The care and keeping of your vagina

There’s a lot of talk out there about vaginal health and hygiene. A lot of products, a lot of concerns about what is “normal,” and a lot of information that is just plain wrong. We asked Dr. Jessica Reid, OB/GYN at the OHSU Center for Women’s Health to give us the facts.

  1. Your vagina is self-cleaning.

“Unless you have symptoms of infection or other problems, you don’t need to do anything besides basic hygiene,” says Dr. Reid.

Wash your vulva with water and unscented soap when you shower. Excessive washing or chemicals can be irritating. Remember to always wipe front-to-back after using the toilet. That’s it!

  1. Feminine wash? Douche? Vaginal lipstick? Jade egg? Skip them.

These products are mostly just unnecessary. They do little or nothing of benefit and are very expensive. Products that go inside the vagina, like douching, can cause problems.

“We never recommend douching,” Dr. Reid says. “It can disrupt the natural bacterial environment in your vagina, causing infections or irritation. Any device used in the vagina should be washed thoroughly between uses.”

Some products, like lubricants and vaginal moisturizers are fine to use. Choose products that don’t contain scents or other chemicals and stop using anything that causes irritation. If you use condoms for pregnancy prevention, choose a water-based lubricant. Oil-based lubricants can break down condoms so they don’t work as well.

  1. Your pubic hair, your choice.

Any decision about pubic hair should be your decision alone. Not your partner’s or anyone else’s. And please don’t worry about changing your pubic hair for your gynecology visit!

“I can’t tell you how many women have apologized for their hair when I do a pelvic exam,” Dr. Reid says. “Gynecologists really don’t care about your hair. Please don’t remove or change it for us.”

If you do choose some type of hair removal, clipping, trimming, laser-removal, or waxing are all better than shaving. Shaving can lead to folliculitis, an infection of the hair follicles that looks like pimples. Razors can also harbor tons of bacteria.

  1. You can see your gynecologist during your period.

There’s a misconception that you can’t get a vaginal exam or Pap smear when you’re on your period. It’s not true. Your period is just a normal part of your cycle and gynecologists can see you at any point in that cycle.

  1. Discharge is normal.

Your vaginal discharge is a sign of good health. It maintains moisture and healthy bacteria while washing out problem bacteria. Unless it has suddenly changed, you don’t need to be concerned.

  1. Odor is normal.

If an odor is new or different, see a gynecologist to check for infection. Otherwise, your odor is perfectly normal. If you are concerned, wearing cotton underwear and avoiding tight clothing can help the area breathe better.

“Many women feel sensitive about it,” says Dr. Reid. “I want them to know there’s nothing wrong, and it’s not something that people around them can detect.”

  1. Your body is normal.

Society sends us a pretty specific message about what a vagina and vulva are supposed to look like. But the truth is there is normal variation in these body parts, just like every other body part.

“I see lots of vaginas and vulvas,” Dr. Reid says. “They are all unique and different and beautiful and normal. The ‘perfect’ vagina does not exist.”

The only time to be concerned is if there are changes in appearance or you’re having symptoms – discomfort or pain with sex, for example.

  1. If you do have a problem, your gynecologist can help.

There are some signs of infection or other problems that are important to treat:

  • Changes in discharge not caused by a change in birth control method or pregnancy
  • A truly bad or fishy odor
  • Itching or burning
  • Pain with sex or urination
  • New bumps or sores
  • Irregular periods not caused by your birth control method

For all of these symptoms, your gynecologist can help. The one exception is yeast infections, which can sometimes be treated with over-the-counter medication. But if it’s your first infection, the medicine isn’t working, or you have very frequent yeast infections, see your gynecologist to confirm what’s going on.