The One Thing We Need To Get Straight About Vaginal Health

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Look, guys, I don't know if I can be blunter about this: the greatest trick the world ever pulled about your vagina is that it needs to be "cleansed". It doesn't. Douching, steam-bathing, deodorizing —it's all deeply unnecessary, and yet it continues to be packaged and marketed as an essential part of your genital hygiene, a necessary way of keeping yourself "neat and clean". This is not true, and anybody who tells you otherwise is either selling you something or a badly disguised Gwyneth Paltrow. Vaginas contain delicate bacterial balances and self-cleaning mechanisms that really don't need your interference, thank you very much. Respect your vagina; it can do its own damn maintenance.

We are, to be clear, talking about healthy, normally-functioning vaginas here. If your bits are having difficulties, then treatment that includes bathing is sometimes recommended for specific problems. Saltwater baths for the vulva, for instance, are sometimes given for serious vaginal irritation. The real story behind that, though, is that the irritation and infection can come from douching and cleansing in the first place. If you're told to douche for a specific medical reason, by all means disregard this column entirely, but if you've just got a vague feeling of pressure from images of ladies frolicking with flowers emerging from their vulvas, you're putting yourself at risk.

Let's delve into why you should put the idea of needing to clean the inside of your vagina to rest for good.

Where The Idea Of "Cleansing" Comes From

We'll get onto how the vagina actually cleans itself in a minute, but let's focus for a second on where douches and deodorants actually come from. Concepts of "cleanliness" when it comes to vaginas often play on juvenile fears of smell and displeasure. The entire industry is based on the idea that the natural vagina, particularly belonging to an adult, sexually active woman, is prone to being "unclean," and that its natural smell and lubrication are actually unattractive things that need to be "corrected". Hi, sexism, fancy seeing you here.

Vaginal douching ads from the '40s and '50s played on this fear pretty loudly. They make it clear that the natural odor and function of the vagina are "unhealthy," and that leaving them unattended will risk you your spouse's affections. (Douching was also recommended as a contraceptive, which doesn't work.) This looks pretty ridiculous now, but the same basic principle underlies modern ads for deodorants and douches for down below: that women's genitals are smelly, unclean, and collect germs if they're left on their own, and need constant artificial maintenance to be presentable. This isn't just wrong, it's utter, beginning-to-end nonsense, and a genuine risk to your vaginal health.

The Dangers Of Upsetting Your Vaginal Balance

The vagina, as it normally functions, is self-cleaning. The internal mucus and flow of fluid from glands, in the form of discharge, regularly cycle out germs and potentially harmful materials; the moisture of a natural vagina isn't gross, it's necessary. It cleans out menstrual blood properly, too. It's also important to remember that all bacteria aren't bad, and that huge swathes of "good" bacteria live in balance in our bodies every day; it's estimated that you carry around two to six pounds of bacteria right now. And the balance of bacteria in the vagina are the biggest victims of douching.

The normal bacterial arrangement, or vaginal flora, of our bits is a pretty well-balanced machine, but cleaning it all out with a douche or upsetting it with a deodorant upsets the delicate ecosystem. The result? Nasty bacteria get in instead, and you've got yourself a prime breeding ground for an infection.

And there are other problems. If you regularly douche, you have a 73 percent higher possibility of giving yourself pelvic inflammatory disease, where the ovaries or fallopian types become enflamed. It's also been quietly linked with a risk of ectopic pregnancy when done in pregnant women, and may lower fertility, according to a study from 1996. Overall, it's not a nice picture.

The balance of the pH levels of the vagina are also a possible target for douching, perfumes, and deodorants. The ecosystem of the vagina is kept at a steady pH level, and disturbing it with water (which has a pH of seven) or with "cleansing" irritants will throw off that balance. A pH imbalance is a recipe for one thing: a yeast infection. Cleansing and healthy? More like irritating and dangerous.

The Bacteria Of Your Vagina Might Help Bust HIV

This is a relatively new discovery, but it indicates that the layers of bacteria and build-up inside vaginas may be even more important than they look. As well as maintaining a healthy ticking-over vaginal system, it looks like, in certain women, bacterial mucus in the cervix and vagina can actually "catch" HIV before it gets to the cell walls of the vagina. How amazing is that.

Mucus is the body's first line of defense against infection, and vaginal mucus is no exception. Researchers from the University of North Carolina found that if women had a certain kind of bacteria in their mucus, with the excellent name Lactobacillus crispatus, their mucus stopped HIV in its tracks. The researchers called this a potential "biological condom" that can protect all kinds of women from serious infections of the bits. So mucus isn't only the vagina's personal cleaning service, it's also part of how our body defends itself against some serious nasties. This is not something you want to eradicate.

The Bottom Line

Your vagina does not need cleaning if it's healthy. Step away from the douches, deodorants, and vaginal perfumes and be reassured: there's nothing unhealthy or undesirable about a normal vagina, and it's far more fun than one struggling to cope with "cleaning". If you're still looking for something to fix, step away from the douche, and avoid these seven vaginal hygiene mistakes instead.

Images: Bustle (2); Bill Bradford, Classic Film/Flickr