The sheer number of products aimed at making the vagina cleaner, healthier, and more presentable might seem to imply that the genitals are supposed to have a beauty routine of their own.
A staggering variety of so-called feminine hygiene products seek to help with “vaginal odor” and discharge, and “keep you fresh”.
From deodorants to cucumber cleanses and the newest fad “vaginal steaming”, these products actively promote the view that women’s vaginas should either have no smell at all or exude the whiff of rose petals or vanilla pods.
While there are more and more women who are generally not big fans of “douching” – a French term for washing out the vagina using a liquid spray – it’s still important to understand why cleaning the vagina with any aforementioned products is not recommended. Keep reading to find out why exactly.
The mighty bacteria
Research shows that many women perceive vaginal discharge as undesirable and unnatural rather than physiological and normal. Data suggest around half of all women use panty liners to absorb discharge with up to 30 % using them on a daily basis.
But there is no need for your vagina to smell like a garden, gynecologists say. It doesn't need to look like a perfectly groomed garden either.
The vagina is an amazing organ. It is lined with a mucous membrane that protects against infection (necessary in any part of the body that opens to the outside world), as well as a clever, complex mix of bacteria – also known as vaginal flora – that does the same thing.
Did you know that actually, only the bowel has more bacteria than the vagina?
Together, they keep the vagina healthy.
Generally, good vaginal health is maintained by making sure your overall health is in good shape. Just like we can get dysbiosis in our gut, the same thing can happen to our vaginal flora.
The vagina is self-cleaning, too, doctors assure. It’s keeping itself safe and hygienic with secretions.
The vagina is a self-cleaning organ that does not require special cleaning products. It does not even need any cleaning products at all.
The smell is part of the system
Vaginal discharge plays an important role in keeping the vagina healthy. From puberty, when estrogen kicks in, the vagina becomes colonized with healthy bacteria from the Lactobacillus group which produces lactic acid.
This finely balanced vaginal ecosystem is referred to as the vaginal microbiome, and the resulting acidity of the vagina provides protection against sexually transmissible infections.
Vaginas are supposed to have a smell. This should be common knowledge by now, but it’s not.
The bottom line? The vagina contains a highly specialized army of bacteria that work ‘round the clock to keep your vaginal pH healthy and balanced.
And like other bacteria, these do have a smell.
Healthy vaginal discharge is made up of fluid from the vaginal walls, mucus from the cervix as well as the lactobacilli, and because the vaginal environment is hormonally influenced, variation in the amount of discharge throughout the month is to be expected and completely normal.
As well as providing a protective environment, vaginal discharge provides natural lubrication with between one and 4mls of fluid produced every 24 hours.
The aforementioned army of specialized bacteria exist for the sole purpose of keeping your vaginal pH at an optimal level to ward off other hostile bacteria.
It’s totally normal to see discharge — which may be thin or thick, clear or whiteish — in your undies at the end of the day. This is the result of your vagina’s cleaning efforts.
Healthy vaginal discharge has a characteristic smell – and in some women this can become stronger because of the large number of sweat glands in the hair-bearing pubic area. So while washing inside the vagina is not recommended, it’s important to keep the outer skin clean.
The truth is that products and services like vaginal douches, scented sprays, and pubic hair waxing aren't necessary. They can even cause serious harm to your vagina and outer genitals.
Anything put in the vagina can potentially disrupt the vaginal environment and its balanced vaginal flora, including tampons, penises, condoms, semen, fingers and hygienic sex toys. Disruption in these cases is almost always temporary, and the vagina quickly restores itself.
Your vagina knows what it does
It is important to note that, while many people use the term "vagina" to name the inside and outside of women's genitals, the correct name for the outside of your genitals is called the vulva, and that's NOT self-cleaning.
The vagina is a 3- to 6-inch-long muscular canal that runs from the cervix, the lower part of the uterus, to the outside of the body. The vulva is all the outer stuff — including the labia, urethra, clitoris, and vaginal opening.
Some people may want to clean the vulva, which is the outer portion of the genitals that surrounds the entrance to the vagina. Doing this can help many people feel cleaner and, as a result, more confident.
In this case, you should clean the vulva lips gently. Excessive cleaning can have negative effects.
The vagina is so good at cleaning itself, soap isn't needed to keep the area in tip-top shape. You don't need any special products to cleanse to the vagina in any way...unless your doctor tells you otherwise.
Cleaning your vagina with water externally during bathing is quite adequate. Use a small amount of mild unscented soap if you must. Soap dries out your mucous membranes, which are already more likely to absorb toxins.
So you should refrain from special preparations, perfumes, and potions. Your vagina knows how to take care of itself.
If you find your vagina smellier than usual, we recommend consulting with your gynecologist, as the problem probably requires more than a drugstore product.
At the same time, everyone's vagina is supposed to have its own unique odor, so you shouldn't be alarmed if yours has a distinct scent.