Gunter's allegations, so much so that Embrace Pangaea issued a statement to address the criticism. (When I requested an interview with Atkinson, this is what I received in response.)
"The media bashing and smear campaign of the public is to be expected when it comes to a holistic herbal alternative because it is a new way of life," the company said. "People generally fear new things that they do not understand, or seek to understand."
Some people are truly looking for fast fixes, so they believe the hype.
Scrolling through YouTube revealed several videos of women talking about their experiences with the pearls. According to the site, versions of this spiritual and herbal method of cleansing the womb have been a tradition in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. (Recently, Gwyneth Paltrow came out as an advocate of mugwort vaginal steaming, which is also supposed to be a uterus-cleansing tactic rooted in ancient Chinese medicine. Many sites selling herbal womb detox pearls also offer steaming supplies.) According to Embrace Pangaea, it makes perfect sense that North American medicine would dispute the legitimacy of an herbal womb detox—the West has been denying alternative medicine for hundreds of years.
In one video, a user, Ivy Ruffin, an entrepreneur who sells pearls and other beauty and hygiene products, took her pearls out for the camera, showed the discharge, and talked about why the pearls are important to detox all the poison from your body and your life. She also notes how important it is not to engage in sexual intercourse when detoxing with the pearls: "You are releasing toxic waste onto his penis, and that's very disrespectful," she says in the video. "Not only is it disrespectful to him, but it's very disrespectful to your womb."
In the video, Ruffin also talks about her sister teaching her how to douche—a practice also widely condemned by gynecologists—when she was younger, but she goes further: A simple rinse is not enough. "This," she says referring to the inside of her vagina, "needs to be scrubbed."
In their statement, Embrace Pangaea disputed the claim that herbal womb detox pearls could lead to TSS, though the company agreed that the vagina is self-cleaning; however, the company said that this self-cleaning might be insufficient "due to a person's lifestyle," ultimately stating that the herbal detox pearls are not a menace to society but "a natural herbal alternative that women can make a conscious and informed decision in using."
While some may argue that this is a conflict between gynecologists and pearl pushers is a difference of cultural beliefs and traditions in medicine, others say the nascent trend is based more on a dangerous combination of a growing fixation on "natural" health, a lack of education, and the frustrations of having to cart around such a delicate, infection-prone organ as the vagina.
"Some people are truly looking for fast fixes, so they believe the hype," Dr. Gunter said when I asked her about why this homemade detox plan gained steam. After all, vaginal disorders—and other issues like yeast infections, recurring UTIs, or bacterial vaginosis—are usually difficult to diagnose and treat. Wouldn't it be so much simpler if you could just... flush them out?
Your uterus isn't tired or depressed or dirty, and your vagina has not misplaced its chakra.
"[Many] people [have had] bad experiences with the [Western medical] system," Gunter continued. "Given our attraction to social media, I think the user experience is very powerful, so when one person writes about [herbal detox pearls], it seems to carry more weight than a multitude of studies or biologic principle."
Although Embrace Pangaea's statement is careful to establish that the company is not made up of "medical professionals" and advises women to "seek assistance from their doctor especially if they currently have a gynecological disorder," they seem to be fighting a losing battle. As of writing, my attempts to access herbal womb detox pearls for sale on Etsy directed me to a page that reads, "Uh oh! Sorry, the item listing you are looking for does not exist."
When asked to comment on whether the items had been pulled from the site, an Etsy representative responded, "We can't comment on individual sellers or shops. We are currently researching the safety and legality of these items. Right now, they are able to be sold as long as the listing does not make medical claims and meets our other guidelines for selling."
The herbal womb detox pearls do not meet those guidelines, which state that the sale of medical products that claim "a causal relationship between a substance and the prevention, healing, or treatment of a physical condition or disease" is prohibited. Various brands of herbal womb detox pearls are still available on Amazon and eBay, but it's unclear how long that will last.