Contrary to what you may have heard, keeping your genital area clean is simple and easy. The vagina is self-cleansing, which means there is no need for expensive products that clean it internally.
There is a large market that sells women unnecessary products to clean their vaginas. Not only is this psychologically harmful—making women believe the vagina is inherently dirty—but can also be physically damaging.
General care for the genitals should be external only. Washing yourself with water and a gentle cleanser will do the job. Think of it this way—wash what comes into contact with your underwear.
A surprising number of people still think that women urinate from their vaginas. Actually, urine passes through the urethral opening located just above the vagina. The tiny opening is not easily spotted and this reinforces the misconception that urine passes through the vagina.
This myth also perpetuates the idea that the vagina and vulva are dirty. Countless feminine care products claiming to clean the vagina or give it a fresh scent have been created in reaction to this myth. The vagina has its own natural scent. It does not smell like roses or lavender and there is nothing wrong with that. If you notice an unpleasant fishy smell, you may have an infection and should consult your gynaecologist. It is important for women to be aware of their natural odour so that they can tell when something in wrong.
The vagina is sealed from the outside world. It has its own microbiome, also called the vaginal flora. This means that the vagina contains specific bacteria that protect the uterus and maintain a slightly acidic pH level that can be easily thrown off balance by internal cleaning products.
A number of products are available to manage period bleeding, including some that are used internally such as tampons and menstrual cups. When choosing the most practical and healthy options for you, there are a number of things to consider. What are the most environmentally friendly options for period products? What is toxic shock syndrome? What are best practices for period hygiene? You can read about these topics by clicking on the links that interest you.
A few period hygiene basics to keep in mind are:
Consistency is key when it comes to washing yourself and your genitals. This may seem self-evident, but misinformation has led many of us to believe we need to do more in order to be acceptably clean.
Genitals have their own natural scent. A shower or bath will suffice to rid yourself of the smell of sweat that accumulates during the day. Pay attention to your upper thighs, vulva (make sure to wash between all of the folds and creases), and between the butt cheeks, taking care to gently cleanse the anus. When washing this area, remember to wash from front to back so bacteria from the anus does not come into contact with the vulva.
For intimate areas use hypoallergenic cleansers and wash using your hands. Rougher materials such as loofas or sponges can cause irritation. When it comes to the orifices that open our bodies to the outside world, nature has devised ingenious mechanisms to make sure everything stays clean— tear ducts rinse clean our eyes, snot removes anything that shouldn’t be in our noses, urination and bowel movements remove waste from our digestive systems, and the vagina cleans itself via vaginal discharge.
Simplicity is key. Wash your hands before and after, wipe front to back, make sure your toilet seat is clean or cover it with a protective layer. Special “feminine wipes” are available at drugstores and can be used on occasion to freshen up. Baby wipes also work just fine, but scented or antibacterial wipes, intimate deodorants, and scented panty liners all fall into the category of unnecessary and potentially harmful products.
Wet wipes can be useful when traveling or when water isn’t available. However, they are not a substitute for bathing, and should not be used as such.
Underwear plays an important role in keeping your vagina healthy and clean. Some basics to keep in mind include:
Change your underwear daily and wash it with mild detergent. Using laundry conditioners or scented detergent can be harmful for your vaginal flora.
Choose a natural and breathable fabric for your every-day underwear, such as cotton or bamboo. Synthetic fabrics can be worn on occasion but wearing them regularly over a long period of time can facilitate yeast infections or UTIs.
Make sure your underwear fits—underwear that is too tight can cause chafing and, if bacteria become trapped, contribute to painful yeast infections or UTIs.
Not wearing underwear can be beneficial—air flows freely and heat and moisture don’t get trapped around your genitals, which can minimise odour. However, if you do decide against wearing underwear, all of the hygiene practices usually attributed to underwear must now be applied to your other clothing.
Additionally, when wearing skirts or dresses, be careful not to let your genital area come in contact with any unsanitary surfaces. This includes park benches, the ground in public areas, and seating on public transportation.
Going commando is highly recommended while sleeping. Much like taking your bra off, sleeping without panties frees your genitals from any constrictions. If you aren’t comfortable sleeping naked, choose undergarments and sleepwear made of natural and breathable fabrics.
Sexual hygiene is one of the keys to a healthy vagina. Of course, there is more to good sex and a fulfilling sexual relationship than hygiene, but it is good place to start. The most important aspect of sexual hygiene is keeping yourself safe from any STIs and UTIs. This is where barrier contraception comes into play—using male or female condoms is the most reliable way of reducing the risk of contracting and transmitting disease.
In order to avoid UTIs, pee right after sex. This will flush out any bacteria that may have potentially entered the urethra during intercourse.
Some people enjoy anal sex, but the practice does come with its own hygiene rules. Anything that has entered the anus must always be washed before using it in the vagina. This includes penises, fingers, and toys. The bacteria inside the anus can cause infection if it enters the vagina. Also, make sure you use lubricants when performing anal sex as the anus doesn’t produce its own natural lubricant. If you are worried about faecal matter, it can ease your mind to know that most faecal matter does not sit in the rectal canal or anus; it is stored in the colon until evacuated. You can clean your anus before engaging in sex by washing around it or by using a rectal enema to rinse out any residue.
If you want to find out more about how to protect yourself during sex, read our article here.
The final component to good feminine hygiene is maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Just like the rest of your body, the health of your vagina is influenced by the foods you eat, how much water you drink, your sleep patterns, and how much you exercise—so for a happy, healthy body and vagina eat nutrient-dense foods, hydrate from the inside, turn off your devices several hours before bedtime so the blue light doesn’t keep you from sleeping, and get sweaty several times a week!
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