Your vagina and vulva are pretty self-sufficient, but there are plenty of things that can affect the health, comfort, and general ~happiness~ down there.
So to make sure you’re taking the best care of your bits as possible, BuzzFeed Health spoke with two board-certified gynecologists about common bad vagina habits: Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive science at Yale School of Medicine; and Dr. Sherry Ross, author of the book, She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period.
1. You attempt to clean inside your vagina, whether through douching or other means.
It’s self-cleaning up in there! Seriously! Because of what Minkin calls “good guy bacteria” — aka lactobacilli — keeping everything nice and clean, you don’t have to do a damn thing to make sure you’re healthy inside your vagina.
In fact, attempting to clean in there often has the opposite effect: If you wash out all the good bacteria, you’ll be left with a more basic (meaning, less acidic) vagina, which helps promote the growth of bad bacteria, leaving you more susceptible to infections, says Minkin. Not to mention, douching tends to dry you out — and a dry vagina is not a good place to be.
2. But you’re not taking the time to clean your vulva, which does need to be washed.
The idea that the vagina is self-cleaning is a little misleading, because when you hear “vagina,” plenty of people tend to think that means everything down there. But the vulva — aka the external parts of your genitals like your labia — needs some upkeep.
“The skin of the vulva is sensitive and needs the same hygienic attention that we give to our face,” says Ross. “From all the urine and sweat and being so close to the anus, it can be very dirty and bacteria can build up. Pimples and acne can be a problem there, too.”
All that said, it doesn’t take much to properly wash your vulva — in most cases, water and a hand or a washcloth or some gentle soap (we’ll get to that in a second) is all you need on the outer area of your genitals. To avoid overwashing, nonfragrant wipes for sensitive skin can be great for anyone looking for a quick touchup after the gym, before seeing a partner, or whenever you have a little buildup (or smegma) you want to clear out, says Ross. But keep in mind that even these can be irritating for some vulvas, so if you notice any discomfort or increased infections down there, just stick with water.
3. Or you wash it with scented or dyed soap.
Like we said, water is usually the best option, but for anyone who wants to ~feel~ a little fresher, a very gentle soap is okay. The problem is, most people think the more vigorous or better-smelling the soap, the better.
But NOPE. Scented, deodorized, or colored soaps are way more likely to irritate the sensitive vulva tissue, says Minkin. So when choosing a soap to use on your vulva, go for simple, unscented soaps with the least amount of ingredients, like a simple glycerin or castile soap.
4. You just scratch down there instead of getting to the root of the problem.
There are a lot of reasons your vulva might itch, whether it’s because you used a vanilla-scented wash down there, had sex recently, you’re experiencing some vaginal dryness, whatever. But when your genitals itch, scratching it is not the answer, because you’ll wind up developing a scratch-itch cycle, says Ross: The more you scratch, the more irritated and dry that it’ll get, the more you’ll need to scratch, etc. etc. etc.
SO, the best thing to do is figure out the root of the problem and fix that. You can check out this post for a variety of problems that could lead to itching.
In the meantime, Ross’s favorite remedy is a little coconut oil to rehydrate your skin. If you’re crazy itchy, try soaking in a bath with some of that tossed in. (FYI: Oils can break down the latex in condoms, so don’t use those two together.)
5. You chill in your sweaty gym clothes after working out.
Vaginal yeast infections are super common fungal infections caused by an overgrowth of yeast in the area. Given that yeast thrives in warm moist environments, sitting around in your sweaty, tight-fighting gym clothes can increase your chances of getting an itchy yeast infection, says Minkin. Which, no thanks.
6. You keep self-diagnosing and self-treating yeast infections.
On the subject of yeast infections, they can be treated with over-the-counter medication like Monistat. HOWEVER, if you fall into a pattern of getting them and treating it with OTC meds multiple times, it might be time to go to the doctor, says Minkin, because you might not actually have a yeast infection.
“Of the women who self-treat for a yeast infection, about a third of them actually have it,” says Minkin. “But a third will have another type of vaginitis, and a third will have some sort of irritative phenomenon, like a response to a condom or a wash they’re using.”
So if you’re not getting relief, check with your doctor to find out what’s really going on.
7. You don’t know how to wipe properly, or you just use crappy toilet paper.
SERIOUSLY, FRONT TO BACK, PEOPLE. This is a case of please don’t get fecal matter into your sensitive vagina and vulva.
But on another note, the type of toilet paper you use could be causing you some irritation — specifically thin, abrasive, dyed, or scented TP. So stick with white, soft, unscented paper, and your vulva will be a happy camper.
8. You don’t take time for foreplay before sex with a partner or yourself.
Meaning, you might not be properly lubricated for penetration. And a dry vagina during sex = an unhappy, uncomfortable one. Or worse, one with abraded or torn tissue.
9. Or you don’t use the right kind of lube when you need it.
THAT SAID, there’s nothing wrong with using lube, whether because you deal with vaginal dryness or because you just like extra lubrication when you’re getting down. But if you’re using lube, make sure to find one that works for you, which might take a little bit of experimentation.
“Never get the giant economy size on your first go because you want to make sure you’re not sensitive to it,” says Minkin. “A lot of lubes have preservatives or scents or other things your vagina might not like. So I always say to get a small size first, make sure you’re comfortable with it.”
10. You try ~trendy~ vagina things, like steaming or whatever else Gwyneth Paltrow suggested this week.
Most vagina trends fall on a spectrum of “unnecessary” (like vajacials) to “potentially harmful” (like steaming). Basically, unless you’re having any health problems, you don’t need to take any extra steps to take care of your vagina, says Ross. Look here for more information about what gynecologists think of common vagina trends you’ve probably seen around.
11. You don’t do Kegels.
Kegels are exercises that strengthen your pelvic floor — aka the muscles that support your bladder, uterus, and intestines. And you’re never too old or young to benefit from them, says Minkin. Pelvic floor strength is important for not leaking urine (which most people will do at some point in their lives), and it can even increase sexual sensation in your vagina.
Find out how to do Kegels here.
12. You don’t get tested enough.
Your vagina isn’t always going to tell you when something is wrong. “Getting tested for STIs after every partner is really important,” says Ross. “With a lot of the STIs, women rarely know they have it. Symptoms can be very loose and confusing, or there are none at all.”
Here’s everything you need to know about getting tested.
13. You don’t change your razors often enough if you shave down there.
Obviously, your dull razor isn’t going to do much to upset your vagina, but it could irritate your vulva a lot, and that’s just plain uncomfortable. Ross suggests changing your blade every two weeks or so: “Otherwise, there will be a lot of unwanted bacteria that can cause razor burn or bumps or acne and other irritation to the skin and hair.”
14. Or you don’t exercise proper wax etiquette.
To avoid irritation of the vulva skin (which, again, is super sensitive), you’ll want to exfoliate gently with a warm, wet washcloth, BuzzFeed Health previously reported. That helps remove any dead skin cells and makes sure that when the wax is applied, there’s maximum wax-to-hair contact, rather than the surrounding skin. Which, ouch.
Also, you’ll want to wear loose-fitting clothing and avoid having sex for 24 hours after your wax — otherwise you’re looking at a lot of irritation.
15. You don’t ask your gynecologist enough questions.
A lot of the time, you could be dealing with a vaginal problem that is easily treatable — but you don’t bring it up with your gyno because you’re embarrassed, worried about judgment, or just don’t think it’s a big enough deal to bug them about.
BUT YOU SHOULD ASK THEM ALL THE QUESTIONS! “There is nothing she or he hasn’t heard,” says Minkin. “Don’t be ashamed. If you’re worried about it, you ask.”
16. You think your vulva should look a certain way.
One of the worst things people with vaginas do is judge themselves based on how they look — especially in comparison to the vulvas we see in porn. “Vulvas come in all sizes and shapes and they’re all normal,” says Minkin. So love yourself down there as-is.
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