Few things cause more embarrassment than issues with your vagina. Whether you're reeling from vaginal discomfort, itch, or odor, you may feel too ashamed to talk about it, which may stop you from visiting a healthcare provider. The problem is, this can lead to an array of do-it-yourself solutions—including feminine hygiene products—which could lead to further complications.
To make matters worse, the feminine hygiene industry represents billions of dollars in sales in the United States. You may notice dozens of feminine hygiene products while walking down the aisles of your local drugstore and wonder if you should try one. But you can protect your wallet by understanding some of the basics. Here's what you should know about feminine hygiene—and which products may be right for you.
Feminine hygiene 101
Let's start with some of the basics of your anatomy and vaginal hygiene.
First, you should know the difference between your vagina and vulva. Your vagina is the inner muscular tract from your cervix to your vaginal opening. Your vulva is all the external parts—your inner and outer labia, clitoris, clitoral hood, the vestibule (around the vaginal opening), and the urethral opening.
To keep your vagina and vulva healthy, you need to maintain your pH and bacterial balance. Your body uses estrogen to keep your vagina healthy by encouraging lactobacilli to grow. These bacteria keep the pH balance of your vagina slightly acidic—which may protect your vagina from microorganisms that can cause disease. Your vagina may also have yeast but the acidity usually keeps the amount under control (ACOG).
Is my vaginal discharge normal?
Probably. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), your vagina produces a natural discharge at puberty. You will have vaginal discharge every month and it changes throughout your menstrual cycle. The discharge keeps your genitals clean by removing dead cells from the walls of your vagina.
Your vaginal discharge may be normal if it's clear or white—and it shouldn't have a noticeable odor. If the color, amount, odor, or consistency of your discharge changes, it may be a sign that something is off. A strong odor may be the sign of an infection that needs medical treatment. While it may be tempting, you shouldn't try to cover up strong odors with any type of spray, deodorant, or douche (ACOG).
How to identify and treat a vaginal infection
If your vaginal pH balance gets disrupted, it may cause an infection. The two most common types of vaginal infections are bacterial vaginosis (BV) or a yeast infection.
Bacterial vaginosis happens when too much bacteria grow in your vagina. You may identify bacterial vaginosis if you have more discharge than usual or a strong "fishy" odor. A doctor may prescribe antibiotics to clear up the infection—which you may take by mouth or insert into your vagina.
Similarly, yeast infections happen when there is too much yeast in your vagina. Some of the causes for yeast infections may be lubricants, spermicides, some antibiotics (which may kill too much of your good bacteria), or being pregnant. The most common sign of a yeast infection is when your vulva burns or itches. A doctor may treat yeast infections with a medication—either taken orally or vaginally.
You may also experience vulvovaginal changes during different stages of your life—like during pregnancy and menopause. When you are pregnant, your levels of estrogen and progesterone may shift—which can make vaginal infections more common. There may be some vaginal changes after giving birth, as well.
You may also experience changes to your vagina and urinary tract during menopause. These changes may make your vagina dryer and thinner and may cause discomfort. Luckily, you can explore a variety of treatment options with your healthcare provider (ACOG).
Do I need to wash my vagina?
No, you don't need to wash the inside of your vagina because it produces its own natural discharge throughout the month—kind of like a self-cleaning oven. You do need to wash your vulva, though. As a reminder, this includes your inner and outer labia, clitoris, clitoral hood, the vestibule (around the vaginal opening), and the urethral opening.
According to the Mayo Clinic, you don't need to wash your vulva with anything more than warm water. Adding something else—like anti-bacterial soap or chemicals—has the ability to disrupt your vagina's natural pH balance.
Should I use feminine hygiene wash?
Feminine hygiene products may include feminine hygiene washes, intimate washes, feminine wipes, douches, or deodorants—and the short answer is no, you shouldn't use them.
Several studies have found douching—which involves flushing the vagina with water or cleaners—may be particularly harmful. By disrupting your vagina's natural pH, you may be more vulnerable to other infections, like sexually transmitted infections (STI). This may increase your risk of getting cervical cancer or pelvic inflammatory disease.
The same study found intimate washes may be risky, as well. These products may increase your risk of bacterial infections by 3.5 times and urinary tract infections (UTI) by over 2 times. Unfortunately, intimate cleansing wipes may cause the same problem by preventing the growth of healthy bacteria (Medical News Today).
How to practice good feminine hygiene
Are you noticing a vaginal odor that isn't from a vaginal infection? It may be coming from your inner thighs and skin folds—not your vagina. The Mayo Clinic recommends the following intimate hygiene tips to keep your vagina and vulva clean and healthy:
Skip any type of deodorant, perfume, gels, or powder in the vagina.
Try to maintain a healthy weight.
Avoid tight-fitting underwear, pantyhose, girdles, or pants—especially at night when you are going to sleep.
White cotton underwear is the healthiest option.
Use a mild detergent and wash your underwear separate from your other clothing.
Consider using a menstrual cup or tampons during your period and change each one frequently to prevent leakage.
Good feminine hygiene and sex
Vaginal odors may be particularly troublesome in the bedroom. If you're worried about vaginal odor while having sex, don't use a feminine hygiene wash or start douching. Instead, consider taking a shower with warm water first. If you're experiencing vaginal irritation or abnormal discharge, consider using a condom and making an appointment with your healthcare provider.
After sex, you should try to urinate to avoid getting a urinary tract infection (UTI), particularly if you are prone to contracting them (The Mayo Clinic). If you use sex toys, make sure to clean the part that touched your body with hot water and liquid antibacterial soap—or follow the manufacturer's specific cleaning instructions.
Keep your feminine hygiene simple
When it comes to good feminine hygiene, there's one good rule of thumb to remember—less is more. You don't need costly feminine hygiene washes, perfumes, or deodorants to clean your vagina and vulva. If you're experiencing unpleasant odors, these products may only make your problems worse. Instead, you may keep your vagina and vulva clean with daily showering and cleaning your genitals with warm water. If you start noticing something is off—like more discharge, itching, or a strong odor—speak to your healthcare provider as soon as possible. While your issue may be common, you may need a doctor to prescribe a medication to clear up a vaginal infection.
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Kate Dore is a Nashville-based personal finance writer and Candidate for Certified Financial Planner™ Certification. She teaches financial literacy with Junior Achievement and writes for Lifehacker, Business Insider, Investopedia, and Credit Karma. You can follow her on Twitter at @KateDore.