Most important and complex things in life come with some type of owner’s manual, but when it comes to our vaginas, many women are left to figure things out on their own.
The fact that vaginal hygiene and health is still be a taboo topic is amplified by a lack of proper education in many schools around the world (including here in America), so we wanted to put together some simple and easy-to-remember tips and tidbits to help you stay fresh, healthy, and happy! Let's talk about general hygiene, how to address and fix common issues that many women experience, when it's time to visit your doctor, and even some products that can be helpful to have around the house.
1. Wipe from Front to Back
Chances are nobody has ever sat you down to tell you how to properly wipe yourself after taking a pee, and that's probably why some women wipe from back to front without even thinking twice about it. When you stop to think about it, it doesn't take long to realize why the direction of your wipes can play a significant role in your hygiene:
"The majority of cases of cystitis or urethritis are from E. coli, the normal flora that lives in your gastrointestinal tract. This helps you digest your food, but if you wipe from back to front you risk smearing it to your urethral meatus (pee hole)," explains Dr. Brian Bowes on Lifehacker. (source)
2. Wear Cotton Underwear
Cotton underwear isn’t about to win any awards for its sex appeal, but it is the most recommended fabric by gynecologists when it comes to keeping vaginal infections away. Underwear made from cotton is soft, breathable, and helps keep you fresh by wicking away moisture.
Synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon, and satin are known to trap moisture and heat. This combination creates the perfect home for yeast and bacteria, and it won’t take long for a yeast infection or vaginal infection to develop.
It’s recommended to sleep without any underwear, even cotton, at nighttime. This gives your body a chance to breathe and further reduces the risk of developing a vaginal infection.
3. Avoid Douching and Vaginal Deodorants
Vaginas are completely self-cleaning and maintain a healthy balance of bacteria on their own without the assistance of feminine douches or vaginal deodorant sprays. In fact, using such products can alter the natural pH of your vagina and disrupt the balance of helpful bacteria, causing vaginal infections like Bacterial Vaginosis to occur.
A faint, musty odor from your vaginal area is completely normal and may change depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle. Strong vaginal odors, especially when paired with unusual discharge or pelvic discomfort, should be evaluated by your gynecologist for official diagnosis and treatment.
Again, trying to alter your vaginal chemical balances often results in more problems. Vaginal products should only be used in moderation when absolutely needed.
4. Change Out of Wet or Sweaty Clothes
Before spending the day lounging in a wet bathing suit at the pool or running errands in sweaty gym clothes, think again.
Clothes wet from water or sweat are a prime breeding spot for bacteria, especially when paired with the use of synthetic fabrics that trap moisture. While you aren’t guaranteed to develop a vaginal infection, under the right circumstances, wearing wet clothing for a prolonged amount of time does put you at risk for developing a pesky yeast infection, rash, or UTI.
Instead, bring a set of dry clothes to change into while at the beach, pool, or gym. Additionally, choose swimwear and workout clothes made from moisture-wicking fabric to further reduce the likelihood of a vaginal infection developing.
5. Practice Safe Sex (for a not-so-obvious reason)
Everybody knows to practice safe sex for the obvious reasons of protecting yourself from STIs. But practicing safe sex also helps you avoid BV & yeast infections.
At a microscopic level, all penises have yeast and bacteria on them. When you have unprotected sex you basically expose yourself to various bacteria and yeast, which puts you at risk for more complications and/or infections. Wrap it up!
6. Watch Your Sugar Intake
You might have heard that a diet high in sugar can lead to diabetes, obesity, and heart disease but did you know it can affect the health of your vagina, too?
According to Dr. Lakeisha Richardson, on the topic of having an abundance of sugar in the bloodstream and its effect on vaginal yeast infections, “When you have normal glucose control, the yeast in your vagina doesn’t get enough sugar to grow. But when enough sugar passes through the area, you create an environment where yeast has more than enough nutrients to overgrow.” (source)
Although sugar is not usually the only culprit behind a yeast infection, if you suffer from recurrent infections that you can’t seem to shake, most doctors suggest looking at your sugar intake and eliminating a portion from your diet.
7. Urinate After Sex
If you’re prone to developing urinary tract infections (UTIs), you will want to make sure you are following this tip and emptying your bladder following each sexual romp.
During intercourse, the penis can force bacteria to enter the urethra. Eventually, these bacteria can make their way to the urinary tract, bladder, and kidneys. Urination helps flush bacteria before it can wreak havoc on your body, and it can make the difference when it comes to developing a UTI.
Other important pee-related tips include keeping hydrated, not holding your bladder, and drinking unsweetened cranberry juice or taking cranberry extract supplements daily.
8. Keep Your Sex Toys Clean
Hopefully this doesn’t come as a surprise, but your sex toys can grow bacteria if they aren’t cleaned properly between uses, leading to some nasty vaginal infections. Porous sex toys, like ones made out of Sensafirm, latex, and jelly rubber are more likely to grow bacteria due to the naturally occurring pinpoint holes in the surface of the product, but ultimately, any sex toy can harbor bacteria, so do yourself a favor and keep your sex toys clean!
The safest way to clean most sex toys is using warm water and a gentle, unscented soap being careful not to submerge the motor on motorized sex toys. For more delicate toys, like ones that use Cyberskin, wipe the toy gently with a damp cloth and gentle soap to avoid tearing. Sex toys should always be dried with paper towel or a fresh, clean towel.
9. Ditch the Skinny Jeans
If wearing skinny jeans (or other tight pants) is a normal thing for you, you might want to reconsider. Dr. Linda Nicoll explains: “Tight clothing can cause friction against sensitive genital tissues that may lead to microscopic tears.” (source) Additionally, she explains that these tears can cause discoloration, discomfort, and increase susceptibility to certain infections.
Tight pants are notorious for trapping moisture and heat, other common culprits in the development of a vaginal yeast infection (especially when paired with synthetic underwear!) This doesn’t mean you should never wear them, and if you aren’t having these issues, then you’re all good! But if you’re trying to get to the bottom of any recurring discomfort, this is worth trying.
10. Take Note of Changes in Discharge
Most of the time, vaginal discharge is nothing to worry about. In fact, it’s completely normal, and can change in quantity, color, and odor depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle, level of sexual arousal, and even throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding.
The trouble occurs when discharge accompanies other symptoms like vaginal itching, discoloration, strong odor, or has a lumpy consistency. All of these symptoms suggest infection and will need to be evaluated by your family doctor or gynecologist for official diagnosis and treatment.
Common causes for abnormal discharge are:
- Vaginal irritation
- Bacterial Vaginosis
- Yeast infection
- Using birth control pills
11. Change Your Pad Every 3 - 4 Hours
No matter how heavy your flow is, you should be in the habit of changing your menstrual pad every 3 - 4 hours.
Given the damp and warm environment, it doesn’t take long for bacteria to develop on the pad causing a pungent odor or vaginal infection. Unless you have an unpredictable flow, it’s recommended that you use lighter flow products so that you are actively needing to change them every 3-4 hours.
For tampons, you should change them around every 4 hours for optimal hygiene. As a reminder, never leave a tampon inserted for longer than 8 hours, because you’ll be putting yourself at risk of developing a potentially fatal condition: Toxic Shock Syndrome.
12. Get Yeast Infection Symptoms Checked Out by a Medical Professional
While it’s true that you can treat a yeast infection at home, you should still get your symptoms checked out by your doctor or gynecologist, at least until you are comfortable recognizing the symptoms and you are certain that an STI isn’t behind the itching, burning, or discharge.
You should also see your doctor for treatment if you are pregnant (for medication approval) or have had more than four yeast infections in the past year. Stubborn infections will need to be treated using prescription antifungal medication and your doctor will want to rule out other conditions (like diabetes) that could be causing your recurrent yeast problem.
13. Only Use Personal Lubricants for Lube
Lubrication is an important tool used during sex because it reduces friction while enhancing pleasure for you and your partner. Some women produce enough natural lubrication through arousal, but for those that don’t, there is an assortment of personal lubricants available to meet their needs. You should be able to use any oil-based, water-based, or silicone-based personal lubricant unless you use latex condoms, then you’ll want to skip any oil-based option as they can cause breakage to occur.
Petroleum jelly and household oils on the other hand are a big no-no and should never used in your vagina as they can cause swelling, discomfort, and increase your likelihood of developing a vaginal infection.
14. Get Tested for Sexually Transmitted Infections
Getting yourself tested for Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) is one of the most crucial tasks you can do for your vaginal hygiene and overall health. Some of the most common STIs are gonorrhea, chlamydia, hepatitis B, genital warts (HPV), and genital herpes. It’s recommended that you get tested if you:
- Have started being sexually active
- Want to stop using condoms
- Have a new sexual partner or multiple sexual partners
- Your partner has cheated or is having sex with multiple partners
- You are displaying symptoms of a possible STI
An untreated STI puts you at risk for infertility, blindness, cancer, organ damage, and more. In some people, symptoms can remain dormant, but they can still unknowingly pass the infection to their sexually partners.
15. Exercise Caution When Switching Between Anal and Vaginal Sex
Just like with wiping from back to front, switching from anal to vaginal sex without changing the condom or washing up can introduce harmful bacteria into your vagina.
This introduction of bacteria can lead to some pretty nasty infections, ranging from Bacterial vaginosis (BV) to a more serious condition known as Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
Pelvic inflammatory disease has the potential to wreak havoc on your reproductive system but it’s fully treatable, especially if diagnosed in the early stages of the infection. However, it can result in hospitalization, lifelong pelvic pain, and infertility if left untreated.
16. A Strong, Fishy Odor is a Symptom of Bacterial Vaginosis
It’s totally normal for your vagina to have a faint odor. It shouldn’t be too noticeable though, and if you can describe the smell as “strong and fishy” there is a chance that you have an infection called Bacterial vaginosis (BV).
BV is one of the most common vaginal infections in America, so you’re definitely not alone if you are suffering from symptoms of the infection:
- Vaginal discharge with foul odor
- Vaginal itching
- Burning or painful urination
Luckily, it’s also totally treatable with a round of antibiotics from your gynecologist or family doctor. For some women, the infection can continue to come back after treatment, so in that case, boric acid is recommended. To lessen your chance of developing BV, follow these tips:
- Wipe front to back
- Avoid douching
- Wear cotton underwear & loose-fitting pants
- Practice good vaginal hygiene
17. Stay Hydrated
Drinking your “eight glasses a day” is important for more than regulating body temperature and other functions, it helps keep your vagina hydrated and fights off infections, too!
It has been shown that dehydration can cause an imbalance of the yeast and beneficial bacteria located in the vagina, ultimately leading to vaginal infections such as the ever-so-common yeast infection. Dehydration is also a main source of vaginal dryness, affecting the labia majora and minora as well as the amount of natural lubrication produced.
Signs of dehydration affecting the vaginal area include itchiness, burning, and pain during intercourse.
18. Avoid Using Scented Tampons
When it comes to your vagina, scented products are almost always a no-go and tampons are no exception. While some women can use scented products with no obvious signs of trouble, many women experience vaginal irritation from the added fragrance. This could look like swelling, itchiness, dry skin, or rash.
In some cases, scented tampons can mess with the vagina’s delicate pH balance, putting you at risk for developing vaginal infections like BV or a yeast infection. There isn’t really a reason to use scented tampons anyway, but the risks associated definitely make them a product to avoid when it comes to vaginal hygiene.
19. Keep Up with Gynecologist Appointments
To maintain your vaginal health, you really can’t put off regular gynecologist appointments. Your gynecologist is important for diagnosing and treating infections and screening for abnormalities in vaginal health.
One of the most well-known vaginal screening tools is the pap smear. Pap smears are taken to test the cells located in a woman’s cervix, usually starting at age 21.
According to The American Cancer Society’s guidelines, women between the ages of 21-30 years of age should get pap smears done every 3 years and women from 30-65 years of age should get them done every 5 years with additional HPV testing.
20. Probiotics = Happy Vagina
You might have heard the good news about probiotics and the potential effect they have on maintaining vaginal hygiene and health. But first: what are probiotics? Probiotics are beneficial bacteria, that naturally occur in some food like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and tempeh. You usually hear people talk about the benefits of probiotics on the digestive system, but they help keep yeast and bacteria balanced in the vagina, too!
Probiotics are often recommended during times when the vagina’s pH level gets thrown off, and it’s no longer in its normal acidic state. This can happen after antibiotic use, after douching, and when starting hormonal birth control. When your pH level is off, you are more susceptible to vaginal infections and contracting sexually transmitted infections.
You can consume probiotics by taking supplements high in Lactobacilli or eating probiotic-rich food like the ones mentioned above.
Proper vaginal hygiene is important for feeling comfortable and keeping your vagina healthy, and it doesn’t have to be a whole big thing. By following these simple tips, you will help your body fight off vaginal infections and keep yourself protected from STIs that could cause lasting damage to your reproductive organs and overall health. If you are ever unsure about anything vagina or health related, get in touch with your family doctor or gynecologist.