We all know the basics of personal hygiene. Brush your teeth at least twice a day, shower and wash your face, and wear deodorant. But when it comes to your lady parts, you may feel a little less sure of what to do.
There’s a lot of bad advice around for taking care of your intimate bits. Some of it is just unnecessary; some may even be flat out harmful. But taking care of “down there” shouldn’t have to be a hassle.
All it takes is a little knowledge and you’ll be well on your way to knowing yourself and what you need to be clean and healthy. And more importantly, you’ll be sure of what you don’t need—or want— near your nether regions.
Figure Out Your Anatomy
First, we need to review a few basics about our lady parts that will be referenced throughout.
Australian gynecologist Dr. Elizabeth Farrell states that we often mix up terms when referring to our parts: “Most people use the term “vagina” when describing female genitalia. What they are actually referring to is the vulva.”
Let’s break this distinction down further:
The vagina is the inner muscular tube that connects to the uterus. It is also known as the birth canal during pregnancy and childbirth. This is a very strong organ that also is capable of cleaning itself!
The vulva is the area that you can see. It contains all external parts of the female genitals. The way this area looks can vary, so it is important for you to know what your parts look like and what is normal for you. That way, you will be aware if you are having any problems, such as irritation or rashes.
Those are the basics you need to know for hygiene purposes. If you have any questions or concerns, your gynecologist or general practitioner is the best resource for getting more information. Knowledge is power!
Keep Good Bacteria
Bacteria is a word that scares a lot of people. There is some good reason for this, but bacteria, in general, has an unfairly bad reputation. While it’s true that bad bacteria can cause illness and infection, there is such a thing as good bacteria.
Everyone’s body contains good bacteria, and a woman’s vagina is no exception. This good bacteria is essential for your health and wellness.
Here are just a few of the benefits of having an army of healthy bacteria:
- Protection. You want enough good bacteria to outnumber any “bad” bacteria that may make their way inside. There’s strength in numbers!
- A strong barrier. Good bacteria provide a barrier to other bacteria in order to prevent them from holding onto the walls of the vagina and infecting the underlying tissues.
- Antibiotics. Believe it or not, these amazing good bacteria can actually provide you with your own natural antibiotics, in order to destroy any bad bacteria.
- Balance. Enough good bacteria is needed to make sure the vaginal environment doesn’t lose the correct acidity and pH balance.
In other words, your body’s natural vaginal bacteria actually prevent infection! If you wash away or kill these important organisms, you may inadvertently cause inflammation and pain.
So now you may be wondering:
“How do I keep the good bacteria, while clearing away the bad stuff and keeping myself clean and fresh?”
You’re in luck! Here’s the lowdown on keeping things clean…
Bathe the Right Way
Despite what you may have heard from a well-meaning relative or a magazine ad, keeping yourself clean is simpler and easier than you think.
While there are products on the market specifically advertised for cleansing the vaginal area, these special products aren’t required.
Many women may become concerned by the presence of vaginal discharge when they are not on their menstrual cycle. But rest assured, not only is this discharge totally normal, it is actually an essential part of your vaginal health and hygiene.
A woman’s cycle is not just your period days but includes all days of the month in between. As your body prepares the uterine lining that you shed during your period, it also releases eggs during ovulation. This and other hormones related to these processes can cause a range of healthy discharge to occur. So not only is discharge normal, it can vary throughout the month.
The only time to be concerned is if you notice something different than the usual. Normal, healthy discharge should not cause pain or itching. If this occurs, or if it has a very strong odor, this is a possible sign of infection. Make an appointment with your doctor or gynecologist to diagnose the problem and get treated.
When it comes to your choice of soap or body wash, anything you use on the rest of your body should be fine. But, there are two things you do want to avoid: heavy fragrances and antiseptic formulas.
Doctors will advise you that it’s best to just use simple and non-perfumed soap or body wash to gently wash around the vaginal opening and vulva. Rinse well with water and pat the outside areas dry. The inside will clean itself; no need to do anything more.
Some women will use vaginal douches to try to clean inside the vaginal canal, rinsing out the naturally occurring discharge with water and cleansing agents. But this is actually the opposite of what you want. Although there may be some unwanted bacteria that get inside, the vaginal discharge is there to actually take care of this for you. If you rinse this away, you rinse away the good bacteria as well. And that can actually allow the bad bacteria to take hold and wreak havoc.
What about wipes?
You may have seen special wipes in the feminine care aisle of the drugstore aimed at keeping you clean between showers. While this extra step may be desirable during your menstrual cycle to help you feel fresher, these wipes often contain harmful ingredients that you actually want to keep far from your vagina and vulva.
The fragrances used in wipes are put there to help mask “unwanted odors” that many women fear they have, especially during their monthly period. But fragrances can create truly problematic situations for your body. Perfumed products can cause irritation to the sensitive skin in and around your vagina. The ingredients that make up fragrances are also common allergens for many people. While using fragranced products might not cause a noticeable problem for some women, they can cause rashes and itching or a burning sensation for others. It is best to avoid these products altogether.
The presence of preservatives and parabens in vaginal wipes are also a concern for the delicate skin in this area. The reason parabens and other common preservatives are in these products are to prevent mold and harmful bacteria from forming on the damp surface of the wipes. But these chemicals are not beneficial to our health and have been linked to cancer and fertility problems. They are also a potential source of allergic reaction and irritation.
But, if you feel you that toilet paper alone is not doing the job, try some alternatives instead. One great suggestion is just to dampen a cloth or toilet paper in your bathroom sink for added moisture. If you are using a public restroom, try keeping a small bottle of water with you. Just be sure to replace the water daily to make sure it’s fresh. And if you really want the convenience of wipes, look for an unscented and preservative-free formula. And of course, if you notice any signs of inflammation, stop using them immediately.
Choose the Right Underwear
One area that is often overlooked when discussing feminine hygiene is what type of underwear you wear. This actually can affect your health!
Gynecologists recommend that you choose undergarments made of cotton, instead of synthetic fabrics. This is due to the fact that cotton is natural and breathable. It doesn’t hold moisture against the skin that could potentially cause irritation.
Synthetic materials designed to wick away moisture may be useful for workouts or other sweaty activities. The important thing is not to stay in any damp garment for longer than you have to. That goes for swimsuits as well. Change into something dry as soon as possible. This helps to prevent yeast infections.
Even more important than fabric type is fit. Avoid wearing undergarments that are too tight or ill-fitting. Wearing something that just doesn’t fit right may cause chaffing or simply cause your skin to be suffocated. You should be aiming for comfort; if you are unhappy in your bottoms, your lady parts will be too!
Drink More Water
Just like the skin on our faces, the skin of our lady parts needs care from the inside out! This includes drinking enough water to keep the tissue hydrated. If you aren’t drinking enough now, this can show up in vaginal and vulvar skin dryness and irritation.
So exactly how much water do you need?
The typical advice is to aim for eight glasses of water per day. But, if you sweat, you’ll need even more. Make sure that you make up for the water you lose when sweating during exercise and other physical activities.
Take Care of Your Monthly Gift
Our attention to feminine hygiene is crucial during that monthly visit from Aunt Flo. While many of us deal with bloating and cramping, worrying about odors are the last thing we need. So many of us turn to scented menstrual products for a sense of security that we smell clean and fresh.
But this could ultimately lead to much bigger problems. Your skin is actually quite sensitive to fragrance. Just like the soap situation, you don’t want to add unnecessary chemicals to this delicate area. You will run the risk of developing irritation or worse: an itchy and painful allergic reaction.
Instead of using scented period products, just give yourself a little extra care and attention during this time. To prevent irritation and guarantee a fresher feeling, be sure to change your sanitary item of choice regularly.
Tampons should be changed every three to five hours. This is not only to prevent a mess but is also necessary to prevent toxic shock syndrome. TSS is a dangerous condition that can be caused by leaving a tampon in longer than eight hours.
Pads should be checked every four to six hours, and changing them more often will ensure that they don’t start to develop any unwanted odors.
Shower or take a short bath every day to make sure your skin stays clean. Just like any other day of the month, there’s no need to use a special wash or soap. Use warm water and a bit of gentle cleanser and rinse thoroughly. And make sure you pat your skin dry before putting on fresh clothing.
See Your Gynecologist Once a Year
Perhaps the most important tip for your health and hygiene is to have a checkup with your doctor yearly, or any time you notice an unusual change. Nothing is worse than worrying about your feminine health on your own, or simply relying on old wives’ tales to guess at what’s going on down there.
It’s important to get regular health checkups even if nothing has changed and everything is good. Your doctor can check for things you can’t see to keep you in tip-top shape.
Your regular healthcare routine should include an annual gynecological exam starting at age 21. This is the time you should also start getting regular Pap smears to check for signs of cancer and make sure your inner lady parts are running smoothly.
This particular type of check-up is often referred to as a Well-Woman exam and is especially helpful in addressing various areas of concern in feminine health and hygiene. At your Well-Woman visit, your doctor can discuss your birth control options and address menstrual or sexual problems. You will also be screened for general health issues.
So when it comes to your lady parts, sometimes less is more. And remember, your doctor is always your best resource for a happy and healthy body from head to toe.