"Steaming" Your Vagina
The Claim: As you sit over a pan of steaming water containing herbs such as mugwort and lavender, the vaginal tissues supposedly absorb the healing properties of those plants. Many cultures have used vaginal steams for centuries (in Korea they're called chai-yok; in Central and South America, bajos). No one seemed to notice, however, until Gwyneth Paltrow nearly broke the Internet in January with a blog post about the V-steam at a Los Angeles spa that is purported to do everything from balance hormones to "cleanse" the uterus.
The Verdict: While anecdotal accounts boast that steaming can aid with menstrual cramps, painful sex, and even infertility, there's no published evidence confirming any of the claims, says Tieraona Low Dog, M.D., who's been an adviser to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
Yes, steaming will boost blood flow to the genitals, which is healthy for the tissue, but there are other, safer ways to accomplish that, says Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., a clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the Yale School of Medicine. Orgasms do the trick nicely, for one. "Sex is a much better idea than steam," says Minkin. Docs agree that the risks—burning tender tissue, drying out the skin, and disrupting the pH balance of the vagina—far outweigh the unlikely perks. "I would not recommend this under any circumstance," says Lauren Streicher, M.D., of Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. SKIP IT
Fighting Yeast with Yogurt
The Claim: You can calm a yeast infection by putting yogurt on your tampon. Good-guy bacteria in yogurt curb organisms that feed the infection, believers say.
The Verdict: Try it with yogurt that contains live cultures if you're in a pinch. It won't clear up the infection, but it could help relieve some of the itch if you're nowhere near a drugstore and don't mind a bit of mess. "Many women find it soothing," says Minkin—although there's no clarity yet on how it helps dim the crawl-out- of-your-skin discomfort.
When you can, head to the pharmacy to pick up an over-the-counter cream, pellet, or pill to get rid of the problem with a research-backed solution. Why do you still need a treatment, even if the itch feels as if it's gone? The strain of lactobacillus bacteria in yogurt isn't the exact one that populates a healthy vagina and that helps keep infections at bay, so you may not actually be cured. TRY IT
Using Coconut Oil for Lube
The Claim: Proponents say that the multitasking tub of oil in your kitchen cabinet has an unusual alternative use. It does the trick in the bedroom as well as any other product specifically sold as lube.
The Verdict: "Coconut oil is a nice option for some women who are looking for a natural lubricant," says Low Dog. Choose a product that contains only (irony alert) virgin coconut oil. "I prefer it because it's not bleached or deodorized, like refined oil is," she says.
Try doing a patch test elsewhere before using it down under just to make sure your skin is OK with it. Then keep tabs on what's happening after you use it. Discontinue, of course, if you notice any irritation.
Who shouldn't use coconut oil: Anybody who relies on condoms for birth control and/or protection from sexually transmitted infections. Coconut oil can weaken the latex and lead to breakage. Also, one small study showed that coconut oil might impair sperm motility, so maybe stay away if you're in baby-making mode. (But no—it's not a contraceptive!)
You'll also want to spread a towel underneath you so nothing gets on your sheets. Got all that? Then go ahead and give coconut oil a shot. TRY IT
Taking Kegels High Tech
The Claim: These devices help you do the little pelvic muscle squeezes called Kegels correctly. Good form helps strengthen muscles, boosts your sexual pleasure, and keeps pee problems away.
The Verdict: Kegels work, but you have to do them regularly and do them right. One 2015 University of Massachusetts study found that of women who knew about Kegels, 40% were doing them wrong. Some new high-tech devices are aiming to change that.
With kGoal ($149, by Minna) and Elvie ($169), you insert a small tamponlike device and get feedback via a smartphone app on how well you're squeezing it. Both give you exercise programs that are personalized according to how strong your muscles are.
Sound crazy? Perhaps. But one of these might be just what you need to make sure you're doing Kegels correctly and to stay motivated to practice them consistently, says urogynecologist Cynthia Hall, M.D., of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. "Just like working up to being able to do more biceps curls at the gym, with these devices, you can see that you're getting somewhere," she says.
The gadgets may seem awkward at first, but a strong pelvic floor helps you control bladder leaks and pelvic organ prolapse (when the uterus, bladder, or rectum bulges into the vagina, causing discomfort, incontinence, and bowel issues).
If you want to get results without the tech, ask your gynecologist to check your form. Then make Kegels a daily ritual. "I always tell patients to do them after they've urinated but before they stand back up," recommends Hall. "Do 10 quick ones and five slow ones. If you do that each time you go to the bathroom, you'll ft in more than enough." TRY IT
Working Out for a Better Sex Life
The Claim: Certain types of exercise, like yoga and cardio, help you feel more satisfied with sex.
The Verdict: Docs have known for years that exercise is good for your sex life. "A woman who exercises gains strength, energy, and flexibility; is better able to sleep and relax; and feels better about her body," says Cindy Meston, Ph.D., director of the Sexual Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin. "All those things help her enjoy and respond to sex more readily."
Now research shows that certain exercises might be even more powerful than others. Yoga, for one. A study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that when women did an hour of yoga a day for 12 weeks, 74% of them reported significant improvements in their sex lives—possibly thanks to better pelvic muscle tone and a calmer mind. Do you need to do yoga daily? That's not clear, but even a weekly class is worth a try.
Or, get your blood pumping with cardiovascular exercise and you'll open a short window afterward when your body responds more quickly and intensely during sex, Meston says. (In her research, 20 minutes of cardio led to a 150% boost in blood flow to the genitals.) Who cares if you're sweaty? Just do it. TRY IT
Sunning Your V
The Claim: Early last year, actress Shailene Woodley sang the praises of getting vitamin D directly to her privates—yeah, by sunbathing bottomless—to keep them free of yeast infections and other nuisances.
The Verdict: Not only is this ridiculous, dermatologist Chrysalyne Schmults, M.D., of Harvard Medical School says it may be downright dangerous. The area may be more vulnerable to the risks of sun exposure since it's lacking in two things that provide a little protection elsewhere: a layer of dead skin cells and melanocytes, the same cells that produce a tan, says Schmults.
Vulvar carcinoma, a type of cancer in the vaginal area, happens to about 5,000 women a year and has a scarier prognosis than similar cancers elsewhere on the body. Best to keep your private parts the way they're meant to be…private. SKIP IT
3 More Things to Definitely Skip!
Gynos have long advised against these. You'vebeen listening, right?
The three big reasons women say they douche—they believe it's good hygiene, want to wash sperm away to prevent pregnancy, and think they'll smell prettier—actually have no validity, says Northwestern University's Streicher. "The vagina is self-cleaning," she says, and douching can change its pH balance, which may make you smell worse and leave you more susceptible to infection. On top of that, it's not a contraceptive, and it can raise your risk of ectopic pregnancy and pelvic inflammatory disease by propelling bacteria deep into your system. Bad idea.
Hear this: Your vagina is a body part, and it's not meant to smell like roses. But if you feel you have an odor problem—or you notice a distinct change in the way you smell—you need a gyno exam, not a product. All a deodorizer does is mask an odor-producing problem—like bacterial vaginosis, a forgotten tampon, or incontinence—and put of medical intervention that can actually solve the whole situation.
"A lot of women think Viagra will increase their libido, but it's not a libido drug," says Streicher. Viagra is approved for men only and works by helping them get an erection. Studies in women found that only certain groups got any benefits, like those who lost their ability to be aroused after going on an antidepressant or who had blood flow issues from diabetes or cardiovascular disease. If this is you, don't steal a blue pill from your guy's medicine cabinet. Talk to your doc about safely prescribing the drug off-label.
This story originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.