Serious Question: What's the Deal With Vaginal Hygiene?
One brisk walk down a drugstore aisle and you're inundated with hundreds of pastel-coloured products promising to cleanse, fix or scent your vagina. Along with the (somewhat offensive and gender-normative) floral patterns, pink imagery and high sales tax, every product's description is vague and saturated with mixed messaging. Is your vagina supposed to smell like peonies? Is it abnormal if it doesn't? What does the first ingredient in this product do, and why is it 15 letters long? Are we supposed to put a chemical inside our bodies that we can't even pronounce? There are so many questions, and just about zero of them can be answered in that same drugstore aisle.
For as long as I can remember, I've been told by my doctors and the internet that your vagina is self-cleaning and that you don't need a product to help it do its job. But now there are a tonne of all-natural, wellness, pH-balancing brands popping up promising that they'll help solve all your vaginal issues. And while I'm thrilled vaginas and women's sexual health has become a more mainstream conversation, it's still like white noise: confusing, disorienting and without resolution. "Up until now, maintaining good feminine health hasn't been a straightforward endeavour due to a lack of resources available—from educational materials to clean, natural products formulated to address a woman's unique biology," says Lo Bosworth, who launched her own natural feminine care brand earlier this year.
So what's the answer? I want to achieve better control over my body and health. Am I supposed to use vaginal hygiene products or not? If they're made from natural ingredients, are they safe? I posed that very question (along with a few others) to Jaime Knopman and Sheeva Talebian, fertility experts and co-founders of truly-md.com, to hear what they had to say. Below, we go into detail.
Is it detrimental to use vaginal hygiene products?
"There is no right or wrong answer," says Knopman and Talebian. "Showering is number one, particularly if you exercise or are in the heat. While gynaecologists have cautioned against douching on a regular basis for years, we are certainly fans of cleaning yourself. Water and a gentle soap are your best option," suggests Knopman and Talebian. "We are also not fans of vaginal fragrances or deodorants—all vaginas have a smell." They caution, "Not wearing the same tampon, pad or sweaty gym clothes all day is a must. Additionally, it's vital to change your undergarments."
Lindsay Appel, an OB/GYN at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, adds, "for one, there are a lot of products (soaps, lotions, lubricants) out there that are marketed toward women that contain harsh chemicals, which can increase the risk of vaginal and vulvar irritation. The vagina has naturally occurring bacteria, which helps keep it clean, and using products that contain ingredients that decrease 'good' bacteria can increase infection rate."
What if they're natural?
"Natural lubricants like VMagic are best," suggest Knopman and Talebian. "They are particularly good for women who are prone to vaginal dryness and chaffing. There are mucous membranes in the vagina, and they can be very sensitive to certain products."
Appleman agrees, saying, "Using gentle, natural formulations on the external vagina can decrease irritation and infection risk. I have seen many women with improvement in symptoms simply with eliminating harsh detergents, cleansers and lotions from their regimen." She continues, "When used externally, it is safe to use pH-balanced cleansers and wipes. When used internally, these cleansers can change the pH and decrease the natural bacteria in the vagina and increase infection risk. Basically, when used internally, these products don't allow the vagina to be self-cleaning."
"I often recommend the use of probiotics to help support naturally occurring gut and vaginal flora, and improve baseline vaginal health," says Appleman. "In addition, I recommend avoiding products that contain harsh chemicals or glycerin because this can definitely increase the risk of vaginal infections, especially yeast infections."
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But, how do you know if something's wrong?
"A change in colour or consistency of your discharge, and/or a change in odour," Knopman and Talebian say. "It is normal to have discharge. We all do. The consistency and quantity will change throughout the month (aka the menstrual cycle), but if the colour looks off, if the odour changes or if you are experiencing itching, burning or discomfort, this is not normal. This can signify an infection or a reaction to a product. Also look out for vaginal pain, and consult a doctor if you're unsure about what's happening. There is nothing we haven't seen or heard. We are here to answer any and all questions."