Vaginas are not gross. This needs saying, because the myriad wipes, sprays, soaps, and perfumes that exist for tending to your vagina with the intensity of a champion dog groomer proves that this is still not commonly understood.
But, just like the rest of your body, vaginas can become dirty and need some moderate maintenance in order to stay clean and healthy. There's a lot of garbage advice out there regarding vaginal cleanliness. Too much garbage advice! Here's some actually useful information for keeping your vaginal area clean, with no heavily scented products involved.
Vagina ≠ vulva
Crucial differentiation here: The vulva is what you can see with your eyeballs when you look down at your pubic area. It's the term for the external parts of the female anatomy. It includes the labia majora, labia minora, and tip of the clitoris. The only part of the vagina you can see from the outside of your body is the opening. The rest is a tube that connects the vulva to the cervix and uterus.
Clean your vulva like any other body part.
Your vulva is covered in normal skin and can be cleaned the same way you clean the rest of your body—with just a bit more caution. But be careful of camping your loofah down there, or scrubbing too hard. One, it's not necessary. And two, if soap works its way up into your vagina, you could have an uncomfy situation on your hands, be it irritation or infection.
The vagina is self-cleaning!
ISN'T THIS FUN? The vagina has a naturally low pH, which discourages the growth of outside organisms and maintains a clean atmosphere pretty well on its own. So there's really no need to be shoving soaps up there in an effort to clean it.
No. Scented. Products.
Can't emphasize this enough. Heavily perfumed products, like that sweet soap you use on your armpits and elsewhere, has a tendency to irritate the skin inside your vagina, which is more sensitive than the skin on the outside of your body. But this doesn't just apply to soap. Even something as simple as scented tampons or a heavily scented laundry detergent used on your undies can irritate the vagina. And definitely steer clear of any of those bogus products that promise to make your vagina smell like a bed of roses. No one's vagina needs to smell like a bed of roses, and also, no one wants a bacterial infection.
Get out of sweaty or wet clothes.
Workout outfits are so cute these days it's tempting to stay in them for post-gym brunch and really just the rest of the day. Don't do this! Bacteria thrive in a dark, moist (sorry) environments. If you can't shower after swimming or working out, at least change out of your bathing suit or sweaty undies.
Wear cotton undies.
Cotton is the most breathable material you can cover your vagina with, as opposed to synthetic lacey things that, face it, aren't as comfortable anyway. And thongs—while practical!—can whisk bacteria into the urethra because they're so close-fitting, and that heightens your risk for a UTI (ouch). So choose your panties wisely.
Pee after sex.
And before, while you're at it! Technically UTIs are a urethra problem, and that is not!! the same hole as your vagina, but let's cover all the bases. The best way to prevent UTIs is to pee both before and after sex, in order to void all the urine in your bladder, and lessen the possibility of bacteria sitting around and multiplying inside your bod.
Wipe front to back.
Probably you don't remember the exact lessons you learned while being potty trained, and going pee is something you just do with zero thought. But maybe apply a little bit of critical thinking to the wiping step. Wiping from front to back lessens the odds that bacteria from your rectum will wind up near your vagina or urethra. Bacteria near the rectum is fine when it stays near the rectum. Elsewhere, it can lead to infections and irritation.
Choose your lube and condoms wisely.
There are so many types of condoms available. If latex is a no-go for you, no problem. Next time you need a quick thrill, walk down the condom aisle in the drugstore and you'll see what I mean. The same goes for lubes. Water-based lube works well for most people. But if you have a recurring issue with irritation post-sex, and you've tried different lubes and condoms and combinations of the two, talk to your doctor.
Choose tampons and pads wisely.
You should just be generally aware of what's in them. Research suggests that certain tampon brands include harmful chemicals called phthalates, known as "endocrine disruptors" that mess with your hormones. Dioxins, a byproduct of the process by which tampons are bleached, have also been found in certain tampons. Though the level of dioxin found in tampons is much lower today than it has been previously. Organic, unscented tampons and pads are your safest bet.
Gynecologists everywhere will tell you the same thing: It's bad for you and it's not necessary. The myth that douching creates a clean and shiny vaginal interior is just that — a myth! In fact, douching can actually make things messier by introducing harmful chemicals called phthalates to your vagina.
Keep your sex toys clean.
You are almost certainly already doing this. But just in case, here's a reminder: Your sex toys need to be properly cleaned between, um, uses. Just like you wouldn't wear the same underwear for several days in a row (I hope), you shouldn't use the same sex toy without washing it for days or weeks on end. There are special soaps and fancy gadgets that look like microwaves for cleaning toys but really a mild, unscented soap will do the job just fine. Most of these things are water resistant anyway.
Don't put anything that was in your butt in your vagina.
This goes back to the "wipe from front to back" principal. The bacteria in your rectum and anus is different from the bacteria in the rest of your body. Keep things where they belong! This applies to fingers, toys, penises, condoms, etc.
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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.