Experts React to and Correct Women's Health Misinformation on TikTok
Globally, users spend an average of 95 minutes per day on TikTok, a popular video-sharing app. One in 10 Americans turn to social media for healthcare information or to connect with people with similar health conditions.
Both research and experts warn that social networks can be rife with misinformation. Some physicians use social media to interact with patients. But when someone misrepresents their credentials or offers faulty information, it can put personal and public health in danger. For women's health, which is a fraught sector of the internet, the potential for misinformation may be even greater.
Further, social media influencers wield power over what to buy and who to trust, which makes the rise of influencers sharing health information a land mine because many don't have the credentials to offer medical advice.
"TikTok and other social media outlets can be great places to find information, but getting medical advice from TikTok is not a good idea," said Karen Wheeler, M.D., a reproductive endocrinologist at Reproductive Medicine Associates of Philadelphia.
After spending just a few minutes in the women's health corner of TikTok, misinformation abounds. Every component of women's reproductive health—menstruation, fertility, birth control, vaginal health—has flashy, yet factless, clips. Let's take a look at some of the myths and facts behind the topics.
Myth: You can stop your period with a cocktail of lime juice, Tajín seasoning and salt.
"Holy cow, first of all, I'm not on TikTok, but wow, that is scary that people are actually influenced by nonphysician individuals speaking about human physiology," responded Megan Gray, M.D., an OB-GYN at Orlando Health in Florida.
"The sad thing is that person probably has no idea why and how she has a period every month," Gray continued. "The concoction she created does not 'stop' your period. Prescribed hormonal medications have the capability to stop a period once it starts, but it usually involves high doses and can have side effects, such as nausea/vomiting and DVT [deep vein thrombosis]. We only use these medications when people are having problems with significantly heavy bleeding with periods."
Myth: Want a baby? A nasal massage can help.
"There is absolutely no evidence that massaging your nose will affect your fertility. This video is especially troublesome because the provider looks reputable [wearing a white coat], but there is no medical basis to the recommendations she is making," Wheeler said.
Myth: The HPV vaccine causes infertility.
One systematic review found the HPV vaccine was the type of vaccine most affected by misinformation on social media.
"There is absolutely no evidence that the HPV vaccine causes infertility. Rumors like this are incredibly dangerous and can cause people to avoid potentially lifesaving vaccines. Bottom line, don't take medical advice from someone recording videos in their car," Wheeler said.
The fact is the HPV vaccine is highly effective at preventing cervical cancer, a gynecologic cancer that can impact fertility.
Myth: Your tampon can cause infertility.
"There is some plausibility to endocrine-disrupting chemicals affecting fertility. It is an active area of research. But the statement 'Your tampon can cause infertility' is a big stretch and is just meant to grab your attention," Wheeler said. "There is some truth to the statements [in the TikTok link above], but be careful of bold claims made on social media.
"Switching to unscented tampons and finding other ways to avoid endocrine-disrupting chemicals is good advice, but tampons don't cause infertility," she added.
Struggling with fertility is stressful and financially draining. The average couple spends around $25,000 on in vitro fertilization (IVF). Unfortunately, TikTok users make baseless claims to magically cure infertility, potentially exacerbating emotional distress when the proposed solutions don't work.
Myth: If you're on the pill, you should come off for one month each year.
In response to the aforementioned clip, a TikTok user commented, "I did this and bled for a month and was in bed crying 22 hours out of the day."
There is absolutely no research to back up the claim that it's beneficial to discontinue birth control for one month each year. However, a large body of research demonstrates the safety of continuous oral contraceptive pill (OCP) use with no "breaks" at all, Gray said.
"There is also significant research to demonstrate the decreased risks for endometrial and ovarian cancer for continuous OCP use," she explained. "Coming off OCPs can lead to unwanted pregnancies. In addition, a blanketed statement like this with no understanding of each individual's reasoning for OCP use can undermine the preventative measures that OCPs provide."
Gray said women use hormonal birth control for a variety of reasons in addition to preventing pregnancy. These reasons include:
- Controlling cycles/bleeding
- Reducing bleeding with cycles
- Treating pelvic pain
"Coming off the OCPs and then restarting can exacerbate these common menstrual complications," Gray warned.
Myth: For a girls-only hack, use this everyday soap to clean your vagina.
"Whenever someone on social media says, 'Don't ask questions, go buy this,' you should immediately ask questions," said Heather Jeffcoat, D.P.T., a pelvic floor physical therapist in Los Angeles, in response to the above video.
"It is common that folks on social media mix up vulvar and vaginal anatomy," she added. "They are two different structures. The vagina is inside your body, the vulvar is your external genitalia that includes your labia and clitoris but not your vagina."
The vulva can be cleaned with a mild, unscented soap, but the vagina is self-cleaning and you could do more harm than good by using products inside your vaginal canal. The recommendation in the TikTok video to use soap in your vagina could alter vaginal pH and lead to yeast infections or bacterial vaginosis, even if it's a mild soap, Jeffcoat explained.
Myth: Fenugreek will make you taste sweeter.
"Sometimes, even someone with an M.D. after their name can lead you astray," Jeffcoat said of this video.
The claim that the herb fenugreek can change how your vagina smells and tastes is baseless. However, the claim that it can help alleviate vaginal dryness may have merit.
"Fenugreek does have research behind it to show it may be helpful in women as an alternative to estrogen creams in postmenopausal women, however, it is not as effective," Jeffcoat said. "The smell of the fenugreek was not a part of the study."
Additionally, perpetuating ideas about how a vagina "should" smell can worsen the stigma that women face. Healthy vaginas naturally have a mild scent.
"When a medical professional does not include education on how a vagina should smell but instead purports 'how to make it smell fruity,' this is a dangerous message for women to receive," Jeffcoat said. "Should their vagina not smell like a vagina? Many of my patients will get hyper-focused on their vaginal 'smell' when there is nothing wrong with them. Your vagina should not have a foul odor, and if it does, [this] could be a sign of a yeast infection, bacterial vaginosis, or a sign that there is an issue."
If that's the case, then an appointment with your gynecologist is in order.
Myth: You can lighten your vagina with tomato paste and potato juice.
In this video, the same pharmacist who recommended fenugreek advises using a concoction of tomato paste and potato juice to lighten the skin color on your legs and "vagina."
"She is already spreading misinformation as the vagina is inside your body, so you can't see it," Jeffcoat said in response. "What she meant to say is 'vulva,' which is our external genitalia. And she repeats 'vagina,' which is not the correct anatomical term. I truly hope she is not recommending for people to put a recipe of tomato paste and potato juice in [their] vagina[s].
"Whether or not her suggestions actually work, the recipe she suggests would be fine to try on your legs, but should not be tried over your vulva," Jeffcoat concluded.
How to verify women's health information on social media
If you do seek health information from TikTok, there are ways to vet content creators and fact-check what they're saying.
First, research the creator's qualifications. If you see letters after their names that indicate they have medical credentials, that's a good start, but you also want to find out if they are part of a verifiable practice. Making sure the information you glean is backed by research is also an important step, Gray added.
"I would stick to accounts run by board-certified physicians, physical therapists, psychologists, dietitians, etcetera," Gray explained. "In addition, any recommendations you find on social media should be substantiated by your personal practitioner, with whom you have a relationship and [who] knows your medical history, prior to starting any new products, services [or] procedures."
It's also important to remember there is not a lot of oversight on social media, so people can make false claims and lie about their credentials.
"Anyone can make a claim about anything without the knowledge or expertise to back it up," Gray said. "Following the advice of people uneducated in the topic they are presenting can lead to physical, mental or emotional harm."
Lastly, before trying any suggestions, confirm any health tips you see on TikTok with outside sources and trusted professionals, such as your doctor.
"It is best to confirm medical information you find on social media with your medical provider," Wheeler said. "They can help you determine the validity of the information."