Kardashian-ing Your Vulva? No Thanks
In a mix of French and Spanish, Protégé Intima means “an intimate protected one,” which is the worst euphemism for female genitalia this side of “lady garden.” It’s also the name for a cosmetic device that uses heat to stimulate collagen production and alter the appearance of the labia.
Cosmetic surgeons say the treatment, informally known as “vontouring”—contouring spelled with a V, get it?—mimics the effects of a labiaplasty for a fraction of the cost. The manufacturer BTL Aesthetics also claims that the device improves self-confidence and enhances sexual pleasure by tightening the vaginal opening.
But OB/GYNs tell The Daily Beast that you should be wary of these claims: “Vontouring” is not comparable to a labiaplasty, its effects are still unproven, and your labia are probably just fine the way they are.
A 2013 study published by the manufacturer of Protégé Intima (PDF) outlines how it works: The device emits “oscillating electrical current” to the vulva, producing heat and stimulating fibroblasts, or collagen-producing cells. The labia shrink slightly and become firmer as a result.
The treatment itself takes around 12 minutes or, as the study puts it, “6 minutes per one side of vulva.” According to one woman who received the treatment in the U.K., “All you feel is a bit of heat and in about 45 minutes it was over.”
Each of the four recommended sessions of Protégé Intima costs around $300, much less than the several-thousand dollar price tag for a labiaplasty, a cosmetic surgical procedure that alters the appearance of the vulva. But comparing Protégé Intima to a labiaplasty, says OB/GYN and blogger Dr. Jennifer Gunter, is disingenuous.
“It’s not going to dramatically reshape your labia,” she told The Daily Beast. “It’s kind of like comparing a chemical peel to a facelift—they’re totally different things.”
Not only does the labiaplasty comparison fail but widespread reports of its FDA approval are also misleading.
On the surface, Protégé Intima might seem similar to the Mona Lisa Touch, a new intravaginal laser treatment that stimulates collagen production inside the vagina. But whereas Mona Lisa Touch is an FDA-approved procedure that helps postmenopausal women and breast cancer survivors overcome vaginal dryness and regain normal sexual function, Protégé Intima has not been specifically FDA-approved for “vontouring”—only for other uses—and its purpose is chiefly cosmetic.
And even if Protégé Intima were FDA-approved for use on the labia, that shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a green light to open your legs for it.
“People confuse FDA approval with something that’s been studied, but those aren’t the same thing,” explained Gunter.
Protégé Intima has not been extensively studied. The manufacturer’s study from 2013 concludes that the “use of the device leads to the improvement of the appearance of the vulva and to the improvement of sexual satisfaction,” but the sample size is a mere 10 women, only four of whom reported a “significant-moderate” improvement in sexual satisfaction.
OB/GYN Dr. Leah Torres told The Daily Beast that the study has “many limitations” and “cannot uphold statistical power to make any conclusions or generalizations.”
Pictures in the manufacturer’s study do show labia that have shrunk and become firmer as a result of the treatment but, as Mic reports, apart from this single small study, “no studies specifically mention its use in altering the appearance of the vulva.”
“It’s concerning to me that companies are pushing technology without large trials to back them up,” said Gunter.
But so far, a lack of solid medical information hasn’t stopped women from altering their genitals in increasing numbers over the past few years. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, the popularity of labiaplasty rose 49 percent from 5,070 procedures in 2013 to 7,535 in 2014—this despite the fact that the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists warned in 2007 that cosmetic surgeries like labiaplasty “are not medically indicated, and the safety and effectiveness of these procedures have not been documented.”
If it’s improved genital appearance and self-confidence you’re looking for, Dr. Torres advises considering other options before labiaplasty and/or getting your vulva warmed up by an aesthetician.
“Surgical modification of labia might be considered if there is pain or discomfort resulting from their shape or size. However, concerns about the labia that have to do with body image may be better handled through alternative routes,” she said.
“All labia are beautiful,” she added.
As for the claim that Protégé Intima is not just a cosmetic procedure but one that improves sexual satisfaction as well, both Dr. Torres and Dr. Gunter expressed deep suspicion on this point.
“Given the current level of information about the technology, I think that’s a dubious claim,” said Gunter.
A study with a sample size of 10 women, she explained, could not possibly have accounted for a potential placebo effect: “If you’re doing something that you think is going to have a positive effect on you, you’re more likely to experience that effect.”
“Sexual pleasure may be linked to body image [but] to my knowledge, sexual pleasure or satisfaction has not been linked to the shape or form of one’s labia,” added Torres.
So if you want to enter a vagina beauty contest, Protégé Intima might be up your alley. But if you’re a woman who already deals with an onslaught of advertisements telling you how you can improve your hair, face, breasts, stomach, thighs, calves, fingernails, and feet, consider giving your vulva a break.
“People should not judge the appearance of their vulva any more than they should judge the curvature of their ears,” said Dr. Torres. “That goes for objective observers as well: Thou shalt not judge my vulva.”