When it comes to potential unfamiliar odors, extra moisture, and other issues that may occur in the vaginal area, it’s better to get answers on what’s going on sooner rather than later. As with anything else, there’s so much information out there that could guide you in the wrong direction, like, for instance, the fact that even though you may wash up in the shower daily, you probably don’t know how to clean your vagina properly. Ads may make you feel like you need to buy special products to clean your vagina, but that’s not necessarily the case.
If you’re curious about what classifies as the “right” way to clean the vagina, you have more options than you think.
Mary Bogle, pelvic floor physical therapist from Beyond Basics Physical Therapy, explains via email: “In general, the vulva (external genitalia) and vagina require very little washing.” She also stresses you should never resort to using scented products. “We [here at Beyond Basics] recommend using only water. But if you must, use a mild, fragrance-free/unscented cleanser. Soap can be too drying, but some people do OK with liquid castile soap or glycerin soap. Look for a pH (potential hydrogen) between 5.3 – 7.0.” You can do a vaginal pH test yourself at home by purchasing pH test strips, or make an appointment at your OB/GYN to get your pH level tested.
Dr. Carolyn DeLucia, a partner at women’s intimate health spa VSPOT, agrees something mild should be used. “The vulva or the outside female anatomy, like the labia, may be washed with gentle soap and water,” she says.
When it comes to cleaning, the type of soap you use is very important for your vaginal health. Dr. Sherry A. Ross, OB/GYN, author of She-ology and ambassador for feminine hygiene product brand Summer’s Eve, says that anything from using soaps that aren’t vagina-friendly to adding the wrong vaginal hygiene products to your shopping cart could disturb your vaginal pH balance without you realizing it. This could potentially lead to infections and itchiness.
In Ross’ opinion, the exterior of the vagina should be cleaned daily. But even though cleaning every day is important, she says it can also lead to over-washing your vagina in the process. If you don’t use the proper kind of soap on your vagina, irritation can occur.
Planned Parenthood nurse practitioner Glory Guerrero shares her recommendations for clients: “For women [or femme-identifying people] who prefer to use soap, we always recommend non-scented soaps like Dove, Ivory, or Cetaphil, because scented products can alter the pH in our vagina. We also recommend you clean the outside of your vagina and never the inside.”
Ross says that while it’s important to think internally, you can’t ignore what’s going on outside. “I like to think of the vagina and vulva like your oven at home. It may be self-cleaning, but you still have to clean the stove top.” Because the vagina contains a good amount of healthy bacteria — lactobacilli — it utilizes normal vaginal discharge to cleanse itself. “Healthy” discharge, Ross says, will appear milky or clear in coloring, and will smell like a vagina. “The vagina is not meant to smell like a rose garden, but [it] has a familiar scent which is normal. The key is to know what your ‘normal’ smells like. All of us with a vagina usually know that awkward feeling if a new and strange smell comes our way, especially fishy,” she says.
Bogle agrees, noting that cleansing with water once daily can suffice. She adds, “You should also wash the perineum (the area between the vagina and the anus), but make sure you always wipe from front to back so no bacteria form the anus enters the vagina.”
This may sound counter-intuitive, because there’s a product for everything, but cleaning your vagina doesn’t always mean cleaning it with a product. “There are [people] who just use water, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that,” Guerrero agrees. “Water is actually a very good cleanser,” but for patients who feel the need to use soap, she says, “We recommend non-scented products.” However, she notes that there are some people who “are more prone to infections,” in which case, Bogle suggests cleansing with just water versus a mild, unscented soap.
Guerrero advises against cleaning out the inside of your vagina entirely if you notice a foul odor in your vaginal area. “[Douching] doesn't help at all,” she says, “[And if you notice a foul smell,] visit your nearest Planned Parenthood or health center to be seen by a clinician and treated with antibiotics.” She adds that you should only be worried about the odor “if it deviates from your 'normal' [odor], especially if there is a strong odor, itching, or discharge. Anything that has a 'fishy' odor tends to be a sign of infection.” DeLucia also says a vaginal odor “may indicate infection if it persists after washing.” In these instances, she suggests visiting your gynecologist to make sure your vaginal area looks healthy.
To ensure you feel clean throughout the day, Guerrero says some people carry extra pairs of underwear with them wherever they go. “Other [people] use unscented feminine wipes throughout their [work] shift,” she adds, but notes that panty liners aren’t encouraged because “those can cause more bacteria.”
If you’re on the go and feel like you want a little refresh, Love Wellness’ Do It All Wipes are convenient to carry in your purse. They’re pH-balanced and, according to glowing reviews by people who have tested the product, are great for delicate skin.
But you don’t have to carry around wipes if you don’t want to; your scent is your scent, and — unless there are health concerns — you shouldn’t be pressured into thinking it needs to be changed.
Additional reporting by Alexa Mellardo.
Mary Bogle, pelvic floor physical therapist from Beyond Basics Physical Therapy
Glory Guerrero, Planned Parenthood nurse practitioner
Dr. Carolyn DeLucia, a partner at women’s intimate health spa VSPOT
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