One of the challenges women face is managing the inconvenience of menstruating while keeping up with all their usual obligations. We’ve compiled some helpful suggestions for keeping things fresh while you’re ‘on the rag’.
There is deeply ingrained social stigma around menstruation that makes many women want to fade into the woodwork until it passes instead of carrying on with their lives. But this stigma is mostly based in myths that have long since been refuted. Knowing the facts about your period and creating a personal menstrual hygiene routine can help you keep feeling fresh throughout the month.
Your period occurs due to hormonal changes in the body. Hormones are biochemical “messengers”, organizing the body for its biological imperative to procreate. The ovaries release the female hormones estrogen and progesterone. These hormones cause the lining of the uterus (or endometrium) to thicken in preparation for a fertilized egg to imbed itself in the uterine wall and begin to develop. If there is no fertilized egg and no pregnancy, the lining breaks down and is expelled as your menstrual blood. This happens each month during the fertile years of a woman’s life from puberty to menopause.
The average duration of a menstrual cycle is 28 days (from the first day of menstruation to the first day of the next menstruation). The length of the cycle does not depend on the length of the calendar month or the phases of the Moon; it is an individual biological process that is often shorter or longer than average, generally falling within the range of 21 to 35 days.
No two menstrual cycles are exactly the same—each of them come with their own rhythm, and their own peculiarities.
Some women worry that they smell differently when they menstruate, that this smell is unpleasant, and that others can smell it too. As long as you have good hygiene and are using appropriate cleansing products, you should have no cause for concern. Have you ever noticed another woman’s smell because she is menstruating? Probably not.
Each of us has our own body scent and menstrual bleeding doesn’t change this much. There may be a slight metallic smell from the iron in your blood and the natural bacterial flora it comes into contact with, but generally, this is not noticeable to others.
It is important to remember that natural bodily functions have natural bodily smells. Your vagina isn’t supposed to smell like roses or citrus candy, despite what advertisements for feminine hygiene products want you to think. If you are regularly changing your tampons and sanitary pads (find out how often you should change them here and rinsing your vulva with lukewarm water (with or without an intimate wash), you are practicing good feminine hygiene.
Personal hygiene should not be overdone. The vagina is designed to be self-cleaning, and being considerate of your vaginal microflora is the best way to support this natural function.
Harsh products and overwashing can damage the protective barrier on the surface of the skin, potentially leaving your intimate area open to infection. For daily cleansing, choose a natural cleanser that doesn’t contain harsh detergents, perfumes, dyes, or preservatives (such as good-quality intimate washes or emollients), or simply use warm water. Having a conversation with your gynecologist can give you a clearer idea of how these products work, and where you can find them.
The inside of your vagina is naturally wet. If you want to dry your intimate parts, dry the outside only with a soft, clean towel. Pat gently, don’t rub.
Never douche! People once wrongly believed that a mixture of vinegar and water is the best way to wash away menstrual blood or semen and to eliminate odours. Some even thought that douching could wash away STDs or keep you from getting pregnant. In fact, douching does none of these things and can end up harming your intimate health by upsetting the pH balance of your intimate parts, which makes you more vulnerable to infection.
Intimate wipes are a good solution when you are on the go—whether at work, or traveling, or during summer when life gets sweatier, intimate wipes can provide the freshness you need during your period. Make sure the wipes you choose are designed specifically for your intimate parts—they should not contain substances that irritate gentle skin and should support the proper pH balance of your vagina.
For the same reason, avoid using coloured and/or scented toilet paper. Fragrances and dyes added to toilet paper are common irritants that can cause uncomfortable symptoms such as irritation and smelly discharge. During menstruation your body is more vulnerable and therefore susceptible to these irritants. And remember to wipe from front to back to avoid transferring faecal bacteria to the vagina, which can cause infection.
Some women want to use perfume on their privates to ensure everything smells good down there. Unfortunately, perfumes are composed of mostly synthetic fragrances and diluting solvents that aren’t great for your privates. The most common diluting solvent is ethanol—a type of alcohol (which is a known irritant). It doesn’t have much of an effect on the more robust skin that covers most of our bodies, which has the ability to grow accustomed to changes in pH and other environmental irritants over time, but your genitals are too delicate for this kind of treatment.
The skin on the inside of the vulva is quite different to the skin on the outside of your body. Technically, it is not skin, but mucosa, which lines the internal cavities of the body and is much more sensitive. The vulva and vagina are part of a delicately balanced ecosystem where an ideal pH range must be maintained. Aside from alcohol causing a burning sensation in mucosa, the potential result of an irritant such as alcohol coming into contact with the vulva is vulvitis, a condition that causes irregular discharge, itching, irritation, and vaginal odour—which is the reason for using perfume in the first place! What’s more, a pH imbalance or unwanted bacterial growth can result in painful inflammation of the external vaginal area.
If you do notice a fishy smell or your genitals feel itchy or achy, talk to your doctor. This could be a sign of yeast infection, bacterial vaginosis, or an STD such as Trichomoniasis (you can read more about sexually transmitted diseases and their symptoms in our article here).
If this is the case, washing won’t solve the problem. You will need a diagnosis and, most likely, medication. Yeast infections are all too common, especially in younger women and often while they are having their periods. This microfloral imbalance can be regulated with probiotic food supplements and the use of hygienic tampons containing probiotics that create a friendly environment for the ‘good bacteria’ your vagina needs. Your doctor may prescribe an antifungal cream, tablet, or suppository.
If you are fighting off an STD or bacterial vaginosis, both of which can cause long-term difficulties, you may need to take antibiotics.
During menstruation and during the rest of the cycle, natural cotton fibre underwear is your best bet. Synthetic panties look beautiful—they are often bright in colour and feel pleasantly silky, but synthetic fabrics prevent the skin from breathing.
Wearing synthetic underwear for a single night isn’t too bad, but you can look just as fabulous in natural, breathable fabrics. Panties made out of cotton and bamboo fibers are much better for you, and feel fresher and more comfortable in the long run.
An exception to this rule is period underwear, also called period panties. They are made of layers of synthetic fabrics, such as nylon and lycra coated with a liquid repellent finish, designed to absorb menstrual blood (up to three teaspoons of liquid). There are different models for light, medium, and heavy flow days. You can wear period panties on their own, or together with a tampon or menstrual cup for extra safety.
Specialised moisture-wicking underwear can also be helpful during exercise, but just like period panties, these are meant to be worn for a specific purpose, not during your day-to-day.
Some natural fibres require more care, and can be more easily smudged and stained. If your underwear is stained with blood, wash it as soon as you can in cold water! Hot water causes blood to clot, which makes it more difficult to get it out of the fabric, and you definitely want to wash out the blood before it has had a chance to dry. Darker colours can be easier to manage—greens, blues, reds, browns, and blacks wear well and small stains are not so visible.
If your bleeding is not very heavy (in the final days of your period, for example) and you use a menstrual cup at night, you may be able to do without underwear entirely. ‘Going commando’ while you sleep allows your intimate bits to relax.
Spending some time outdoors can help a lot during menstruation—enjoy the fresh air and get some exercise! It can be tempting to hibernate your way through your period (and you should get all the rest you need), but when you shut down, your bodily functions stagnate.
Exercise and fresh air improve your mood and, if your period doesn’t interfere too much, continue with your usual sports activities. If you are prepared, nothing is off the table—yoga, running, and even swimming can be done while menstruating, just remember to wash the sweat away once you’re done. Moving fills you with energy, tones your body, and releases hormones that promote well-being!
You can track your period using WomanLog. Download WomanLog now: