Saturday, April 24, 2010

Sexism as a public health issue?: Chemicals and their toxicity in female “beauty” products

I wrote this for my last "Math/Science/Technology" course as an undergraduate. I used feminist theory in a science paper and it was really fun.

TITLE: Sexism as a public health issue?: Chemicals and their toxicity in female “beauty” products

What is wrong with a vagina? Is there a particular way that a vagina ought to smell, look, or taste? The industrial beauty complex and capitalism has certainly decided that vaginas are smelly, bad, ugly, and even colored wrong. How do issues grounded in patriarchy and sexism connect to issues of public health? What could be in these products that may be causing far more harm than the so-called “good” the companies claim their products do?

To explain the theoretical lens I am looking at this through, I will define a few terms. One term being patriarchy which is “rule of fathers… [generally] patriarchy characterizes the pervasive control men exercise over social, economic, and political power, and resources” (Ford, 2002, p. 2). Feminist theory has also informed the theoretical lens and interest for this paper. bell hooks defined feminism as, “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (2000, viii). Feminism can also be defined in a less activism and more academic approach, as it:

provides a direct challenge to the gendered world, as well as to patriarchy, capitalism, and the sexist assumptions that women’s differences from renders them inherently inferior (Ford, 2002, p. 19).

Since I wanted to explore products that contain chemicals that are marketed for the female body, I felt it was important to define the theoretical lens in which I am critically analyzing this issue. The products and chemicals that I wanted to further study have implications on the female body and prove the industrial beauty complex continued control of the female body.

The two chemicals I want to analyze are sodium hydroxide and benzethonium chloride. These are toxic chemicals that have huge health implications and benzethonium chloride has been listed as a poison in Sweden and Canada (Erickson and Neet, 2010). These products are also marketed strictly for the female body and there is nothing in comparison for the male body. The products that I want to analyze are a product by South Beach called “Lightening gel for sensitive areas” (here) which contains the sodium hydroxide and the other product that contains the benzethonium chloride is “Summer's Eve Deodorant Spray” (here).

The South Beach lightening gel is a gel-like substance that is put on the vagina with a cotton swab-like applicator. The website claims the product “was discovered by beauty-conscious celebrities who wanted to enhance the appearance of their intimate areas.” The website went on to claim that these celebrities went to salons in which harsh chemicals were used, yet sodium hydroxide is in their product and the only mention of it is in their list of ingredients. They claim the discolored and darker areas of the “intimate” areas are embarrassing and their product can help with that (here).

Summer Eve is a company that produces “hygiene” products for the female body. In the 1970’s, they tried to use the Women’s Liberation Movement as a marketing ploy to sell a product they called, “The Freedom Spray” (here), which they seem to be still doing (they claim to be woman-focused/friendly). The product from Summer Eve that I wanted to focus on is a deodorant spray. The company claims this product is safe enough to be sprayed directly on the vagina area and helps “control odor … and to stay fresh and clean” (here).

The way that these companies make assumptions about the female body is not pro-woman at all. It continues to degrade and objectify the female body. Using science to analyze the chemicals in these products is a leverage to start supporting who/what the female body looks like, instead of using science and marketing to make new products creating the “ideal” female body.

Finally, the rest of this paper will be focused on the two chemicals. The chemicals will be defined, analyzed, and I will provide case studies for each chemical the health consequences that were found in the studies. This paper is certainly not an exhausted list of case studies for each chemical or is it an exhausted list of chemicals found in female “beauty” products, however crossing science and toxicology with feminism and women’s studies is an important step to be more inclusive for these two disciplines. It opens the disciplines to more dialogue and lets feminist theory be a part of science and lets science be a part of women’ studies.

Sodium Hydroxide
Sodium hydroxide is a “white crystalline substance that readily absorbs carbon dioxide and moisture from the air. It is very soluble in water, alcohol, and glycerin. It is a caustic and a strong base” (Here). It is also a white solid and can be found pellets, grates, and granules. It can also be found in a 50% saturated solution (et al). It is used mostly for chemical purposes in manufacturing and helps manufacture other chemicals. It is also inexpensive, thus making it a benefit for industries to use. It’s chemical property is: NaOH(aq) + HCl(aq) → NaCl(aq) + H2O(l). Other names for sodium hydroxide are lye and caustic soda.

The Dow Chemical Company is the largest manufacturer of sodium hydroxide in the world. According to their website, sodium hydroxide is used for manufacturing, pulp and paper, textiles, bleach manufacturing, petroleum products, aluminum production, and chemical processing. It is also used for “water treatment, cleaners for beverage bottles, cleaning products such as drain and pipe cleaners, oven cleaner and other household cleaning products and home soap making” (here). According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), “it is commonly present in commercial drain and oven cleaners.” It is very corrosive and in the USA it is not considered carcinogenic.

According to ATSDR’s ToxFAQ’s, some of the health risks involved with sodium hydroxide are irritation of the nose, throat, and respiratory airways. It can produce similar asthmatic symptoms. It can also inflame the lungs and cause fluid build-up. Indigestion can cause vomiting, chest and stomach pains, and difficulty in swallowing. Skin and eye contact can cause irritation and severe burns. In rare and severe cases it can cause clouding and blindness of the eye (here).

Case studies: health implications of sodium hydroxide
In a study by Brender and Harris, they explored the consequences of public health after the accidental release of sodium hydroxide in a public water supply in Texas in 1993. They discovered that much of the literature related to injury resulted from sodium hydroxide were based on ingestion or contact of cleaners. However, their study focused on the health consequences of a public health issue that affected many people.

The results of the study showed that 44.6% of the patients had contact with sodium hydroxide through their skin and that the most common (32%) symptom was burning of the skin. Some of these patients also had first-degree burns. With the follow-up question, people still reported health issues such as skin pain (only 23% sent responses back, however).

In a study cited by the National Library of Medicine HSDB Database (here), Mackison, Stricoff, and Partridge (1981) found:

On the skin, solutions of about 25 to 50% cause the sensation of irritation within about 3 minutes; with solutions of 4% this does not occur until after several hours. If not removed from the skin, severe burns with deep ulceration will occur; Exposure to the dust or mist may cause multiple small burns, with temporary loss of hair.

Another study cited by the National Library of Medicine HSDB Database, Lewis (1996) found, “has a marked corrosive action upon all body tissue. ... dangerous.” This finding was similar to a study cited in the National Library of Medicine HSDB Database by Environment Canada (1981) that found:

Skin contact; Levels of toxic effect: (1) There is not necessarily an immediate sensation of irritation or pain. (2) Primary irritant dermatitis. (3) Multiple small burns with temporary loss of hair. (4) Deterioration of keratin material. (5) Intracellular edema. (6) Severe burns, corrosion of tissue, and deep ulcerations.

While I did find studies that affected other parts of the body from exposure to sodium hydroxide, I wanted to focus on the skin because of the lightening gel product sold by South Beach and how it is a product for the skin. Finally, the National Library of Medicine HSDB Database state (et al):

Alkaline corrosives cause liquefaction necrosis. They saponify the fats in the cell membrane, destroying the cell and allowing deep penetration into mucosal tissue. In gastrointestinal tissue an initial inflammatory phase may be followed by tissue necrosis (sometimes resulting in perforation), then granulation finally stricture formation.

Epidemiology reports also state that exposure is common because of it’s prevalence in household products, however serious exposure happen more in third world countries than in industrialized countries.


Benzethonium chloride is a “manufactured chemical used in detergents, deodorants, astringents, topical antiseptics, cold sterilization techniques and spermicides” (Caldwell). Usually it is used in ways that other chemicals and processes will delude it, so this prevents some of the toxicity of the chemical. However, I found studies and articles that supported how the chemical is carcinogenic (as Sweden and Canada declared).

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Household Products Database, “benzethonium chloride is synthetic quaternary ammonium salt. This compound is an odorless white solid; soluble in water. It has surfactant, antiseptic, and anti-infective properties” (here). One of the largest manufacturers of it in the USA is Alsuisse of America Inc. The molecular formula is C27H42NO2.Cl.

According to NIOSH’s International Chemical Safety Cards and Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazard, it can cause redness and pain of the skin, redness, blurred vision and serve deep burns of the eyes, and nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. It can also cause convulsions, shock, and/or collapse.

Case studies: the health implications of benzethonium chloride
In a study cited by the National Library of Medicine HSDB Database (here),
Goodman and Gilman (1975) found vaginal irritation that included burning sensations and itching from the use of spermicides that contained benzethonium chloride. Another study that was cited by Verschueren (1983) found that benzethonium chloride is “highly toxic by ingestion; 1 gram may be fatal.” This was similar to the findings of Dreisbach (1977) who found that 1 to 3 grams had proven to be fatal by accidental ingestion and Budavari (1989) found that, “ingestion may cause vomiting, collapse, convulsions, coma.”

The National Library of Medicine states:

Many consumer and other products containing small amounts of cationic detergents are coded to this document, primarily due to the potential for eye and skin irritation. There are insufficient data to determine a "non-toxic" amount following ingestion of non-corrosive concentrations (here).


Sodium hydroxide and benzethonium chloride have numerous health issues, most of the implications are if the exposure is long term and a specific amount. However, benzethonium chloride is listed as a poison in Canada and Sweden, but why not here? Perhaps this points to the power that corporations have with lobbying groups that have for the Congress and Senate.

Not only do these chemicals have huge health implications, but they are also in products that claim to provide women with more self-confidence to get rid of “embarrassing” aspects of their vagina when the “embarrassing” aspects are natural parts of the female body.

While this paper would be considered a secondary research paper, as I did not perform research on sodium hydroxide and benzethonium chloride, I provided the information and studies to look at the toxicity of these chemicals and risks that may follow. The theoretical lens in which I used was to provide the reader with an understanding as to why I wanted to research sodium hydroxide and benzethonium chloride.

In future research, perhaps some areas to explore would be the health consequences on long-term use of South Beach lightening gel and Summer Eve deodorant spray (and other similar products, as there are many). Since the studies I found provided a basis to understand what sodium hydroxide and benzethonium chloride does to the skin, a hypothesis could be formed on what may happen to the vagina.

The issues of patriarchy and sexism and how they connect to public health could start being answered with this paper and more research. One could study how patriarchy and sexism provides a reason to market such products as vaginal lightening gels and deodorant sprays and how this leads to health consequences for women, as well as low self-esteem and a “normalized” and internalized view of the “ideal” female body.


Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. (2002). ToxFAQs™ for Sodium Hydroxide (NaOH).

Brender, J. D. & Harris, R. (1998). Community exposure to sodium hydroxide in a public water supply. Journal of Environmental Health, 61, 4-21.

Caldwell, M. (n.d.) Benzethonium Chloride Side Effects. E-how: Public Health and Safety Fact Sheets.

Erickson, D. & Neet, J. (2010). Benzyl chloride added to toxic list. Lexocology.

Ford, L.E., (2002). Women and Politics: The Pursuit of Equality. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

hooks, b. (2000). Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety. (n.d.). International chemical safety cards: Benzethonium chloride.

National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety. (2005). NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazard (DHHS NIOSH Publication No. 2005-149). Pittsburgh, PA.

National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Hazardous Substance Data Bank.

Sodium hydroxide. (n.d.) In Encyclopædia online. Retrieved from

The Dow Chemical Company. (n.d). Product Safety Assessment (PSA): Caustic Soda. Product Safety. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2009). Household Products Database: Health & Safety Information on Household Products.

Wright, A. (2010). The 6 Weirdest Things Women Do to Their Vaginas.


  1. Awesome opening sentence!

  2. Supraveni Chemicals manufactures plenty of chemical products like sodium sulphate, sulphuric acid, nitric acid, hydrochloric acid, barium sulphate & sodium hydroxide, for more details visit

  3. Supraveni Chemicals manufactures plenty of chemical products like sodium sulphate, sulphuric acid, nitric acid, hydrochloric acid, barium sulphate & sodium hydroxide, for more details visit

  4. Great information..! Thanks for sharing, In today’s world Sexism as a public health issue and there are many type of solution are available but the most important things is that which type of product to suitable for skin. if you want to any type of skin treatment is your best option for a safe skin.