We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous. This week’s topic: vaginal hygiene.
Q: I'm a full-grown woman, but I'm embarrassed to say that I still don't really understand how to maintain vaginal cleanliness. How often do I have to clean down there, and with what? Are there things I shouldn't be doing or using? Sometimes I feel like when I've gotten a yeast infection, the culprit is some product I'm using, or maybe some way I'm washing, but I've honestly never looked into it. Tell me how to keep my vagina clean, please!
A: Practicing vaginal hygiene is definitely important for the overall health of humans who have them. The good news is that vaginas are self-cleaning. Where things get more complicated is that there are so many products out there saying otherwise — that we need to change the smell of our vaginas, or somehow alter their natural states. This is not only a low-down marketing ploy, but it can also cause some pretty unpleasant side effects, which (not to speak on its behalf but ...) your pussy will not like. All au naturale rants aside, how do you make sure your special parts stay as healthy as possible? Here are the big mistakes to avoid.
7 Vaginal Hygiene Mistakes You Might Be Making
1. You're Wiping Back To Front
Here's hoping that someone in your life told you early on to wipe front to back. But if you missed the memo, learn this practice right now. Why? Your vagina and butt both have bacteria living in them, all of which are important to the overall functioning of those areas, but separately. The bacteria in your vagina are not the same as the ones in your butt. You do not want to get butt bacteria in your pussy! It can cause all sorts of problems, which I'll get into below. The same goes for if you’re playing around in both of those areas sexually — assign a hand to each, or wash your hands / naughty bits / toys between sessions.
2. You're Using Scented Soap
While vaginas are technically self-cleaning, sometimes you want to give them a bit of extra help. It's totally fine to soap off your vulva and labia (the external parts of your pussy) when you're cleaning the rest of your body. However, make sure that you're using unscented soap. Soaps or cleaners that are perfumed can mess with your normal, healthy balance. And the same goes for scented vaginal wipes and vaginal deodorants.
3. You're Douching
Do not douche. Seriously, don’t do it. Douching is supposed to “clean out" your vaginal canal, but we now know that your pussy already does that on its own! All douches do is mess with the natural pH balance of your vagina, flushing out the good bacteria that live in there whose job it is to maintain your vaginal health. If you’re experiencing unpleasant vaginal odors that you want to get rid of, go see a doctor to find out the underlying cause. All a douche will do is mask the scent and probably make matters way worse.
4. You're Not Swapping Condoms
Having penetrative sex can bring bacteria and viruses from the outside world and from your partner’s body inside you. Barrier protection like condoms protects you from these sexually transmitted infections, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and HIV, and can even help against infections that are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact (such as genital herpes and genital warts). But it's also absolutely critical to change condoms if you’re switching between vaginal and anal play — remember that you want to make sure that the bacteria living and loving in your butt don't get into your vag.
5. Your Diet Isn't Balanced
What you put in your mouth actually has a direct correlation to how your vertical smile (my favorite vagina euphemism!) feels. If you want to treat your pussy right, make sure to stay hydrated and eat a balanced diet of nutritious foods. Additionally, there are certain foods that you can consume to help specific vaginal problems. For instance, unsweetened cranberry juice, yogurt, raw garlic, and apple cider vinegar are great to combat or even prevent a yeast infection, and soy may help with vaginal dryness.
6. Your Underwear Is Too Tight (Or Wet)
Your vagina likes it best when it’s dry (when it’s not turned on, of course!) and has room to breathe. That’s because the bacteria you don’t want in there likes it warm and moist. You can help out by rocking cotton undies and avoiding anything super tight all up in your bits. It’s also important to get out of sweaty or otherwise wet panties or bathing suit bottoms as soon as possible so you can dry out.
7. You're Not Changing Tampons And Pads Often Enough
Speaking of keeping things dry, change your pads and tampons regularly so they don’t become a feeding ground for bacteria. Keeping sodden pads near your vagina makes things warm and moist — just the way bacteria loves it. And don’t wear pads when you’re not on your period to catch your usual discharge, because it will just warm everything up.
Health Risks For Unbalanced Vaginas
OK, OK but why is all this important? Vaginas are complex organs, containing a delicate balance of bacteria that work tirelessly to keep you squeaky clean. They also keep you a wee bit acidic, which is the way your vagina likes it. The introduction of anything that kills off some of this bacteria can knock you out of pH whack, resulting in some unpleasant health problems.
If some of the acidic bacteria in your vagina gets killed off by an overactive soap, you could get a yeast infection. Yeast infections are triggered when your vagina pH gets too basic, allowing the fungus candida to overgrow. It makes your discharge look like cottage cheese, and will also make your vaginal lips and interior itch a lot. Luckily, there are a bunch of over-the-counter remedies, like creams, and home remedies, including yogurt, garlic, apple cider vinegar, and boric acid suppositories. You can also ask your doctor for a one-day antifungal. Also, yeast infections can be triggered by stress, so please go easy on yourself.
Soaps and douches that make your vagina too basic can also cause bacterial vaginosis. Doctors aren’t actually sure why this happens, but activities that put you at greater risk include unprotected sex and too much douching. (Please just don’t douche!) In addition to a smell described as "fishy," bacterial vaginosis can feel itchy and come with a thin, gray-colored discharge. If this sounds like you, call up your doctor, because the only proven way to get rid of bacterial vaginosis is through prescribed medications.
Urinary Tract Infection
If you get any butt bacteria up in your vagina, you could end up with a urinary tract infection (UTI for short). UTIs are infections that occur anywhere in your urinary system, which includes your urethra, bladder, ureters (the tubes that carry urine from your kidney to your bladder), and kidneys. Most UTIs occur in the urethra and bladder, because they are closest to the great (scary, bacteria-ridden) outdoors. The bacteria that causes this mess the most often is E. coli, which is supposed to stay in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract (aka your butt), but sometimes decides that it just wants to be free and explore places it's not invited.
The methods for getting rid of a UTI are the same as those for preventing one: Drink lots of water, pee frequently, drink cranberry juice, and take the herbal supplement D-mannose. And if that doesn’t work, go to your doctor to get antibiotics.
The Bottom Line
Vaginas are complex and wonderful, and everyone should be excited to have or know one. They do require a bit of maintenance (what fantastic thing doesn’t?) but significantly less than capitalist America, with its aisles and aisles of “feminine products,” might have you believe. The bottom line is that your vagina isn’t dirty, so don’t treat it as such. If something starts feeling not-great down there, talk to your doctor and get back into the balance you deserve!
Want more of Bustle's Sex and Relationships coverage? Check out our new podcast,I Want It That Way, which delves into the difficult and downright dirty parts of a relationship, and find more on our Soundcloud page.
Images: Caroline Wurtzel/Bustle; Giphy