I don’t think I’ve ever posted something online that elicited as much alarm as the time I said I was going to try a vulva face mask. To be fair, my clumsy wording led to some confusion: was this a face mask infused with the essence of vulva? Or a mask for the face that looks like a vulva, turning the wearer into something Donald Trump either has nightmares or wet dreams about, depending on the news cycle? Unfortunately, the truth is only mildly less weird: TWO L(I)PS Blackout is an infrared-activated charcoal sheet mask for your vulva.
It comes from the Ministry Of Waxing and, according to the press release, it has already been hailed as a “game-changer” for feminine care in Singapore. Apparently, this mask “puts the vulva front and centre of a woman’s cleansing and maintenance regime”. (Note: if you find your vulva is not front and centre at any point, please seek medical attention). It works in a “four-step process to detoxify, soothe, brighten and moisturise the vulva, drawing out toxins and improving lymphatic drainage”, and TWO L(I)PS founder, Cynthia Chua, says that she wants to “really break the taboo and the stigma surrounding the vulva and vagina”.
As part of my constant quest to not judge things before I’ve tried them – even things that make me want to hide in a cupboard until the world starts making sense again – I gave it a go.
Reader, it was horrible. Even with the curated Spotify playlist and lovely packet of herbal tea the mask came with (*Jim Halpert look to camera*), there is no way that taking a cold, soggy piece of charcoal and tucking it into your nether regions is ever, ever, going to be a pleasant experience. They’ve tried to make the mask itself cute – it has a sheet of lace over the top of it, so when it’s on it looks a bit like you’re wearing fancy knickers, and it has two flaps that you’re supposed to tuck around your, er, flaps, so it looks a bit like a bunny – but that can’t change how it feels on your body. Imagine sitting in a bowl of cold custard. Imagine throwing jelly at a sheet of clingfilm and wearing it as pants. You know Slimer, the green blob from Ghostbusters? Imagine having sex with him. That’s what this sheet mask felt like.
But, bugger me, it made a difference. I could feel it the second I stood up, and see it with the aid of before-and-after photos that give me a heart attack every time someone so much as glances at my phone. In the words of my husband, who I made stick his hand down my PJs when he got home from work: “Ooo, it feels plumper!” I don’t know how much of it was down to the sheet mask itself and how much was just down to increased blood flow because of how cold it was, but there was definitely some kind of change – even if it had worn off by the next morning.
So, superficially at least, the mask did something. What about its claims of working “in a four-step process to detoxify, soothe, brighten and moisturise the vulva, drawing out toxins and improving lymphatic drainage”? For a start, you can’t detox your body, so let’s throw that straight out. And improving “lymphatic drainage”? It seems that’s nonsense, too.
I spoke with Yasmin Walters – who works with teen site Betty’s education program on all things gynaecological – about the possible health benefits of the mask (like lymphatic drainage), and, perhaps unsurprisingly, she confirmed my initial reaction.
“Lymph drainage is just not something that is a problem for most healthy people,” said Walters. “It’s not a recognised problem in vulvas, and even if it was, a mask wouldn’t help. The only way to treat lymphedema is to wrap the legs tightly and literally force the fluid back where it came from.”
The mask also claims it can “improve female hygiene” and that it contains “deodorising properties”. These, along with the fact that, apparently, TWO L(I)PS will be expanding its range with a luxurious feminine wash and fragrance, raised alarm bells for Walters. Firstly, because you don’t need to do anything to your vulva to keep it clean – gynaecologists say that you should treat the vulva like a self-cleaning oven and leave it the hell alone – and secondly because putting anything other than water near your bits is likely to send them a bit haywire. “You don’t want to risk upsetting your lady garden pH,” Walters says. “You run the risk of getting fungal infections and bacterial vaginosis.”
The website is full of pictures of sad, wilting roses turning back into pretty pink blooms, and comparing my vulva to a dead rose isn’t really making me feel great about it
Is there any real benefit to slapping a mask on your vag, then? That the mask has been creating by Ministry Of Waxing, might be indicative that it would be more beneficial to someone who shaves or waxes their pubic hair – something I couldn’t test, as my intimate-grooming regime consists of running my husband’s beard trimmer over my crotch once a month (I’m such a catch). Walters agreed. “Face masks can be nice and soothing, and vulva masks no doubt offer the same sensation. It could be great following whatever way you may wish to rid your body of hair (although beware of broken skin!). However, the lymphatic-drainage theory is bumph and it’s certainly not going to make you (or your lady bits) look younger – whatever that would even mean to you.” Considering the Blackout masks are £17 apiece and it recommends you use them for five days consecutively, that’s a high price to pay for a slightly soothed crotch.
A cynic may proffer, then, that this is little more than cashing in. Because, societally, it’s hardly a secret that we’re in a bit of a tizzy about our vulvas at the moment. There was a 39% increase in the number of people getting labiaplasty (cosmetic surgery on the labia) in 2016, and last year an international survey suggested that it’s the fastest growing cosmetic surgery in the world. In January, Jo’s Trust said 34% of young women were skipping smear tests because they were insecure about how their vulva looked. We are raising a nation of people worried that their vulvas are ugly, and I am one of them – the first time I had a smear test I sobbed throughout, because I was so ashamed of my vulva’s appearance.
The question is, are sheet masks going to improve the way we feel about our bodies – or merely feed our existing insecurities? TWO L(I)PS uses a lot of language around celebrating the vulva, about breaking taboos and about wanting to look after your bits the same way you’d look after any other part of your body, which I am very in favour of. But the Blackout mask is a continuation of the Ministry Of Waxing’s Rosebud Vajuvenation treatment, which is an anti-ageing treatment for your vulva. The website is full of pictures of sad, wilting roses turning back into pretty pink blooms, and comparing my vulva to a dead rose isn’t really making me feel great about it. I had never in my life thought about whether my vulva is ageing until discovering these products. This week, I’ve suddenly found myself worrying that it’s something else I should be worrying about.
I would absolutely love for us to do what TWO L(I)PS says it wants to do – namely, remove shame around our vulvas and start thinking about/looking after them as we would any other part of our bodies. But I don’t think a prohibitively expensive sheet mask that celebrates the vulva in one breath and calls it old, dry and dull in the next is going to do that. Hopefully, one day, we’ll get to a point where we talk about our vulvas with as much nonchalance as we do our elbows – and there are projects like The Great Wall of Vagina and The Vulva Gallery that are taking steps to get us there. In the meantime, if capitalism could just keep its hands off my hoo-hah that’d be great, ta.