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The phrase “feminine hygiene” belongs in the trash alongside your last soiled dental dam or tampon.
But that doesn’t mean vagina owners shouldn’t prioritize the health of their genitals — they should!
Read on to learn why the language used to describe vulvar health is garbage. Plus, what vulvar health and hygiene really entails.
As it’s primarily used, “feminine hygiene” doesn’t really mean anything.
It’s nothing more than a marketing ploy. One that’s based in transphobic, misogynistic values designed to make cisgender women feel ashamed of their genitals, and therefore buy so-called feminine hygiene products.
The (false) message: Using these products makes you (and your genitals) clean, while not using them makes you dirty.
“While the phrase ‘feminine hygiene’ is often used to make people with vaginas feel dirty, the goal of the phrase is recognizing the unique qualities of the parts that make up the vulva and the vaginal canal,” explains Felice Gersh, MD, author of “PCOS SOS: A Gynecologist’s Lifeline to Naturally Restore Your Rhythms, Hormones, and Happiness.”
So, actually, a better, more accurate phrase would be vulvar/vaginal hygiene.
If you’re wondering why the phrase “vulvar hygiene” would *not* suffice, here’s a quick anatomy lesson:
- The vagina = the internal part of the genitals. It’s the canal where things like tampons and dildos can go.
- The vulva = the external parts of the genitals, which include the pubic mount, inner and outer labia, clitoris, and the vestibule.
And as Gersh notes, here we want to be talking about both parts.
As young as possible, actually.
“Just as parents explain to their children that they need to clean between their toes and brush their teeth, they need to explain to their child that they should tend to their genitals,” Gersh says.
Just as oral hygiene entails more than just one thing, vulvar/vaginal hygiene does too!
It really does all start with food!
“Our entire body needs a wide range of nutrients in order to function optimally,” Gersh says. “So, what we eat and drink affects our vulva and vagina in the same way that what we eat and drink affect all parts of our body.”
To maintain the most optimal vulvar and vaginal health, she recommends a diet rich in:
Likely, cleaning your bits is a far less ~involved~ process than you might have guessed.
In the shower
The vagina is a self-cleaning machine.
If you’ve ever seen discharge in your undies — assuming it doesn’t have a new odor or tinge — that’s evidence that your vagina is functioning just right.
The vulva, on the other hand, isn’t self-cleaning.
“The vulva is skin, and it’s skin that needs to be washed just like any other skin on the body,” explains Lauren F. Streicher, MD, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology and author of “Sex Rx: Hormones, Health, and Your Best Sex Ever.”
“A mild, fragrance-free soap with water and your fingers in the shower are more than adequate enough,” she says.
After going to the bathroom
“The most important thing to keep in mind when wiping [after pooping and peeing] is that you want to wipe your anus and vagina separately,” Streicher says.
Meaning, wipe one area, discard the used paper. Then wipe the other area.
The reason? “You don’t want to contaminate the urethra with anything from the rectum, because it increases the risk of a urinary tract infection,” she says.
And if you wipe each area separately, that’s a nonissue.
Just peeing? Be sure to wipe front to back, always.
Peeing cleans out any bacteria that may have migrated into the urethra during play, which may help reduce the risk of a UTI, explains Gersh.
“You can also do one little swish of water on your vulva with your finger, but don’t do any internal washing or scrubbing,” she says.
Pubic hair has many important biological purposes, says Streicher.
This includes protecting the delicate vulvar skin from friction during intercourse and other activities.
“But there has been no research that shows that the pubic hair has any function as far as hygiene goes,” she says.
That said, if you choose to remove some or all of your pubic hair, the way you do it matters.
“You want to use a fresh blade every time,” Streicher says. If that sounds too pricey, at the very least designate a vulva-only blade. That way you’re not using a blade that’s been dulled by shaving shag elsewhere on your body.
When you’re done, dry the razor and store it away in your cabinet as opposed to on a shower ledge. This can help keep the razor from growing mold and rust.
Even if you follow all these above steps perfectly, ingrown hair and irritation are still a risk. And for folks with uber-sensitive skin, they’re practically inevitable.
“A warm compress on the ingrown hair can help open the pore and pull the follicle from underneath the skin,” Streicher says.
But if the bump you think is an ingrown hair is accompanied by symptoms like funky discharge, a foul odor, or pain, reach out to a healthcare provider.
“They’ll be able to tell you if it’s actually an ingrown, and do any culture swaps they seem fit,” she says.
“You really don’t need to be worrying about soothing your vulva skin unless it’s irritated,” Streicher says.
If it is irritated, she recommends backing off any fragrant products and switching to a soap bar with mild, hydrating aloe vera.
If the irritation doesn’t go away, reach out to a healthcare provider.
“The best way to tell if something is awry with your vagina and vulva is to become familiar with it,” says Aleece Fosnight, a board certified physician assistant and medical adviser at Aeroflow Urology.
Her suggestion? Spend time learning the way your genitals typically:
How? By slowing down in the shower, sniffing the crotch of your panties, looking at your genitals with a hand mirror, touching or fingering yourself, and regularly going to the doctor.
“The biggest indication that something needs to change is if you’re experiencing unpleasant side effects or pain,” Streicher says.
That said, there are some ~major life events~ that may necessitate an update to your routine. Including:
If you have (or continue to have!) sex
If you become a sexually active person, prioritizing your genital health means knowing your current STI status.
Sex isn’t just penis-in-vagina penetrative intercourse. It’s also:
- oral sex
- hand play
- bumping and grinding
- anal sex
And the only way to know your current STI status? Get STI screened after every new sexual partner.
If you’re pregnant
“When you’re pregnant the last thing you want is [foreign] bacteria to take over, so my opinion is that less [cleansing] is more,” Gersh says.
If you’re going through menopause
“After menopause the vulva skin may need more moisture because the skin and area will become more dry,” Gersh says.
She also recommends additional supplements to keep the skin moisturized from the inside out and outside in:
Two words: Please don’t!
“Trends like douching and steaming may be fun to read about,” Streicher says, but they’re less than fun for your genitals.
“Not only are there absolutely no benefits to these trends, but doing them can actively cause harm,” she says.
Douching — the act of washing the vaginal canal with a water-soap or water-vinegar mixture — can alter the vagina’s natural microbiome.
And when that happens? “You take away the vagina’s natural defense against infections,” she says.
Vaginal steaming can also mess with these defenses. But even more painful and unsavory is the risk that it can literally burn your vaginal tissues and vulvar skin. Ouch!
To be very clear: Anything marketed as “feminine hygiene” is a no-go.
Ditto goes for anything that claims to be “pH balancing.” “The vulva doesn’t need to be pH balanced, and the vagina is able to manage its own pH,” Streicher says.
Yep! See a healthcare provider if you’ve noticed a change in look, feel, or smell, says Fosnight.
(Not sure how to notice a change? Scroll back up, darling!)
Whether you prefer video, page, or audio-only learning, there’s an education medium for you!
- Follow @DrJenGunter or read her book “The Vagina Bible,” which you can purchase online.
- Buy “Our Bodies, Ourselves” by Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, or check out their website.
- Peruse the Planned Parenthood website or the Planned Parenthood YouTube channel.
- Check out the website Bedsider.
Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based sex and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. She’s become a morning person, tested over 200 vibrators, and eaten, drunk, and brushed with charcoal — all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books and romance novels, bench-pressing, or pole dancing. Follow her on Instagram.