How to Promote Healthy Vaginal Bacteria — and Why It's Important

Good bacteria, the same types that are in your gut, are essential for sexual health too. Here's how to keep them in sync.

several petri dishes with bacteria growing
Photo: angeliodeco/Shutterstock.

They're tiny but powerful. Bacteria help make your entire body healthy — including below the belt. "The vagina has a natural microbiome that's similar to the gut's," says Leah Millheiser, M.D., a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Stanford University. That microbiome contains good bacteria that keep everything running smoothly, as well as bad bugs that can lead to issues such as yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis. (Both are potential reasons why your vagina might smell, BTW.)

And just like the bugs in your GI tract, certain medicines and other factors can cause the vaginal microbes to fall out of balance, increasing your risk of infection or irritation. Keep your good bugs — and, by extension, your vagina — healthy with these four science-backed strategies.

Don't Over-Cleanse

It's pretty common knowledge by now that douching is not a good idea. But there's another practice that's gained steam (literally) in the natural health sphere. The practice, called vaginal steaming, involves sitting over a pot of steaming water filled with medicinal — and fans of the treatment say it does several things, including "cleansing" the uterus and rebalancing hormone levels. Ignore the buzz. "Douching or steaming can get rid of good bacteria," says Dr. Millheiser.

If you're worried about odor, it's fine to occasionally use wipes after exercise or during the day, but stick to unscented ones and don't overuse them — a swipe is plenty. Also, stop immediately if you experience burning or irritation, advises Dr. Millheiser.

Pop a Probiotic

Choose one that contains at least two strains of lactobacillus, such as RepHresh Pro-B Probiotic Feminine Supplement (Buy It, $37,, which can increase healthy vaginal bacteria levels. So can probiotic yogurt — eating it, or, if advised by your doctor, delivering it straight to the source. "If a patient has a yeast infection and is taking oral antifungals, I'll occasionally suggest using a syringe or an applicator to place two tablespoons of plain, probiotic-rich yogurt into the vagina," notes Dr. Millheiser. (Again, check with your physician before trying this.)

Do a Quick Change

Everyone is guilty of occasionally sitting in sweaty gym clothes while grabbing a bite to eat or running errands after a workout session. But this should be avoided as much as possible. "That creates a warm, moist environment known to lead to the overgrowth of yeast," explains Dr. Millheiser.

To keep that from happening, be sure to change your clothes before you leave the gym. If you can't, wear underwear with a cotton gusset — it's breathable, so you'll stay drier, giving yeast and unhealthy bacteria less opportunity to overgrow.

Pick Lubricant Wisely

In the bedroom, avoid any lubricant containing glycerin. It's a common ingredient, but it breaks down into sugars, which may encourage bacteria or yeast overgrowth. When it comes to lube, look for glycerin-free options instead. (However, the ingredient isn't all bad — skin-care products with glycerin work wonders for dry skin.)

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