You know which shampoo gives you Victoria’s Secret volume and which mascara makes your lashes look like falsies, but do you know which feminine hygiene products keep you fresh and which ones may actually be hurting your hoo-ha?
In a University of Alabama study, one in eight women reported regularly douching; a quarter of these ladies also freshened up with feminine sprays, and nearly a third with feminine wipes. But according to Michele G. Curtis, M.D., a private-practice gynecologist, these below-the-belt hygiene habits (which the women in the study saw as essential) may actually be overkill. “The vagina is meant to be a self-cleansing organ,” she says. “There’s a reason it produces lubrication—it’s a way of cleaning itself.”
So what's the problem with being extra hygienic? Well, for one, products may have the opposite effect intended: “They can upset the balance of normal, healthy bacteria and yeast in the vagina,” says Alyssa Dweck, M.D., an assistant professor of gynecology at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and coauthor of V is for Vagina. That means you may be more prone to infections, leaving your lady parts with a less-than-pleasant odor.
You don’t have to let your downstairs fend for itself, though. Follow these six guidelines to keep yourself fresh and ready for action.
Clean Your Vulva
In case you zoned out during anatomy class, your vagina is the internal cavity of your genitalia, while your vulva is the stuff you can see: your labia, clitoris, and the openings to your vagina and urethra. “Your vagina is an internal organ,” says Curtis. “It’s very permeable.” That gives the chemicals in cleansing products (including hormone-disrupting fragrances and parabens, a type of preservative) easy access to the rest of your body. “Wiping off extra secretions is probably not that big a deal,” says Elizabeth Boskey, Ph.D., coauthor of The InVision Guide to Sexual Health. “But you shouldn’t be putting chemicals and other things inside the vagina.”
In the University of Alabama study, 70 percent of the women who douched assumed doing so was safe, since the products are on the market. If only. “Douching not only has the potential to disrupt the natural vaginal bacteria, but if there is an infection in the vagina or cervix, it has the potential to force that infection up into the cervical canal and uterus,” says Boskey. “Generally, you shouldn’t be douching unless your doctor says to douche with this product, at this time, to handle this condition.”
Accept Your Scent
Newsflash: Your vagina will have a smell—you just have to learn to distinguish between normal odor and a sign of something fishy. “Everyone’s vaginal odor is slightly different,” says Boskey. “What women need to watch for is a change in their vaginal odor. If it’s smelling unpleasant, and the odor changes over time, talk to your doctor.” In other words, don’t just mask the problem with a feminine hygiene product. If your vagina smells funky, you may have an infection, which warrants medical attention.
Not sure if your scent is “normal”? As gross as it sounds, you may want to ask your partner’s opinion. “If your guy thinks your vagina smells sexy and like a healthy vagina should, then the smell probably isn’t a problem,” says Boskey. “A lot of guys actually find the smell actively arousing.” [Tweet this tip!]
There is one exception to the “no products inside your vagina” rule: pH-balancing moisturizers. “If you have healthy, normal vaginal flora, you’re pH balanced naturally,” says Curtis. That said, “some women never feel like things are 100 percent right in their vagina,” even if their hormone levels are fine and they’re infection-free, says Dweck. In these cases, she recommends RepHresh or Luvena, vaginal moisturizers designed to keep your pH in check.
Stick to the Wipes
We know: Even if your woo-hoo is perfectly healthy, the faintest odor can kill your sexual confidence, regardless of what your guy says. So go ahead, stash a few feminine wipes in your purse if you want to freshen up before oral, says Boskey. Just make sure you choose the gentlest option out there: a wipe without alcohol (which can dry you out), fragrance (a cause of irritation), and glycerin (another cause of drying and irritation), such as Emerita Feminine Cleansing and Moisturizing Cloths. An easy alternative: Simply moisten a piece of toilet paper with water, then wipe yourself down.
Keep It Simple
You don’t need a special soap for your lady parts. In fact, you may not need soap, period. “Water can rinse away any external residue, like sweat or mucus the vagina has secreted, without altering the pH of your vagina,” says Curtis. Just focus on softly rinsing off your labia and the surrounding folds. "You don’t have to attack your vulva like it’s public enemy number one," says Curtis. Scrubbing too hard can create micro-tears in the tissue, predisposing you to irritation or infection, she warns.
If the idea of skipping soap freaks you out, select a mild variety, like Dove or Ivory. (Hint: Test the soap on your hands—if it leaves them chapped, don’t use it to slather up downstairs.) “You don’t need to use a loofah or washcloth. Your hand is fine,” says Dweck. After you step out of the shower, consider drying off your pubes using the “cool” and "low" settings on your blow dryer. That way, your vulva isn’t damp when you put on your panties. “If you trap the moisture, it may increase your risk of a yeast infection,” says Curtis.