The lowdown on cleaning your down below.
This article has been reviewed for medical accuracy by Valeriia Chelpan, M.D.
The intimate hygiene industry including washes, douches, sprays and wipes is predicted to bring in $42.7 billion in revenue by 2022 (Allied Market Research & Potdar, 2016) and whilst you may have your shower routine down, are you truly clued up on how to clean your vagina?
What is the Difference between a Vagina and a Vulva?
First things first, an anatomical recap, let’s talk terms. The vagina is a tube of muscle inside the body that runs from the cervix (the opening or ‘neck’ of the womb) to the vaginal opening (NHS, 2018).
The vulva is the collective name for the external or outer sex organs found in those assigned female at birth. These include “the labia (lips), urethra (tube from your bladder, ending in your pee hole), clitoris, pubic mound and the entrance to the vagina” (Patient Info & Evans, 2019)
The vagina is self-cleaning, it does this via clear or white natural secretions, also known as discharge AKA the white-like stuff you see in your panties. Healthy discharge doesn’t have a strong smell or colour, and while you may feel a slightly uncomfortable wetness, is nothing to worry about. If you experience any itching, soreness or changes in colour or smell, book an appointment with your healthcare provider to rule out infection.
Is there Bacteria in my Vagina?
Professor Ronnie Lamont, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, says: "The vagina contains more bacteria than anywhere else in the body after the bowel, but the bacteria are there for a reason." (NHS, 2018)
This bacteria is called lactobacilli and serves many functions including:
- Keeping the vagina’s pH balance less than 4.5, which prevents the growth of any unwanted harmful bacteria that may come into contact with it
- Providing naturally occurring antibiotics also known as bacteriocins to reduce or kill any harmful bacteria that may enter the vagina
- Producing a substance (hello secretion) that stops harmful bacteria sticking to the vaginal walls and invading its tissues.
All in all, discharge is actually pretty badass. Maintaining bacterial balance within our vaginas is important because if it gets upset (i.e. less acidic) the harmful bacteria can multiply, leading to infections such as bacterial vaginosis and thrush. These infections are characterised by abnormal discharge, itching and irritation.
So, how do you clean your vagina?
In short, you don’t. You let mother nature take care of the inside! But it is important to ensure to gently wash the vulva everyday as part of your usual cleansing routine. This should be done exclusively with unperfumed soaps making sure to also clean the perineal area (the space between the vagina and anus).
During your period, showering or bathing more frequently can help you to feel more comfortable, refreshed and help with any cramps you may be experiencing. Just remember not to use perfumed soaps when doing so!
What are douches?
A douche is a device that flushes water into the vagina to clean out it’s natural secretions - the ones we just learned are super useful at keeping harmful bacteria at bay. They have been commonly misconstrued as ways to prevent STIs and other infections but the medical profession does not recommend their use (Martino & Vermund, 2002). Don’t listen to celebrities on this one, listen to doctors and health professionals.
Should I use special washes, wipes and deodorants on or in my vagina?
There are many intimate menstrual products out there that prey on people’s insecurities around what their genitals look and smell like, and whether they are deemed ‘clean’. These often-perfumed products are a big no-no. They can harm the healthy bacteria in your vagina and lead to bacterial vaginosis or BV, which can cause abnormal discharge accompanied by a distinctive ‘fishy’ smell that you may have been trying to avoid in the first place. If you have this symptom, we recommend you go see your healthcare professional because while annoying, it is also treatable.
If the vagina was meant to smell like roses, it would. Trust nature on this one and stick to warm water and plain, unscented soaps for the vulva!
Top tips for good intimate hygiene
- Avoid using perfumed soaps and washes, deodorants, douches and powders in the vagina
- Wash the vulva as part of your normal cleansing routine with plain, unperfumed soap and warm water. Patting rather than rubbing dry afterwards
- Avoid wearing tight-fitting underwear or tights as much as possible. Some underwear made from synthetic materials can actually contribute to infections and intimate discomfort. Natural fibres such as cotton are always best. Consider going commando at night or switching to looser-fitting pyjamas so your lower regions can breathe
- Always pee after sex! (Seriously, always pee after sex).
Allied Market Research & Potdar, M. (2016, April). minine Hygiene Products Market by Type (Sanitary pads, Tampons, Internal cleaners & sprays, Panty liners & shields, Disposable razors & blades) and Distribution channel (Supermarkets & hypermarkets, drug stores, pharmacies & beauty stores, Convenience stores. Allied Market Research. Retrieved December 05, 2020, from https://www.alliedmarketresearch.com/feminine-hygiene-market
Martino, J. L., & Vermund, S. H. (2002, December 01). Vaginal Douching: Evidence for Risks or Benefits to Women's Health. Epidemiologic Reviews, 24(2), 109-124. 10.1093
NHS. (2018, October 03). Keeping your vagina clean and healthy. NHS. Retrieved December 05, 2020, from https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sexual-health/keeping-your-vagina-clean-and-healthy/
Patient Info & Evans, M. (2019, October 23). Should you clean your vagina? Patient Info. Retrieved December 05, 2020, from https://patient.info/news-and-features/should-you-clean-your-vagina
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