For years, the feminine hygiene industry has profited from its unaware customers by leading them to believe that their vaginas need to be cleaned. Advertisements have perpetuated the notion that vaginas are dirty and therefore would benefit from “fresh” and “clean” products. But, even with their promises for a healthy vagina, these products can be harmful. For example, Johnson & Johnson recalled baby powder and Estee Lauder Body Powder contain talcum powder with asbestos linked to ovarian cancer. Additionally, people have started putting things in their vaginas, like jade eggs, which gynecologists are vehement against. But, there’s one feminine hygiene product that women have been using since 1843—douches.
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Office of Women’s Health, almost one in five women ages 15 to 44 douche (wash or clean out the vagina with water or another mixture of fluids), which can lead to health problems that we’ll discuss later on in more detail. It may be challenging to unlearn what you’ve internalized, but under no circumstances should women be cleaning their vaginas. After all, vaginas are self-cleaning (though vulvas are a different story, which we’ll touch on later). Here, learn how to properly wash your vagina and why most feminine hygiene products are harmful.
A QUICK ANATOMY LESSON: WHAT IS THE VAGINA?
According to a 2016 survey conducted by gynecological cancer charity The Eve Appeal, nearly half of women don’t know where the vagina is. When researchers asked 1,000 British women to identify the vagina on a medical illustration, they were stumped. To make matters worse, 60% of these women couldn’t identify the vulva. This is not just a UK problem; Americans also aren’t familiar with the anatomy of vaginas. In 2010, a study was published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), where researchers found 80 percent of men and 62 percent of women were unable to locate the vagina correctly. Most people assume that the entire genital area is considered the vagina when it’s actually the vulva, which refers to the external genitalia that protects a woman’s sexual organs. The vulva consists of the labia majora (outer lips), labia minora (inner lips), clitoris (pleasure center), urinary meatus (urinary exit), and vaginal opening.
So, let’s settle this once and for all. Exactly what and where is the vagina?
Well, in scientific terms, it’s the muscular tube that extends from the cervix to the vulva. Basically, the vagina connects the uterus and cervix to the outside world and allows for menstruation, intercourse, and childbirth. If you put a mirror up to your vulva, then you’ll recognize the vaginal opening (AKA the vaginal vestibule or introitus) into the vagina as a stretchy tube located between the urethra and the anus.
THE VAGINA IS SELF-CLEANING
As we previously mentioned, the vagina is in fact self-cleaning in order to maintain pH levels. Because the vagina is fairly acidic compared to the rest of the body, women should refrain from using any product that’s neutral or more alkaline (a pH of more than 7). “When pH goes above where it should be, a low acidic level moving into a more alkaline territory, that’s when lactobacillus [good bacteria] gets elbowed out of the way and yeast infections or [bacterial vaginosis] can start,” sexual health and women’s wellness educator, Nina C. Helms, explains. “Interestingly, sperm is pH of 7 which is alkaline. That’s why you’ll hear some women get yeast infections every time they have sex because they’re very sensitive to pH imbalance and the sperm is throwing off their pH right away,” she adds.
So, the reason certain vaginal wipes could be causing infections is that they are throwing off your pH balance with low-acid ingredients. This is why you’ll want to rely on your body’s natural self-cleanser to moisten the vagina and help prevent and fight infections. The cleaning process is something you don’t have to worry about too much since it happens on its own through vaginal discharge, a white and pasty substance. It’s totally normal and basically science’s way of signaling that ovulation is approaching or readying us for conceiving.
Because of discharge, women may be concerned about how they smell down there. But as long as it doesn’t smell like fish or look like cottage cheese, then there’s nothing you should do about it (and if it does, then skip the drugstore aisle and head straight to your doctor). If you start using scented vagina soap or washes, you might disrupt the pH balance. For this reason, women should avoid things like douching and use only warm water to rinse their vaginas of unwanted bacteria.
WASHING YOUR VAGINA CAN WREAK HAVOC ON YOUR FEMININE HYGIENE
Many popular vaginal soaps and creams are pushed on women in order to make them feel like they need to wash their vaginas. For example, a 2013 study found that Vagisil, a product used to treat vaginal irritation, suppresses Lactobacillus (friendly bacteria) growth. Beyond that, people may use scented products during foreplay, DIY sex toys, and scented feminine washes, which can harm a healthy vagina by toying with their pH level and causing infections.
Vaginal steaming, an archaic herb-infused remedy publicized by celebrities like Chrissy Teigen and Gwyneth Paltrow, has been falsely advertised as a cure for funky discharge. According to Healthline.com, your vagina is not meant to be steam-cleaned: “An overheated vagina may provide the perfect environment for bacteria that cause yeast infections and other vaginal infections to thrive. Vaginal skin is delicate, sensitive, and easily traumatized. Using it as target practice for a plume of warm steam may cause vaginal burns or scalding.”
Vagina detox pearls are also—you guessed it—not healthy for your vagina. “You don’t need to detox … anything at all. There’s nothing in your reproductive tract that needs to be detoxed. Your whole body, you’ve got liver and kidneys—they take care of that,” Dr. Jen Gunter explained in an interview with CBC. “The pearls also contain borneol, an ingredient utilized in some traditional Chinese medicine practices and flagged by Health Canada as toxic back in 2002,” VICE explained. They noted that exposure to borneol may cause skin and eye irritation, nausea and dizziness in small doses, and restlessness, irritability, and seizures in larger amounts, according to the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services.
Douching, in particular, can cause an overgrowth of harmful bacteria, which can lead to a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis. When you disrupt the acidic environment, it can’t protect the vagina from infections or irritation.
YOU SHOULDN’T WASH YOUR VAGINA, BUT YOU SHOULD WASH YOUR VULVA
You shouldn’t be washing your vagina (internal), but there are ways to wash and maintain a healthy vulva (external). To ensure proper feminine hygiene, women should be wearing cotton underwear, which is breathable and absorbent to prevent yeast infections. “Synthetic materials like Lycra and nylon can be confining and non-breathable and can lead to irritation, rashes, and infection, especially if you’re already prone to those things,” OB-GYN Alyssa Dweck told Women’s Health.
Additionally, according to OB-GYN Dr. Kecia Gaither, a feminine soap should have a pH of about 4.5. “Ingredients should be natural without chemicals, colors, or perfumes added, which can be irritating to delicate skin. You should also find something that is moisturizing (natural oils like olive, coconut, and aloe,” she explains.
This is why Cora recently came out with One Wash pH balanced cleanser for the entire body, including your most intimate areas. Free of toxic ingredients and filled with nourishing herbs, it won’t strip your body of its protective bacteria.
REMEMBER, THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOUR VAGINA
Many women develop insecurities about their vaginas because of stigmas and social constructs derived from period taboos and harmful advertisement rhetoric. “You really don’t need to be dousing your private parts in chemicals and spending your money on expensive products that serve no purpose other than to temporarily make you smell like bad perfume,” Karley Sciortino writes. Women should embrace their vaginas and trust in the biological processes that keep them clean and healthy.