Vaginas are supposedly self-cleaning organs.
If so, then why do we have feminine wash products that claim to “clean the vagina” and treatments like vaginal steaming that directs steam up our feminine tunnels? Are they effective or even necessary?
Vulva and Vagina: They’re Not the Same
When it comes to cleaning, the terms vulva and vagina are often used confused, with “vagina” being the catch-all term for the female genitals. However, they’re different — and so are their methods of care.
Vagina is the internal muscular tract from the vaginal opening to the cervix. Think of it as the tunnel from the outside world the uterus.
In contrast, vulva is the exterior part of the female genitalia. It consists of:
- The opening of the vagina
- Labia majora or the outer lips
- Labia minora or the inner lips
- The external part of the clitoris
- Urethral opening
The Vaginal Self-Cleaning Mechanism
When people say “the vagina is self-cleaning,” they mean that the vagina is designed to keep itself clean through natural secretions. Estrogen keeps the vaginal lining thick and encourages the growth of healthy vaginal flora.
At the same time, the slightly acidic discharge also prevent harmful, disease-causing microorganisms.
When it comes to vulvas, the body of research literature is thinner. However, existing research shows that the vulva also has bacterial populations and pH from 3.5 to 4.7.
It’s also difficult to find distinct advice saying that “vulvas are self-cleaning,” because as I’ve mentioned earlier, vagina is sort of a catch-all term. But considering that vulvas come in contact with more external bacteria compared to the vagina — including your underwear and shower water — it will need some help cleaning itself.
So Do I Need Feminine Wash?
Feminine wash is used for cleaning the vulvar region — not the vagina.
Although it’s marketed to maintain a natural pH level, many health guidelines say that water is enough to keep the vulva nice and clean.
That said, intimate washes (for the vulva) are generally preferable to harsh soaps, which may cause irritation. If you do want to use feminine products, a 2017 review recommends using intimate washes that are properly designed for the vulva.
Choose ones that are:
Other Unhealthy or Unnecessary Practices
When the balance of the vaginal or vulvar bacteria is disrupted, harmful bacteria will grow out of control.
These practices are unnecessary at best and harmful at worst:
- Douching. Stop douching (unless prescribed by a physician). These cleaning solutions can upset the natural bacterial balance in the vagina, which make it more prone to yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis.
- Vaginal Steaming. The water vapour in the steam can disrupt the pH level of the vaginal lining, which can disrupt the bacterial balance, making way for unwanted bacterial growth.
Also, heating the vagina isn’t necessary because the body knows how to regulate its own temperature. And if the vagina does heat up, it may be the ideal breeding ground for harmful bacteria.
- Using Scented Soaps. The fragrance in these soaps could irritate the sensitive skin of the vulva.
- Using Sponges and Scrubs on the Vulva. Using scrubs and sponges on the vulva is overcleaning and could irritate it.
How to Keep Your Vulva and Vagina Clean
Here are everyday things you have to do to keep your vagina and vulva healthy
For the vagina:
- Nothing. It cleans itself
- But practice safe sex to avoid STIs
For the vulva:
- Wash with water. Plain, mild soap or a properly formulated feminine wash is all right, but unnecessary
- Keep it as dry as possible. Pat it dry after washing
- Change your underwear regularly or once it’s wet with sweat or menstrual blood
- Practice safe sex to avoid STIs
What About “The Odor?”
Remember that vaginas and vulvas naturally have a slight musky scent. They’re not meant to smell like vanilla or lavender.
Don’t let feminine hygiene products that are primarily marketed to make your vagina or vulva “smell better” fool you.
Lastly, consult a doctor if your vulva or vagina suddenly gives off a strong odor or if you itch. They’ll prescribe the right way to care for your vulvovaginal region.
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