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Everyone seems to be talking about vaginas these days, from celebrities and gossip columnists to writers and grammar lovers and everyone in between. It’s becoming more difficult to sift through the dos and don’ts of having a vagina. As a sex educator, one thing I’m a stickler for is language. You’d be surprised how many people — of any gender — use the terms “vulva” and “vagina” interchangeably. They’re two very different things and it pays to know the difference.
So before we go into habits, let’s get a few facts straight.
What’s a vagina?
A vagina is also known as the birth canal for those who bear children. The vagina connects with the cervix and, through that, the uterus.
The ovaries, located on either side of the uterus, release eggs in fertile people. These eggs travel down the fallopian tubes to the uterus, where, in conception, they meet up with sperm for fertilization and implant along the uterine wall.
When fertilization doesn’t happen, menstruation does. Until the egg is released, the uterus builds up extra lining to provide the most hospitable environment possible for a fertilized egg. When an egg isn’t fertilized, though, this lining has to go somewhere. So it exits the body during your period until menopause or any number of factors affect menstruation.
What’s a vulva?
The vulva is the outside portion of the female genitals — the part you can see. It consists of the mons pubis, clitoris, urethra, labia majora, and labia minora. The labia majora is the outer fold of the genitals, while the labia minora is the inner fold. These parts help protect the clitoris, which is extremely sensitive — even more so than the head of a penis. And like the head of a penis, the clitoris can be a major pleasure center! In fact, many people with vaginas need clitoral stimulation to orgasm.
Now that we’ve sorted out the fun facts of anatomy, let’s explore some habits for vagina health. Here are eight things to keep in mind if you are the proud owner of a vagina.
I hate to break it to you because you may enjoy smelling “summery fresh,” but douching is actually harmful to the vagina. So, how do you keep it clean?
Luckily, vaginas are amazing organs. Not only do they help bring life into this world (as if that wasn’t enough), but they also do a great job keeping themselves clean. They do this by balancing healthy bacteria and pH levels on their own. No douching needed.
Douching actually eliminates some of that healthy bacteria, which changes the pH and makes you more susceptible to infections.
But what about smelling summery fresh, you ask? Each person’s genitals smell different and there are natural ways to affect your personal scent, including changing up what you eat. Things like pineapple can make vaginas taste or smell sweeter, while asparagus can have the opposite effect.
Try this: If you still want to clean your vagina and vulva, make sure to use non-scented products and only wash the labia majora. Rebalance Personal Moisturizing & Cleansing Wipes by Good Clean Love are a great way to remove excess sweat or feel a little cleaner without affecting the natural pH of your vagina. They also have a moisturizing wash that is great for those personal places.
It’s okay to do a bit of trimming or removing hair along your swimsuit line. No one says it needs to be unruly — although you should rock it however you want! — but please, do keep your pubic hair.
Pubic hair serves many purposes. It protects your downstairs from extra bacteria, and it also eliminates issues related to friction and sweating. Less hair removal also means less itch as the hair grows back, fewer cuts and scrapes, and fewer ingrown hairs.
Try this: If you must shave or landscape your pubic hair, try to use natural shaving gels and creams. Sliquid has a great line of hypoallergenic and vegan shaving creams that are fantastic for trimming up down there.
Lubrication is amazing. It can take sex to the next level for everyone involved. Still, there are some ingredients that aren’t very healthy for your body.
Glycerin, for one, is related to sugar. While it works great to keep lubes moist, it can also contribute to bacteria growth in the vagina. Petroleum products are also no-nos because they can ruin the vagina’s natural pH level. Other things you may want to avoid include:
- nonnatural oils
Try this: Uberlube is a fantastic personal lubricant that can be used for massage as well. It’s made of silicone and maintains a great silky and smooth feel throughout play. You might also like Good Clean Love’s Almost Naked lubricant, which is organic, vegan, and free of parabens and glycerin. It also smells amazing.
Do you find yourself wondering how the heck some toys work? You’re not alone. And it turns out, not all sex toys are safe for anything but taking up drawer space.
Toys made from certain materials are, generally speaking, safe. These include:
- stainless steel
- a type of plastic called ABS
That said, these need to be pure and medical- or even food-grade materials, not blends.
If you want to learn more, I recommend visiting Dangerous Lily for information on body-safe toys, dangerous toys, and more.
Try this: Generally, you want to avoid purchasing sex toys online. It’s hard to find out what these toys are made of and ensure they weren’t, um, previously used. That said, there are a lot of great organizations to buy from.
For example, Vibrant is one of my favorite shops. Not only are their toys all body-safe, but they also donate all their proceeds to the Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains. They’re incredibly quick to respond to any questions you have via the site or social media, as well. Another great company is Fun Factory. They make a wide variety of toys, including many that charge via USB, so these toys are incredibly accessible and eco-friendly.
One of the best and easiest things you can do for vaginal health is practice safer sex. Here are a few tips to staying safe:
- Use protection. That could be a condom, dental dam, or gloves. It’s not rocket science, and you already know you should, so just do it.
- Get tested regularly for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). You should get tested after any partners you exchange genital fluids with.
- Mind the order of your sex acts. Going from butt play to vaginal play can increase the likelihood that you’ll get an infection, such as those painful urinary tract infections (UTIs). If anal is your thing, make sure you do it after vaginal sex, not before.
- Make sure you check condom ingredients. There are a ton of brands that are made with spermicides. Spermicides aren’t very healthy for the vagina, as they can kill good bacteria in there, too. Use other forms of birth control if available to make for a happier, healthier vagina.
Try this: The FC2 vaginal condom is a great option. Because it’s not latex, it can be used no matter what lubricant you choose, though it does come prelubricated with a silicone-based product. Lifestyles makes a great nonlatex male condom. Lastly, Glyde has a wide variety of flavored condoms and dental dams for oral sex, as well as a great selection of condoms for penetrative action.
Peeing after sex can help reduce the likelihood of UTIs. Plus, it helps you get in some discrete clean-up time.
Breathable clothing and fabrics make happy vaginas. Cotton underwear is great. It has moisture-wicking properties to limit the amount of wetness that can promote bacterial growth. Changing out of wet clothing quickly can help limit issues, as well. Regardless of the kind of underwear you like, just make sure to change it daily.
Try this: It isn’t always easy to find cute cotton underwear, I know. Torrid has a variety of styles in a cotton spandex blend that still look cute while protecting your vagina. Torrid also runs from a traditional size 10 to size 30, meaning it has a great selection for people who aren’t always able to find what they’re looking for elsewhere.
No lie, sleeping naked can be healthy for your vagina. Regardless of what underwear you wear during the day, going without them overnight can help your vagina breathe. The benefits don’t stop there, though. Some research suggests that that cooler temperatures can be great for your health. An easy way to cool down? Get naked. Plus, once you’re in the nude, you might be surprised at how incredibly liberating and empowering it can be!
Good vagina health isn’t a one-step process. But luckily, there are lots of simple and easy things you can do every day to make sure your vagina is well protected and happy.
Kirsten Schultz is a writer from Wisconsin who challenges sexual and gender norms. Through her work as a chronic illness and disability activist, she has a reputation for tearing down barriers while mindfully causing constructive trouble. Kirsten recently founded Chronic Sex, which openly discusses how illness and disability affect our relationships with ourselves and others, including — you guessed it — sex!