It’s not just a catchy title– we actually do NOT recommend washing your vulva with soap! Water is all you need, my friends. But first, some clarification on what part of the body we’re going to be talking about. Although the whole female genital region is commonly referred to as the “vagina,” the correct term for the external parts is the vulva. The vagina and the vulva of course have a close relationship, but we will focus on caring for your vulva here, rather than on what’s happening on the inside.
Although some bodies are more sensitive than others and some people may have tolerated cleaning with soap for years without any apparent issues, we truly do not recommend sudsing, scrubbing, pouf-ing, loofa-ing, or any other way you can think of to apply soap to your vulva. You can clean the rest of your body and nearby areas with soap, then just let water run over your vulva in the shower. Soaking in a bubble bath may be irritating to more sensitive vulvas; if this the case for you and you love to take baths, you can try adding some epsom salt to your bath, which is cheap and easy to find at a pharmacy or grocery store and relaxing for sore muscles. Fragrances and scented products like laundry detergent, or scented menstrual pads or tampons, can also be irritating to some vulvas. These products profit off our vulvar insecurity, but often the ‘odor’ they claim to hide is perfectly normal. If you feel that your vulva has a bad smell that needs to be covered up, please come see any of our compassionate clinicians and we can investigate together whether there is an infection, irritation from products you may be using, or offer reassurance that your body is normal and healthy.
Another popular practice that can bother sensitive vulvas is getting rid of the hair down there. Ingrown hairs and folliculitis, aka infection or inflammation of the skin where hair normally grows, are common after hair removal, especially shaving. Folliculitis can sometimes progress into a more serious infection, called an abscess, which would need to be treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics can wreak all kinds of havoc on the good microorganisms that keep vaginas and vulvas healthy, so it’s important to avoid the need to take them if you can. Not to mention, an abscess on your vulva = OUCH! Shaving also exposes vulvas to all of the fragrances discussed above that we hope to avoid, in the form of shaving creams, soaps, and even the scented moisturizing strips on razors. Waxing may be less likely to cause folliculitis, but it’s expensive to maintain, also requires the use of products for after care which are likely to be irritating, plus, OUCH. There is so much messaging out there in the media and pornography that sets up an expectation that vulvas must remain hairless. If you have a personal preference for removing hair, all of the time or some of the time, and it hasn’t caused any problems for you, then go for it. You might also consider trimming hair a bit shorter, which doesn’t require using soap products or risk inflaming the skin. But if you feel like shaving or waxing is something you’re SUPPOSED to be doing for a partner or even a health care provider, please be reassured that you are great the way you came. There’s an entertaining podcast called unladylike that recently put out several episodes investigating “who decided lady-hair is gross;” perhaps you’ll find this as thought provoking as I did!
One final topic: spots or bumps that you might find on a vulva. Some of these may be normal or harmless skin conditions, like moles or skin tags you would find elsewhere on your body. If it’s something you’ve had as long as you can remember and hasn’t changed in size, shape, or color, it’s most likely nothing to worry about. Sometimes moles or skin tags can grow or darken during pregnancy. If you find a spot or bump on your vulva that you’ve never seen before, especially if it’s painful or looks like an open sore, please make an appointment to have it evaluated ASAP. Even if it’s not something that we can help you be rid of forever, like herpes, many conditions will cause less discomfort the earlier they’re treated. When in doubt, have it checked out!
If you have further interest in nerding out on vulvar health and body acceptance, I recommend the classic book Our Bodies, Our Selves or the version directed toward teens, Changing Bodies, Changing Lives. The website Scarleteen also has excellent judgment-free information if you search for articles on “vulva” (and it’s definitely not just for teens!). Here’s to happy, healthy vulvas!