Highlights from this article:
- Your vagina is not dirty and it doesn’t need to be cleaned! It cleans itself by producing discharge.
- Your vulva should be cleaned regularly with warm water only.
- Douching has been linked to an increased risk of BV, STI acquisition, and pelvic inflammatory disease.
- The use of intimate hygiene products can cause irritation of the vulva, as well as a higher risk of infections and UTIs.
Many people use feminine hygiene products like intimate washes, wipes, and douches thinking they’re looking after their vaginal health. But do feminine hygiene products actually help, or are they doing more harm than good?
The truth is, you don't need special soaps or cleaners to clean your vagina or vulva — despite what decades of sexist advertising may have led you to believe. In fact, feminine hygiene products aren’t only unnecessary, but they could also harm your vagina.
You don’t need to wash your vagina
By now, we hope you’ve heard the great news that vaginas are self-cleaning. That’s because your vagina produces discharge to flush out bad bacteria and dead cells, and the protective bacteria that dominate the vaginal microbiome — like lactobacilli — keep your vaginal pH acidic to prevent infections.
The vagina is one of those organs that work best when you leave it alone (talk about low maintenance). Nevertheless, many of us have been taught that vaginas are gross, dirty, and need to be cleaned with douches. *Buzzer noise* Wrong!
In fact, douching can disrupt your vaginal microbiome, and research shows that it can put you at a higher risk of infections like bacterial vaginosis (BV), STI acquisition, and even pelvic inflammatory disease.
How to clean your vulva
Although the words “vagina” and “vulva” are often used interchangeably, they’re two separate body parts and have different needs.
The vagina is the internal muscle that connects your cervix to the vaginal opening. The vulva is the outside genitalia made up of the labia majora, labia minora, clitoris, urethral opening, and vaginal opening.
Your vulva is your body’s first line of defense to protect your genital tract from infection. Unlike the vagina, your vulva should be washed regularly. But you still don’t need any special cleaners or wipes to wash your vulva! Warm water will do. If you really, really want to use soap then opt for a fragrance-free, hypoallergenic, pH-balanced option.
In 2018, researchers in Canada surveyed 1,435 women about their intimate hygiene habits and found that the use of intimate washes and wipes was linked to a higher risk of bacterial infections and UTIs.
The skin around the vulva is more sensitive than the skin on the rest of your body, so it’s more susceptible to irritation. Products that contain harsh cleansers or fragrances can cause inflammation, AKA vulvitis.
Your vulva also has a microbiome of its own (fun fact: all skin has a microbiome!). Although it hasn’t been studied as much as the vaginal microbiome, using harsh cleansers to wash your vulva could disrupt the vulvar ecosystem.
But what about the smell?
It’s normal for your vagina, vulva, and discharge to have an odor. The feminine hygiene industry works hard to convince you otherwise in order to sell products that promise to keep you “fresh” and “clean”, but your vagina is an organ, not an Outkast song.
Healthy vaginas can have a range of different smells (including barely any smell at all). However, there are specific smells that can act as an indicator of infection - such as a fishy smell for BV or a yeasty, bread-like smell for yeast infections.
If you’re worried about a change in the way your vagina smells and notice other symptom changes such as unusual discharge, burning or itching, it could be a sign of an infection. But in that case, it is important to reach out to your healthcare provider — as well as perhaps try an Evvy test — not reach for the Vagisil!
How to look after your vagina
Your immune system and vaginal microbiome work overtime to maintain your vaginal and reproductive health. Here are some of the most important things you can do to help them out:
- Don’t douche and avoid vaginal washes or wipes (especially if they’re scented)
- Practice safe sex and choose microbiome-friendly lube
- Get regular STI check-ups
- Practice good vaginal hygiene (wiping front to back when you go to the bathroom, changing underwear daily, not leaving period products over the recommended time frame, etc).
- Use vagina-friendly period products (unscented options with clean ingredients are best)
- Monitor your vaginal microbiome
The bottom line
At best, feminine hygiene products are an unnecessary waste of money that capitalize on the cultural assumption that vaginas are unclean. At worst, long-term use of vaginal washes, wipes, and douches could create irritation and even lead to vaginal dysbiosis.
It takes a lot to unlearn years of inadequate sex ed and sexist marketing — so be gentle with yourself as you navigate the world of vaginal health products. Also, if you feel the need to use feminine hygiene products (whether a matter of personal preference, religious practices, or cultural norms), we understand. Just remember that vaginas are a lot smarter than we give them credit for and don’t need any external help to be kept “clean”!