Vaginal pH: What does it mean?
What does my vaginal pH mean?
Vaginal pH plays a vital role in the health of your vagina by providing insight into your vagina's defense against infection, inflammation, and disease. Knowing what factors can influence pH levels is an important way to ensure you know what’s up when it comes to caring for and protecting your vaginal health.
Highlights from this article:
- Vaginal pH is a key indicator of overall vaginal health
- Vaginal pH is considered ‘normal’ between 3.8 and 4.5 on the pH scale
- The vaginal microbiome is an acidic environment made up of primarily (>70%) lactic-acid producing bacteria known as Lactobacilli
- An unbalanced vaginal pH can lead to a range of issues including an increased susceptibility to infection (and vice-versa — infections like BV and candidiasis can totally impact your pH, too)
- One way to prevent an unbalanced vaginal pH is to better understand the factors that might throw it off and to keep track of any changes to your vaginal microbiome over time
What is your pH and why does it matter?
The term pH refers to ‘potential of hydrogen,’ and is a highly useful scientific measure for how basic (alkaline) or acidic a solution is. In this case, the “solution” is your incredibly complex and unique vaginal microbiome.
Technically speaking, pH is a scale that runs from 1 to 14, with 7 being the neutral midpoint. Any substance with a pH of less than 7 is considered to be more acidic, with numbers 7–14 representing the alkaline side of the scale. Research shows that most healthy women will have a vaginal pH of between 3.8 and 4.5, an environment that’s considered to be moderately acidic.
Why does the acidity of your vaginal microbiome matter? Well, it’s a relevant marker for your health that is determined by the presence of lactic-acid producing bacteria. These bacteria are in charge of preventing infections and keeping invading pathogens at bay. Disruptions in pH are associated with a range of disorders including:
- Bacterial vaginosis (BV)
- Yeast infections caused by an overgrowth of candida
- UTIs and (in extreme cases) kidney infections
Studies indicate that a more acidic pH functions not only to support normal functioning of the vagina, but also to decrease inflammation related to any chemical exposure you might encounter in day-to-day life (we’re looking at you, scented pads and fragranced body wash!)
When anything from changes in lifestyle factors to fluctuations in hormones occurs, there is potential for pH to be disrupted, having various consequences for sexual, reproductive, and overall health.
What does (and doesn’t) pH mean for overall vaginal health?
It’s important to realize that pH is a rough measure for the amount of lactic acid that’s being produced in your vagina; it’s not a direct diagnosis for any of the conditions listed above. Just like having a fever is a metric correlated to the flu — but not necessarily a tool for diagnosing it — pH can be used as a health metric for better understanding your vagina, and noticing when any problems arise.
Vaginal pH test strips are readily available and can be a useful tool for providing a litmus test for the acidity of the vagina. Promisingly, research studies have shown that when a pH test is paired with certain biomarkers of vaginal dysbiosis, such as the ones we use here at Evvy, the accuracy of a proper diagnosis is significantly improved as a result. Gone are the days of knowing that something is wrong “down there” but not receiving any real answers as to exactly what that something might be (raise your hand if you’ve been there before).
Given that higher pH is correlated with bacterial vaginosis, they can also be helpful in deducing whether symptoms are due to BV or yeast infections (since yeast infections often don't increase the pH). That said, pH tests can't reveal the actual levels of protective bacteria (that's what an Evvy test is for!) or diagnose an infection or disease (which you’ll need to go to your doctor for).
What are signs of an abnormal vaginal pH?
Some signs and symptoms to look out for when it comes to an unbalanced vaginal pH include: any changes in smell, color, or quantity of vaginal discharge (especially anything that can be characterized as fishy or cheese-like) as well as the experience of burning, itching, or general discomfort in that area.
With that said, not all infections or vaginal pH imbalance symptoms will look the same for everyone—it’s about knowing what’s normal (and abnormal) for you!
So, what can disrupt your vaginal pH balance?
There are several factors that can all impact the balance of your vaginal pH, with some being more avoidable than others. These factors include:
Sex — due to the introduction of new bacteria and/or fluids (eg. semen) that are more alkaline.
Infections — most commonly those like BV or yeast.
Certain medications — after all, antibiotics wipe out both the good and bad bacteria in your microbiome.
Hygiene — things like washing with perfumed shower products or wearing tight/sweaty clothes for long durations of time.
Menstruation and period products — during menstruation your pH will naturally become elevated as a result of your period blood temporarily creating a more alkaline environment. Vaginal pH can also be affected via the use of any scented or perfumed period products that interrupt the production of lactic acid in the vagina.
Menopause — aging and the subsequent reduction in female estrogen levels has been linked to a higher (less acidic) vaginal pH.
Douching — There’s no need; your vagina is self-cleaning, remember! This includes douching with water, soap, or any other solution.
What are some ways to maintain a healthy vaginal pH?
While avoiding any of the behaviors that could negatively impact the friendly bacteria in your vagina may seem like the obvious answer to maintaining a healthy pH, we know that can be easier said than done.
Your vaginal microbiome is a highly sensitive ecosystem, so even activities that your vagina was designed for, like sex or menstruation, can cause fluctuations in pH from time to time. Sperm, like period blood, is far more alkaline than the optimal environment of the vagina, with a pH of somewhere between 7.2 and 7.8. As a result, the pH of the vagina may rise during intercourse in an attempt to prolong the viability of the sperm as it travels to reach the egg.
While for many people this poses no problem at all, some women find themselves more prone to developing infections during or shortly following their monthly cycle or unprotected sex. Preventative measures, like using a barrier method of contraception and swapping out a tampon for a menstrual cup or unscented pad may then help to mitigate some of these natural pH-unbalancing effects.
Unfortunately, research shows that even “pH-balancing” products, like gels, moisturizers, and body wash, have little to no effect on restoring pH. In general, it’s best to stick to routine practices such as eating healthily, keeping good hygiene, and incorporating both pre and probiotics into your diet, All of these can help you avoid any changes in pH that might promote vaginal infection and inflammation.
If you are experiencing a vaginal infection, make sure to check your pH or make an appointment with your doctor. If you’re curious about keeping track of your vaginal microbiome and pH over time, take a look at our Vaginal Health Check!
Looking for something we didn’t cover here? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Referenced in this article:
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- O'Hanlon DE, Moench TR, Cone RA. Vaginal pH and microbicidal lactic acid when lactobacilli dominate the microbiota. PLoS One. 2013 Nov 6;8(11):e80074. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0080074. PMID: 24223212; PMCID: PMC3819307.
- Brabin L. Hormonal markers of susceptibility to sexually transmitted infections: are we taking them seriously? BMJ 2001; 323 :394 doi:10.1136/bmj.323.7309.394
- Miller, E. A., Beasley, D. E., Dunn, R. R., & Archie, E. A. (2016). Lactobacilli Dominance and Vaginal pH: Why Is the Human Vaginal Microbiome Unique?. Frontiers in microbiology, 7, 1936. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2016.01936
- Tachedjian G, Aldunate M, Bradshaw CS, Cone RA. The role of lactic acid production by probiotic Lactobacillus species in vaginal health. Res Microbiol. 2017 Nov-Dec;168(9-10):782-792. doi: 10.1016/j.resmic.2017.04.001. Epub 2017 Apr 20. PMID: 28435139.
- Amabebe, E., & Anumba, D. (2018). The Vaginal Microenvironment: The Physiologic Role of Lactobacilli. Frontiers in medicine, 5, 181. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmed.2018.00181