Experts share the 100 percent unfiltered truth about how you should actually be cleaning your vagina
When it comes to how to clean your vagina, there’s a lot of questionable advice and products out there. Advertisements for “vaginal washes” will have you believe you need special products to get the job done. But are those really the best way to clean your vagina? To find out, we chatted with Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., a clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at Yale Medical School, and Lauren Streicher , M.D., an associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Here’s their advice for how to wash your vagina.
First, let’s talk about the difference between your vagina and vulva.
Reminder: your vagina and vulva are not the same thing. The vulva is the part outside your vagina that includes the labia, which has two parts: the outermost folds called the labia majora and the innermost folds called the labia minora, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The vulva also includes the mounded pubic bone area, the clitoris, and the vaginal and urethra openings.
As part of your internal genitalia, your vagina is that muscular tube on the inside of your body. You know, where penetration happens (if you’re into that). It starts at your vaginal opening and ends at your cervix (the opening of your uterus), according to the Cleveland Clinic.
So, what’s the best way to clean your vagina?
All your vagina really wants is for you to let it do its self-cleaning thing. “You never wash your vagina under any circumstances,” Dr. Streicher says. “That should never be done.” (Coming out hot! But really, don’t do it.)
You know how self-cleaning ovens have their own magical way of keeping themselves pretty pristine? So does your vagina, which cleans itself by regularly expelling the mix of fluid and cells you probably know as discharge, according to the Mayo Clinic. (Here’s a handy guide to figuring out your discharge.)
Thanks to discharge, there’s “no medical need to do any douching or anything like that,” Dr. Minkin says. In fact, it can actually screw things up in there.
“The hazard of [cleaning your vagina] is that you can upset the balance of power between good-guy and bad-guy bacteria,” Dr. Minkin says. “Washing can deplete the Lactobacilli bacteria that will keep your vagina at an acidic pH and prevent infections.”
When your vagina’s pH balance is upset, it opens the door for issues like bacterial vaginosis, which can cause burning during urination, discharge that’s gray, white, or green, and a “fishy” vaginal odor, according to the Mayo Clinic. (So that might make you want to wash your vagina even more, which could just make the issue worse.)
You can clean your vulva if you like, but it’s important to treat it delicately.
“The best thing to cleanse [your vulva] with is plain water,” Dr. Streicher says. “Any time you use any soap or anything else, there’s a chance of causing irritation.”
If you’re wondering, But what about those vulva-cleansing products that specifically say they’ll help with my pH?, don’t be fooled. “Inside the vagina, pH is critical, but pH inside and outside are completely separate,” Dr. Streicher says. It’s like telling someone they can solve their bad breath if they stop brushing their teeth and instead wash their faces with toothpaste, she says: “If you have vaginal odor because of a pH imbalance, [these products] will do nothing for you.”
It’s worth noting that products claiming to be pH balanced may simply mean that they won’t do anything to further disrupt the pH balance in your vagina. But again, this isn’t really something you need to worry about, since you aren’t going to use soap internally.
If you absolutely want to use soap on your vulva, that’s fine as long as you keep gentleness in mind. Dr. Minkin recommends using the mildest soap you can find without any dyes or fragrance that could upset your skin. If it causes any vulvar burning or inflammation when you use it, stop using it and switch to water to see if that helps, Dr. Minkin says.
If your symptoms aren’t gone after a few days (or if they’re specifically inside your vagina, not on your vulva) make an appointment with your ob/gyn to make sure nothing else is causing them, like a yeast infection.
If you’ve gotten this far and are annoyed because you don’t think water and a mild soap can tame your vaginal odor, that’s a sign you should call in some medical reinforcements, Dr. Minkin says. While it’s entirely normal for your vagina to have its own scent, if it suddenly becomes much stronger than usual, it could signal anything from bacterial vaginosis to a sexually transmitted infection like trichomoniasis. Instead of trying to scrub away the smell (and your worries), see your doctor to get to the bottom of it.
Here are some other ways to keep your vagina healthy and happy.
In addition to basically leaving your vagina alone and cleaning your vulva with water and mild soap, there are other things you can do to keep your nether regions free and clear of irritation. Here are some good tips for good vaginal care, according to the Cleveland Clinic:
- Wear 100 percent cotton underwear, and steer clear of synthetics like nylon and acetate.
- Same goes for pantyhose—avoid nylon, which traps heat and moisture, making it a hot spot for organisms to grow. Instead, wear cotton tights or nylons that have a cotton crotch.
- Throw new underwear in the wash before you wear it.
- And speaking of washing it, use soap that’s gentle and stay away from fabric softeners
- Stay away from scented hygiene products like douches, sprays, deodorants, bubble bath, and talcum powder.