Vaginas are not gross. They're nice! Exactly as they are. This is worth saying and repeating (and repeating, and repeating) because if you look around at the myriad wipes, sprays, soaps, and perfumes that exist for tending to your vagina with the intensity of a champion dog groomer, it sure seems like vaginas—one of the only parts of your body that thrives when left alone—are "dirty."
And they're not! At all. But just like the rest of your bod, vaginas (and the body parts around them) can become dirty, through normal wear and tear, and need a bit of maintenance in order to stay healthy 'cause if you don't, you might get a UTI. There's a lot of bad advice out there regarding vaginal cleanliness. So ignore all of that, and read up here on how to actually keep your vaginal area clean. No heavily scented products of 10-step routines necessary.
DITCH YOUR UNDIES AT NIGHTTIME
One of the easiest things people who get recurring yeast infections can do to improve their vaginal health is go commando when they sleep. Underwear—even good, breathable, cotton underwear (more on that later)—traps moisture against the skin, which makes your vagina just a little bit more hospitable to yeast and bacterial growth. Ditch the undies and sleep in loose, cotton shorts or pants. Or go naked altogether—your call.
YOUR VAGINA IS WHAT YOU EAT
Well, kind of. Has a doctor ever told you to eat lots of yogurt or take a probiotic when using antibiotics? That's because your body, and vagina, specifically, needs good bacteria in it to stay healthy and ward off infections. Fermented foods with a high probiotic content, like yogurt or kimchi, can help prevent yeast infections and keep your vaginal biome balanced. Also, they taste good.
DON'T FORGET TO CHANGE YOUR TAMPON
And do it regularly, if you can. The general rule of thumb is to change it every four to eight hours, according to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. It's OK to sleep in a tampon, but be sure to change to a fresh one when you wake up.
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," LIKE AN OVEN!
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
Based on the contents of my mailbox at the offices of Cosmopolitan.com on any given day, 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 lubeworks 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.