Set off by her first menstrual cycle, so begins every woman’s never-ending quest for immaculate vaginal hygiene. But despite all the tips, tricks, hacks, and miracle products that promise heaven-scented vaginas, keeping things clean down there is simpler than one may think.
Knowing the appropriate vaginal hygiene do’s and don’ts may be the difference between a happy vagina and one that is plagued with recurrent infections. Read on for four vaginal hygiene myths that may cause your vagina more harm than good.
First, A Quick Vocabulary Lesson
Before we dive deep into some of the concerning vaginal “care” practices out there, let’s clearly define two terms that many people confuse and use interchangeably: vagina and vulva.
The vagina is the muscular canal that extends from the vulva to the cervix of the uterus. It’s involved in sexual pleasure, allows menstrual blood to flow out of the body, and serves an important role in childbirth. It is best maintained via its own self-cleaning processes and any disruption to its normal habitat may prove to be problematic.
The vulva consists of the female sex organs on the outside of the body and includes the labia minora, labia majora, clitoris, the opening to the vagina, and the mons pubis. The vulva is like the gatekeeper of your vagina—and it is your direct responsibility to clean and maintain this area daily.
4 Things A Vagina Really Doesn’t Need
Now that we have reviewed these terms, here are four vaginal hygiene products and practices to avoid.
1. Hair Removal
A research study from 2017 reported that more than 75 percent of people remove or groom their pubic hair. There are many reasons why people choose not to keep their pubic hair at length. One research study showed that comfortability for oral sex was the top reason why women chose to remove their pubic hair, with over 75 percent of participants marking it as their primary reason for hair removal. A close second was the desire to feel feminine and soft. But is pubic hair removal necessary from a hygiene perspective?
Myth: Keeping pubic hair is not hygienic
Pubic hair is often viewed as a vector to store and harbor bacteria. And because of ideas around pubic hair and cleanliness, women who choose to keep pubic hair may be viewed as not clean, which may seed feelings of guilt or body shame.
In reality, pubic hair serves a great purpose. It is protective and acts as a barrier to trap bacteria, preventing movement toward your vagina and helping to fend off any critters that could lead to yeast infections or even UTIs. Your pubes do not cause any increased risk for infection—and regularly washing them and your vulva removes any trapped bacteria.
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Shaving and waxing may be viewed as attractive in that they leave the skin smooth and soft to the touch, but the potential risks that may come along with these grooming methods might warrant thinking twice about them.
First, they can cause small, microscopic tears in the skin or hair follicle that may leave your vulva skin tender, reddened, inflamed, itchy, or exposed to infection transmission. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unwanted bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus, viruses, or fungi may be transmitted easier through a break in the skin.
Ingrown hairs may also be troubling for some. They can lead to skin discoloration, irritation, and infections such as folliculitis that can lead to abscess formation as hairs grow back.
The bottom line here is that you do not need to shave or wax your pubic area. Keeping pubic hair is a personal choice and you are surely not unclean if you choose to do so. This au naturel route is a low-maintenance and economic way of caring for your most intimate areas. Ultimately, though, if you are torn and looking for the middle ground, consider simply trimming your pubic hair.
Vaginal douching is the common practice of cleansing the inside of the vagina with a liquid solution. The liquid used is typically water or a mixture of fluids that is placed in a bag or bottle and squirted into the vagina through a tube or nozzle. Such products can be found in pharmacies and stores worldwide.
The practice of washing the vagina in this format is not new to the feminine world and, in fact, has been used for thousands of years. Though its use has decreased in the past few decades, it still remains a widespread practice, especially among women of lower socio-economic status. In the United States, as many as one in five women between 15 and 44 years old are thought to regularly practice douching.
Myth: Douching cleans your vagina
The thought of being “clean” is very attractive—and many women think that douching may solve problems of the vagina while increasing feminine hygiene. Some who engage in this practice are socially and culturally led to believe that douching may prevent pregnancy by washing away semen, in addition to washing away period blood, removing vaginal odor, and decreasing the risk of STIs. However, there are many disadvantages to douching.
While taking a shower and washing the vulva is highly recommended and does not harm your body, washing inside of your vagina can cause serious health complications and is not recommended by doctors.
First of all, douching can upset the normal pH of the vagina. The vagina is happiest in an acidic state with a pH range of 3.5 to 4.5. Douching may increase the pH of the vagina, making it less acidic. This can inadvertently allow bacteria and fungi to grow excessively, leading to infections such as bacterial vaginosis or yeast infections.
Even more concerning is that douching may cause bacteria in the vagina to be moved higher into the pelvis, causing a more long-term and serious internal infection called Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID). This infection may cause pelvic pain, ectopic pregnancies, and infertility.
Simply put, let your vagina clean itself.
Drug stores are filled with endless products that claim to make your vagina smell better and balance your pH. Many of these products are quite popular but are not necessary to keep your vagina healthy.
Myth: Your vagina should smell like roses
Your vagina has a unique smell. All vaginas do, and the scent can vary slightly from person to person. That smell is not like a bed of roses but is instead quite musky—a smell created by the sweat glands and bacteria that live in the vaginal flora. Knowing your own normal vaginal odor is important so that you can identify if and when it may change.
There is no need to change how your vagina smells by using products. On the contrary, feminine sprays and scented products—including perfume—can actually cause genital problems. They can cause irritation to the vulva which can lead to itching, pain, and inflammation.
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Using warm water or a light, unscented wash to clean the vulva is all you need to do down there. If you experience a bad vulvar odor, see your doctor to get to the bottom of what might be going on and come up with a solution.
4. Yoni Steaming
Yoni steaming, or vaginal steaming, has recently entered the chat as a way to clean the vagina, but the practice is not new in the vaginal hygiene arena. For decades, if not centuries, vaginal steaming has been touted for improving energy and balancing hormones. It was even practiced by the Ancient Greeks, who believed that a woman’s uterus wandered throughout her body in search of moisture. The practice of vaginal steaming (or, as the Greek’s called it, “fumigation”) was thought to keep the uterus in its right place.
So how do you steam the vagina? Typically, it involves putting your unclothed vagina over a pot of herb-infused hot water, while placing a towel over your hips and thighs to prevent the steam from escaping. It is still practiced in many cultures for vaginal wellness, postpartum care, and vaginal tightening.
Myth: Vaginal Steaming Cleans the vagina and uterus
Many of the herbs used in vaginal steaming are said to clean the female reproductive tract from the vagina up to the pelvis. They are suggested to alleviate heavy menstrual bleeding, increase energy, decrease stress, treat hemorrhoids, and boost fertility. But, there is no scientific evidence or biological means to support that herbal steam can penetrate vaginal and uterine tissue in order for the body to benefit from the herbs used in yoni steaming.
Vaginal steaming does, however, put you at risk by disrupting your vaginal pH. Similar to douching, vaginal steaming may lead to the overgrowth of bacteria in your vaginal microbiome, leading to the development of infections. It may also cause scalding or burning on your very sensitive vulvar and vaginal skin.
While vaginal steaming may feel therapeutic and even ease period pains, the benefits end there.
The Bottom Line
Proper vaginal hygiene is a major priority for many women, but some common practices may be more harmful than beneficial. The best route is to keep things simple. A healthy hygiene routine requires very little effort on your part. After all, your vagina does not need help to clean itself; it is a self-cleaning oven! All that’s required of you is to regularly clean the vulva using warm water or light, unscented, vaginal wash products.
Dr. Perkins is a board-certified OB/GYN with extensive expertise in global maternal health, female reproductive health, contraceptive care, and minimally invasive surgery. In addition to working with patients at her medical practice, she is a Major in the United States Army Reserve and an award-winning scientific researcher. Through her functional, holistic approach to health, she aspires to help women feel their best in mind, body, and spirit.