A big part of vaginal health is annual wellness exams with your gynecologist and regularly scheduled Pap smears. Daily speaking, vulva hygiene is in your hands.
First, some clarification on which part of the body we’re talking about. Although the whole genital region of people assigned female at birth 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 caring for your vulva is something that gets a lot of attention—and targeted marketing in the form of harmful products.
Let’s cover some common questions with super-important answers that will help protect the health of your vulva.
Vaginal odor is normal
Every vulva has a scent, and a mild, subtle one is perfectly normal and varies from person to person.
However, a strong or unusual odor could indicate an infection or other issue. If you feel that your vulva has a bad smell that needs to be covered up, please come see any of WHA’s compassionate providers, and we can investigate together whether there is an infection or irritation from products you may be using, or offer reassurance that your body is normal and healthy.
Clean your vulva with only water
You can clean the rest of your body and nearby areas with soap, then just let water run over your vulva in the shower.
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 soaping, scrubbing, pouf-ing, loofa-ing, or any other way you can think of to apply soap to your vulva.
Know that soaking in a bubble bath may be irritating to more sensitive vulvas; if this is 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.
Avoid scented products on your vulva
Products marketed toward “covering up” your natural scent are actually quite harmful. Things like perfumes, oils, cleansers and lotions can disrupt your natural balance and lead to irritation or infections. These products profit off our vulvar insecurity, but often the “odor” they claim to hide is perfectly normal.
Scented products like laundry detergent, scented menstrual pads or tampons can also be irritating to some vulvas. Look for fragrance-free options for the most gentle care.
Causes of vulvar itching and irritation
Vulvar itching and irritation can be caused by several things, including infections, allergies or even skin conditions. Speak with your provider about your symptoms so they can help pinpoint the cause and provide any treatment.
If you’re seeing spots or bumps on your vulva, know that some 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 your provider 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!
Pubic hair removal and hygiene
Pubic hair removal is completely optional and about personal preference versus hygiene. Shaving does expose vulvas to all of the fragrances discussed above that we hope to avoid, in the form of shaving creams, soaps and scented moisturizing strips on razors.
Some things to consider if you do choose to remove public hair: 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!
Waxing may be less likely to cause folliculitis, but it’s expensive to maintain and also requires the use of products for aftercare, 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 be 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 do for a partner or even a health care provider, please be reassured that you are great the way you came.
If you have further interest in vulvar health and body acceptance, the classic book Our Bodies, Our Selves, or the version directed toward teens, Changing Bodies, Changing Lives are helpful reads. Here’s to happy, healthy vulvas!