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Vaginal health: What’s safe for down there

Published: April 6, 2023

Written by: Sally Wadyka

Young woman in a red sweater sitting cross-legged on a stoop smiling off to the right.

The key to vaginal health involves knowing how your body works and what products to use — as well as which ones to avoid. Here, some simple guidance helps you understand what’s best for vaginal hygiene.

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Conversations about vaginal and vulvar health are no longer as taboo as they once were. Yet, too many women still remain uncertain about the guidelines for genital care. That’s not surprising given that, over the decades, women have received mixed messages about what’s normal and when they should be concerned about embarrassing odors or not “feeling fresh.”

But social pressures may not be in line with the best medical advice. Mary Jane Minkin, MD, clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at Yale School of Medicine, says, for instance, that “a normal, healthy vagina may have a slight, distinct smell. Just because it doesn’t smell like roses doesn’t mean it smells ‘bad’ and should smell ‘better.’”

Understanding the vagina

First, it’s vital to understand some basic anatomy. “Women often use the terms ‘vagina’ and ‘vulva’ interchangeably,” says Cynthia Wesley, MD, author of Beauty Below: A Guide to Intimate Wellness and Beauty for Dark Skin. “It’s important to understand that ‘vagina’ means the inside, while the ‘vulva’ is on the outside.”

The inside of the vagina contains bacterial flora that naturally protect it. That’s why introducing anything into the vagina in the name of health or cleanliness can often have negative effects. “The vagina is a self-cleaning organ,” says Dr. Wesley. “You don’t need to put anything in there to cleanse or detox it.”

Vaginal douching involves inserting a type of cleanser into the vaginal canal in an effort to combat vaginal odor or treat vaginal yeast. It can often do more harm than good.

A healthy vagina contains good bacteria, including a classification called lactobacilli. These produce chemicals and an acidic environment that can help kill off microorganisms that shouldn’t be there. “When you douche, you wash out the good bacteria that creates the acid,” says Dr. Minkin. “As a result, you might get an overgrowth of bad bacteria, which can lead to a vaginal infection.”

How to clean your vulva

The outer part of the genitalia has different needs. “The vulva has the same sweat glands that we have under our armpits,” says Dr. Wesley. A mild soap or cleanser (such as The Honey Pot sensitive intimate wash or Vagisil daily intimate wash) that helps remove sweat, dirt and oil can be fine to use externally as part of your daily vaginal hygiene routine.

The same goes for gentle feminine wipes, like CVS Health® sensitive skin cleansing clothsSummer’s Eve Aloe Love personal hygiene cloths and The Honey Pot Sensitive Wipes.

Shaving products, like Brazilian Bare Shave Syrup, and serums are designed to make shaving the bikini line easier as well as soothe skin and prevent ingrown hairs.

Vaginal care product ingredients

When it comes to selecting feminine hygiene products for your vulva, remember that you’re dealing with some of the most delicate skin of the body. Plus, cleansers you use externally may still migrate into the vagina, so, “you want to avoid ingredients that are known allergens,” Dr. Minkin says.

That can sometimes involve a little trial and error (because not everyone is sensitive to the same ingredients), but, in general, skipping products that contain dyes, artificial fragrances and ingredients that could be irritating (such as tea tree oil or hydroquinone) is a safer bet, she says.

Dr. Wesley also reminds her patients that the presence of the word “natural” or “organic” on a product doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe to use. “There are plenty of ‘all-natural’ herbs and plants that can cause irritation and shouldn’t be used inside the vagina or on the skin of the vulva,” she says.

When to see a health care provider about your vaginal health

Any vaginal discharge that looks or smells “off” to you could be a sign of infection or another problem. Deciding to douche or to try a new feminine wash may not solve the issue — and could even potentially make the situation worse.

“If you’re concerned about anything out of the ordinary, such as irritation, redness, vaginal odors or a sudden change in discharge, you should see your doctor,” says Dr. Minkin. “They can do an exam and take a culture to see what’s going on. If it’s a bacterial infection, a vaginal yeast infection or a sexually transmitted infection, they can treat it properly.”

This content is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Consult with your health care provider before taking any vitamins or supplements, and prior to beginning or changing any health care practices.