How clean is your vagina? With new feminine hygiene products including douches and perfumes being released every week, you'd be forgiven for worrying about the aroma of your lady garden. According to the Financial Times, the feminine hygiene market is set to reach $42.7bn(£33bn) in revenue by 2022 (more than a 6 per cent growth since 2016) – but do we really need to invest in products that promise a squeaky clean vagina?
We spoke to Dr Petra Simic, Director for Primary Care at Bupa UK, Tania Adib, Consultant Gynaecologist at The Lister Hospital (part of HCA Healthcare UK) and Helen Knox, a clinical nurse specialist in contraception and sexual health – and founder of Sexplained, about the global obsession with feminine hygiene products and the ins and outs of vaginal health:
How clean is your vagina?
There are hundreds of products available on the market that promise to keep your vulva fresh and clean, but are they really necessary? 'The vagina uses its own natural secretions to keep itself clean, so there’s no need to wash it with anything more than warm water,' says Dr Simic.
In fact, cleaning your vagina with perfumed products could actually do more harm than good. 'As the natural good bacteria inside the vagina help to keep its pH levels balanced and healthy, using perfumed soaps, scented wipes or vaginal deodorants can disrupt its normal balance,' adds Dr Simic. 'This promotes the growth of bacteria and yeast, which can lead to an increased chance of developing infections, like bacterial vaginosis (BV) and thrush.'
'Your healthy vagina is all about balance: it is home to millions of micro-organisms, and is normally good at keeping them in balance,' agrees Knox. 'When this balance gets disrupted, you'll start to notice things aren't quite right and you could be developing BV, which is a very common condition that often causes a fishy smell,' she adds. 'BV is in fact two times more common than thrush and, like thrush, it can often be treated with an over-the-counter treatment.'
What does a healthy vagina smell like?
Ever since Gwyneth Paltrow decided to sell a candle which, in her words, ‘smells like my vagina’, on her website Goop – women have been left wondering if their vaginas smell normal. 'Normal is what is normal to you,' says Knox. 'Your vagina will have its own smell, regular discharge and shape.
'If you notice a change from your norm such as a change in discharge, smell or discomfort, then there may be something up. But don't be embarrassed about it and do nothing,' she adds. 'If you are in pain, are bleeding abnormally or have persistent symptoms then you must see your GP.
'By understanding your own normal and staying in tune with your body it will help you determine whether you have any issues,' explains Knox. 'If you notice any changes, don't sit with on-going symptoms wishing them way, discuss them with your pharmacist who will happily help you, or make an appointment to discuss them with your GP. The chances are it will be something easily treated and managed.'
Should you douche your vagina?
It’s not advisable to use a douche to clean your vulva says Dr Simic, as this flushes out any of the healthy bacteria in the vagina which protect against infection.
According to Adib, dead cells and fluid come out naturally in the form of vaginal discharge. 'Vaginal douches wash away the healthy bacteria and this can affect the pH balance,' she explains.
'The vaginal pH is a vital element which keeps the vagina clean and guards against infections. Alterations in the pH can increase your chances of developing bacterial vaginosis, which is an imbalance in the bacteria,' she adds.
How often should you clean your vagina?
That doesn't mean you should disregard vagina hygiene completely; it still needs to be cleaned daily, but water will do just fine. 'Use unperfumed soaps and warm water to gently wash the area around the vagina at least once every day,' says Dr Simic.
Adib echoes this sentiment, explaining: 'It's safe to wash the skin around the opening to the vagina; the labia. The skin is very delicate so it is important to use a non-perfumed soap, or use just water, once a day.'
How does the vagina clean itself?
You may have heard that vaginas are self-cleaning. But what does this mean and how does it work? 'It is a common misconception that having conditions like BV means you are not clean – in fact when women notice an unpleasant smell (especially after sex) they will often reach for the soap or perfumed shower gel – this can actually make things worse!' explains Knox.
'There's a delicate eco-system up there, working hard to keep a balance of bacteria so washing with perfumed products can upset this balance and cause BV,' she adds. 'As part of your daily cleaning routine, washing once a day with just water around the vulva, which is the skin around the opening, is fine.'
8 tips for a healthy, happy vagina
To keep your vagina clean and healthy there are things you can do to avoid unusual discharge and itching, or just for peace of mind:
1. Take care of your general health
Believe it or not eating a balanced diet, refraining from smoking and taking regular exercise will all encourage good vaginal health. 'Nicotine can inhibit sexual arousal, while running and walking help to keep the pelvic floor toned and contribute towards maintaining a healthy weight,' says Dr Simic.
💡 Some studies show that eating probiotic yoghurts containing lactobacillus can help to maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in the vagina.
2. Wipe front to back
Good toilet hygiene can go a long way towards ensuring your vagina stays in optimum health. 'There are a lot of bacteria in the bowel which have a normal function in the intestines,' says Adib. 'The anus is very close to both the vagina and the tube that runs into the bladder, called the urethra. You should wipe from front to back because it reduces the chances of spreading infection from the anus to the vagina and bladder.'
3. Pee after sex
It's a little known fact that postponing postcoital cuddles for a few seconds and nipping to the loo to pee immediately after sex can benefit your vaginal health. 'If you have sex without a condom and your partner ejaculates inside you, the presence of the semen can be quite irritating for some women, and it's been shown that semen can change the pH of the vagina and also alter the immune system response,' says Dr Anita Mitra, gynaecologist and author of The Gynae Geek. 'It may also be why some people get a bout of thrush or Bacterial Vaginosis after sex.'
4. Do NOT steam your vagina
The vagina is lined with delicate tissue that can be irritated by soaps, bubble baths and feminine hygiene products. There has been a recent trend for vaginal steaming (squatting over a tub of boiling hot water and herbs) to cleanse the vagina. Excessive heat can damage and irritate the vagina in the same way that chemicals can and there's no evidence that it provides any benefit and may in fact be harmful.
5. Avoid tight fitting clothes
Clothes can have an impact on the health of your vagina. For example, if you wear tight restrictive jeans every day your body will feel the effects. 'Wearing underwear that’s constricting or made from synthetic materials can irritate the vagina and surrounding areas,' says Dr Simic. 'It’s advisable to wear underwear that’s breathable and ideally made from 100 per cent cotton. Change your underwear every day. Make sure new underwear is washed before it’s worn and all detergent is washed away thoroughly to avoid irritation.'
6. Change your pants
What you wear and when can also play a role in vaginal upkeep as bacteria thrives in moist atmospheres, so as well as avoiding tight fitting clothing, opt for cotton rather than synthetic fibres and always change your underwear after exercise. 'Don’t wear a thong when exercising as it can rub and cause discomfort,' says Adib. 'Change your clothes and underwear after going to the gym, and avoid sitting in a wet swimsuit all day.'
7. Check your meds
If you've been taking a new medication, this can also affect your vaginal health. 'Some medications can affect the vagina’s bacteria levels – for example, antibiotics,' says Dr Simic. Speak to your GP or pharmacist if you have any concerns.
8. Practise safe sex
For optimum vaginal health, always practise safe sex. You can't tell if someone has an STI just by looking at them, so if you've had unprotected sex with a new partner or someone whose STI status you're not sure of you could be leaving yourself vulnerable to infection. 'Always be sure to practise safe sex and use condoms to avoid contracting any sexually transmitted infections,' says Dr Simic.
Further help and support
If you are concerned about anything relating to vaginal health, ask your GP for advice or try one of the following resources:
Find a sexual health clinic near you.
Try Brook's Find a Service tool
Find contraceptive services near you.
Call the national sexual health line 0300 123 7123.
Call Worth Talking About on 0300 123 2930 (for under-18s).
Last updated: 25-11-2020
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