The last few weeks have seen increasing public controversy over Silicon Valley-based telemedicine company Hers (a spin-off of Hims) advertising campaigns directed towards women. Criticism has been centered around the easiness with which the company seems to advertise the prescription fibanserin*, also known as Addyi, to help women “increase their libido”. Addyi is an antidepressant and it directly works on a woman’s brain, contrary to Viagra which increases blood circulation in the genital area. Additionally, it has proven to be only marginally effective or beneficial.
First, this presents an ethical conundrum: Should an antidepressant with low effectiveness for the condition be prescribed without a strict medical assessment and follow up of the patient’s mental health?
Secondly, a significant fraction of the medical and wellness community expressed frustration with the continued oversimplification of female sexuality, and emphasized that often patients diagnosed of Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (SHDD) are experiencing more complex environmental or circumstantial factors, such as emotional dysfunctions in the relationship, sexual trauma, conflicting beliefs about sexuality, other hormonal imbalances, and stress, among many others.
While pharma startups find ways to make access to pills more convenient and attractive for millennials (and for VCs), a greener startup sector is getting great traction selling plant-based solutions for sexual healing.
The Business Of Cannabis Based Sexual Wellness Products Is Here To Stay
Several wellness companies are looking at cannabidiol, or CBD ― the non-psychoactive ingredient in the marijuana plant ― as the heart of sexual wellness products that improve symptoms related to the female sexual experience. From helping vaginal dryness or pelvic inflammation to awakening erotic feelings, CBD based products are capturing a forward-thinking female public with high acquisition power.
The relationship between cannabis and sexual and women’s health is not a new one. Before its widespread prohibition in this last century, physicians across the globe prescribed combinations of cannabis with other herbs, for a broad range of gynaecological conditions, from aphrodisiac uses for libido to menstrual cramps, pain during sex, and even for a difficult childbirth.
Beatrice Espada, founder and CEO of The Honey Pot, a plant-based feminine hygiene company, says that this cannabis-based wellness industry is projected to reach $38 B by 2022. The Honey Pot just launched a body balm that contains hemp seed oil to help with menstrual cramps, and pain and discomfort in the pelvic area.
“More people are finally picking up on natural wellness. We see commercials everyday on antidepressants with side effects like suicidal thoughts like it's normal. People are starting to wake up and really pay attention to those things! It’s beautiful to be a part of this revolution and lead one of the companies that are spearheading a new way of creating femenine care”, says Espada.
Waking up to plant-based remedies
Along those lines, Cyo Ray Nystrom, CEO and cofounder of Quim, a self-care line for people with vaginas (and people without vaginas who love them) added “The prescription of drugs like Addyi as a “cure-all” for people struggling with their sex lives, sexual preferences and other issues is obviously less than optimal. We're putting a bandaid on “the problem” and presenting it in a well-branded package. Let’s encourage people to get in touch with themselves and their bodies, and see what is really going on, instead.”
At Quim, Nystrom says, they hope to provide education and products that can provide relief, joy, and intimacy. They aren't a cure-all by any means but are they are a gentle, plant-based alternative to comparatively toxic mainstream products.
The Darling of Wellness lacks Regulation
Nikki Michelsen, cofounder of Ohne, highlights that CBD is the current darling of the wellness industry – and with that comes a huge surge in the number of brands introducing CBD related products. The problem is, Michelsen says, “That this comes alongside a huge lack of regulation in the industry meaning consumers aren’t getting the information they need to be able to make informed choices about what they are buying, like the type of CBD, the quality, the ingredients it’s mixed with.” We need more education around the types, uses and benefits of CBD. It’s crucial for brands that introduce CBD products to the market to be transparent about how they are made and how they work.
As more people opt-in for plant-based options, it is imperative that the medical community gets involved in evaluating standards. In the largest CBD survey to date, published in Forbes Magazine, 80% of participants claim it’s a “very effective” or “extremely effective” treatment. Nearly half stated they will no longer use prescription of over-the-counter medication for pain, including opioids and ibuprofen. “Oversimplifying a solution to sexual health by way of a pill lacks an understanding of the many factors that impact a woman’s desire. For so long we’ve looked at health as one-dimensional but cannabis is helping to create a progressive, open conversation around new and better ways to look at health and wellness through a holistic perspective”, states Joie Meffert, founding partner of Apothecanna, an all-natural beauty and wellness line supercharged by cannabis.
Women’s Intimate Wellness Still Largely Overlooked
Amidst the ongoing uproar about women’s health issues still being largely overlooked by the healthcare system, particularly when it comes to intimate and sexual health, these companies have found success in offering alternative solutions that women can combine with traditional treatments – or not. Most agree that pharma products have their role, time and place. It’s all a matter of education and access.
“We would never shame anyone for the type of treatment they decide to use (pharmaceutical drugs vs. natural alternatives) because we believe the most important in women have the information to decide what’s best. Rather, we’re offering access to a natural product that can be therapeutic in various ways as a supplement”, concludes Michelsen.
The demand is speaking high and clear. The question remains if the medical community, as well as restrictive regulations, will respond by working together with producers and innovative companies to find the best way to distribute and regulate plant-based remedies adapted to the needs of each person.