Sexual Wellness Products with Rebecca Alvarez
(Part 1 of 2 of our interview derived from The Birth Lounge Podcast Episode 130)
You GUYS. I am SO excited to bring this interview to life here on the blog. Did you know that 98% of all feminine care products has at least 1 toxic ingredient? That's scary! Rebecca Alvarez earned her BA in Women’s Health & Sexuality from UC Berkeley and her MA in Sexuality Studies from San Francisco State and is the founder of The Bloomi. She is joining me to dive deep into what’s wrong with traditional sexual wellness products, how to spot harmful ingredients and false labeling, and what you need to know about long term effects of these issues in sexual wellness and women’s health! So Let's have Rebecca introduce herself!
Rebecca: I consider myself a sexual wellness expert. I'm also an entrepreneur and my passion is bringing clean intimate care products to women and femmes. I'm sure we'll talk about why that's important and what's going on with the industry right now. I'm also a mom and I just had a baby, so I have two girls. I'm very passionate about female health, women's health, motherhood, all of that mixed together. I founded Bloomi last year and it's the first marketplace for clean, intimate care products.
HeHe: That is amazing. I am here for that. Why should we care about period products and our sex toys in terms of ingredients?
Rebecca: This is the one topic that I feel super passionate about. My background is in research and I have a lot of experience in regulatory aspects of bringing a product to market. What I learned over the 10 years, working as a consultant for all these women's health companies was that there's not a lot of thought unfortunately, that goes into the ingredients in our intimate care products. There's lots of reasons for that. The main one is because it's a heavily unregulated field. So that means that somebody who's making a feminine wash follows the same guidelines as someone who's making like a lipstick. Those are two very different parts of the bodies that really require a completely different makeup. There's a stat that we like to share from our company when we were doing our research, that we found that after reviewing about 5,000 products, about 98% had at least one toxic ingredient.
So you can kind of get an idea of what I'm talking about. When I say the majority of the products on the market still have a lot of work to do. And by toxic ingredients, we're talking about things that could just irritate your skin, like cause an infection, meaning like a yeast infection or a rash, or even bacterial vaginosis. But sometimes even more aggressive health implications that are affecting your entire body. A lot of these ingredients have been linked to cancer. So overall, the reason that we're so passionate about these products clean is because they're so few of them actually meeting the bar and doing right by women.
HeHe: I feel like if you're gonna call yourself a health product or like a health care product you should certainly help my health, right?
Rebecca: It's pretty wild how unregulated it is. I think there's this wave of education that's happening, where a lot of people are more interested in the natural and the organic. So there is a shift of consumers wanting companies to be transparent, but it just blows my mind how crappy these ingredients can still be. Let's take a step back just to share what intimate care products mean is it's everything from hygiene- like your feminine wash, your wipes, your moisturizer (like a labial moisturizer), period products (tampons, pads, reusable products like menstrual cups), and then also sexual wellness (Lubricants, sex books, toys, etc).
HeHe: I think that, again, a lot of people do not think about this when they're thinking about clean living. I just don't think that vaginal care like feminine care products is on that list. So it is well known that a lot of ingredients aren't disclosed and that a lot of them are really icky, but what does that mean? No one ever really tells us what's actually in tampons and pads.
Rebecca: You know, I feel like tampons and pads in particular have gotten a lot of like heat in the past couple years. So you don't find as many that have bleach, but the main problem with organic or not organic with cotton products is that the majority of the cotton that people are using to create these products- they have contaminants. So those contaminants come from just raising the crops. So herbicides, pesticides, and a lot of times there are additional ingredients that manufacturers like to put in to make them highly absorbent. And that's where companies really get into trouble. Because something as simple as like absorbency means that there's hidden ingredients in there that we may not know about, like the Kotex scandal about their tampons being made with an ingredient that unraveled inside of women and was causing a lot of like reproductive harm. There's also other ingredients like dioxins and ingredients that normally are an aftermath of raising the cotton. So that's why it's really important that if you are able to, to choose products that are made with organic cotton that way you can just pretty much avoid all of those contaminants that are used when growing the crop.
HeHe: So we keep talking about organic and I honestly feel like everyone these days says they're organic. How do you really know? Because it's still really unregulated. Right?
Rebecca: Yeah. Another thing that we learned at The Bloomi when we were doing our research before we even launched is that 95% of claims that you see on packaging is greenwashing. Greenwashing means they're using marketing claims that are not completely true, or they're saying things like organic lubricant, but it's not truly an organic lubricant. That's just the name of it. So what consumers like us can do is if you're looking for a cotton product, like a tampon or a pad look for the USDA certified organic label. That's pretty easy to find that way that the cotton is really following the strict standards of organic.
Our company just launched something called the banned list. So if you see that a product you are using contains an ingredient that's found in our banned list, I would not recommend using it. And we put a lot of thought with a lot of experts into creating that list. It lists out why we banned them and what they're used in. So I would honestly just take a free evening that you have take the products that you're using. If you don't see the ingredients, that's a bad sign because companies don't have to disclose all the ingredients. So I would not use those. Now, the ones that do have the ingredients - screen them against our list. If there's something on there that's fishy, maybe switch.
And one of the things that I really advocate for is I know that when we say organic, it can be more expensive. So I'm really a big fan of slower transitions or making things as affordable as possible. And we have an article on our blog that talks about making the switch to clean products in a affordable way. And one of the things we recommend is to change the one thing that you use the most. So if you use tampons the most, maybe start there just switching that to a cleaner version will have a positive impact on your health.
HeHe: So, our audience can get the ban list on your website, right? Your emails are amazing as well, if you're going to be on an email list, I do suggest Bloomi's. It's always a good one.
Rebecca: So first of all, the range of topics that you're covering, it's amazing. Like you, I love everything that you're talking about because it's all intertwined. Motherhood, pregnancy, sex- it's all literally something that we should be talking about across the board. One of the things that I'm trying to help the public understand is that I personally support like other brands and specifically female founded companies. I am a big advocate for supporting each other at the same time. I have to be very transparent about what we're doing for The Bloomi and the fact that there's a lot of companies that have false claims. And I can mention to you that out of the feminine washes that I know that you have recommended so far, we have screened them all. The only one that I would personally recommend and that the company recommends today is Healthy Hoo Hoo.
The reason is because part of our screening processes, we take the products and we send them to an independent lab for testing. We send them for pH testing specifically. I know you had a really great podcast on pH testing. Everything was spot on and I love everything that you talked about. People should go back and listen to that because it was really helpful, but, unfortunately some of the feminine washes that say they're pH balanced, contained ingredients on our banned list, like for example glycerin, which is not something that we recommend as a company, because it can damage rectal cells that can potentially cause yeast infections. So long story short, if you don't see a brand or a product on our marketplace, there's a reason behind that.
I have screened hundreds and hundreds of feminine washes. The only one, unfortunately, right now that passes our criteria is the Healthy Hoo Hoo brand. So that's the one that we really advocate for right now.
HeHe: I love the idea of the banned list. The underlying problem for me is kind of the lacking choice. Talk to us a little bit about that. Like what's going on there.
Rebecca: Yeah. So if you go on our website, you'll see that there are certain products that we have very limited selections for. That's because it's really tough to find clean options in this space. And as much as we, you know, we try to provide as much variety as possible. Sometimes even though we've done the homework to understand and screen lots and lots of products, it boils down to, there's only a couple that we recommend at this time.
I have done a lot of research to understand what the ingredients that most companies are still including that they shouldn't be. We are in communication with a lot of really great brands about that. So you can expect slow, positive change moving forward. But for now, the choices that we offer on the website are the ones that have passed our criteria.
HeHe: And this is just a bigger problem. It's not really about, your individual website, we just don't have the options to make these recipes with safe ingredients for women to have safe options. It just sounds so silly, but that's the underlying problem. So how did we get here?
Rebecca: You know, so there's so many things I can say about that. Mainly this has to do with a lot of cultural taboos and a lot of men that were in charge of product manufacturing for these brands. So I am happy to say that there's been a shift in the last few years and you can start to see there's a lot more options and a lot more female-led companies. At the same time, there's just been this whole cultural taboo atmosphere that we've been living in where there's a lot of shame in, for example, vaginal odor. To some extent, some of it is normal, but the idea that a vagina should smell like flowers has really created this industry where there's a lot of fragrance in the items that we use. There's also a lot of money to be made in this industry.
So what happens is a lot of these manufacturers will use cheaper ingredients. It drives up the profit. So that combination of like cultural taboos mixed with companies trying to squeeze out all the profit they can in these products, I think has just created an industry where we have so many products that unfortunately have crappy ingredients. I do think that there's this wave of consumers are driving what we want and people are asking for cleaner options. There's a stat that I read in a new study that said 75% of women are seeking out healthier alternatives to current intimate care products. And that's huge. That means three out of four of us are trying to find cleaner products. So that makes me happy. That means that we're on the right track here.
HeHe: That is amazing. I'm actually a little bit shocked, but in a very proud way. Yes, women. Yes. Yes. I also think that it's kind of unrealistic, unrealistic to think a hundred percent. You're just going to have some women who this is not their jam.
(Stay tuned for part 2 of this AMAZING interview with Rebecca!)