Are you treating your vagina with the care it deserves? As it turns out, probably not… and you might not even realise it.
It’s not necessarily that you’re mistreating your vagina – it’s just that we’re not always taught how to know when something’s up, so it’s very easy to unintentionally cause harm. If you've been struggling with unusual discharge and itching, or ever just wondered if you need to switch up your daily routine, here's how those everyday habits could be affecting your vagina:
1. Washing with soap
You’d be surprised how many people regularly use soap or shower gel to keep things ‘fresh’. Just a heads up here: your vagina is self-cleaning, and putting any chemicals near it is far more likely to do harm than good.
Dr Anita Mitra, gynaecologist and author of The Gynae Geek, told Cosmopolitan UK: “Washing inside your vagina, or particularly vigorously on the outside with soaps, washes and wipes can wash away the healthy bacteria that protect your vagina from infections, and can lead to irritation and excessive, foul-smelling discharge.
“If you're using them because you already have irritation or discharge I promise you they won't make it better.”
We probably need to clear this up early-on: if you’re concerned about infections, the only thing you can do to make it better is seeing a doctor. And while it’s totally understandable that you may feel nervous about doing so, it's imperative that you get anything unusual checked out by a professional. Dr Anita says: “Please go and see your GP so that they can check for any infections or skin conditions that could be causing problems, and have them treated effectively.”
2. Wearing tight underwear/clothes
Spanx and slinky numbers might have their uses, but Dr Anita advises keeping to more comfortable knickers for everyday wear. “Numerous studies suggest tight underwear or clothing increases your risk of thrush because it gives the yeasts a warm, moist environment to thrive,” she says. “But plenty of women wear tight things and don't have a problem, so if recurrent thrush is a problem, you could try and wear looser, cotton items and see if that helps.”
3. Hair removal
Sometimes it really is better for your body to let your pubic hair grow – particularly if you’re prone to sensitivities. “Shaving in particular can be quite irritating for the delicate skin around the vulva and can cause rashes,” Dr Anita explains. “Hair removal can also cause ingrown hairs which can be particularly uncomfortable and occasionally become infected.
Not that we’re suggesting you shouldn’t shave/wax/laser at all, if that’s what makes you happy. “Hair removal per se is not dangerous, but there isn't any evidence to suggest it has any health benefits,” says Dr Anita. “It's up to you what you prefer.”
If shaving gives you a reaction, but you don't want to grow your hair, why not try waxing? Listen to your body, and don't keep doing something that doesn't work for you.
You might not have thought it, but cigarettes can affect your vaginal health, as well as the more obvious health issues it tends to bring up. “The chemicals in cigarettes have a clever way of making their way to your vagina and can cause changes in the healthy bacteria population, meaning you can end up with thrush, bacterial vaginosis and they also increase your risk of vaginal dryness,” Dr Anita explains.
Cutting down, or better yet, cutting out, should make a difference if you’ve had symptoms.
Look, we know keeping stress under control is easier said than done, but it really does have a massive impact on every part of your body. “Time and time again, my patients tell me they get bouts of thrush or bacterial vaginosis when they're stressed out,” Dr Anita says. “We don't truly understand the exact mechanism yet, but it's probably due to the way stress impacts your immune system.”
If a chilled weekend is well overdue, get it booked in now and give yourself – and your vagina – a break.
6. The time of your menstrual cycle
“So not technically something you do yourself on a daily basis, but your hormones are changing on a day to day basis, and even by the hour,” Dr Anita explains. “Lots of women feel more irritation during and right after their period, when oestrogen levels are naturally low.
“This can also be a common time to get thrush or BV.”
7. The Contraceptive Pill
It might not be your first instinct, but have you considered switching up your contraception to give your vagina a break? “Because hormone levels affect your discharge and the bacteria population, the Pill can also play a role in vaginal health,” Dr Anita says. “Some women say the Pill, for example increases discharge, some say it makes them feel drier, some say it stops them getting vaginal irritation. But it's highly individual because we're all different, so see how your particular contraception affects you.
“Remember that just because one pill affects you, it doesn't mean all will, and there are loads of different types with different ingredients that you could try.”
8. Having sex
Some of you might be lucky enough to be getting it everyday, but even if sex is a rare occurrence it can hugely affect your vagina – particularly if you’re sleeping with a person with a penis. Dr Anita explains: “If you have sex without a condom and your partner ejaculates inside you, the presence of the semen can be quite irritating for some women, and it's been shown that semen can change the pH of the vagina and also alter the immune system response. It may also be why some people get a bout of thrush or BV after sex.”
Luckily, there's a simple fix that tends to solve most issues: “Always remember to pee after sex, even if you did use a condom, or there wasn't any semen involved, because sex can help bacteria get up inside your urethra (which is a separate hole from your vagina and this can lead to a urinary tract infection."
9. Not cleaning sex toys properly
Whether you use toys regularly or on the odd occasion, they should be cleaned every time: before and after use.
The majority of sex toys (which are usually made of silicone, glass and stainless steel) can be cleaned sufficiently with good, old-fashioned soap and water. However, be gentle: opt for fragrance-free, mild soaps to avoid any unwanted irritation. You can go antibacterial if you want to, but mild and fragrance-free should do the trick. To avoid any soap absorbing into the toy and causing itchiness later on, be sure to rinse your toy thoroughly with water.
Store them in bags or boxes to stop them from picking up dust or crumbs.
And some things that won't affect your vaginal health...
Some feel that sleeping in underwear might be restrictive to your vagina, but this isn't true. Knickers are fine overnight - but as with in the day, it's important to choose a comfortable, breathable material.
Dr Anita also told us: "Washing the vulva with water is fine but you should never wash your vagina with water."
If you feel that there’s anything unusual about your vagina, visit your local GP immediately.
Otherwise, if you’re sexually active, make sure you have regular sexual health checks (twice a year). Your vagina will thank you for it.