What’s a healthy vagina?
Many women use hygiene products on and in their vaginas on a daily basis, be it soaps, tampons, sprays, or douches. Then there’s a range of birth control devices, such as traditional condoms, internal condoms, and diaphragms, as well as lubes and sex toys. In general, all of the above is well tolerated by most women, especially by women prior to the menopause. But it’s worth discussing the proper use and risks of some of those things we apply to or insert into our vaginas.
At first, let’s clear the question of what a healthy vagina looks, smells and feels like. In general, a healthy vagina is mildly moist, slightly acidic (with a pH value of 3.7 to 4.5), rich in “good” bacteria that protect it against “bad” infectious bacteria moving in, and it discharges a few drops of liquid every day. This discharge can be as much as a teaspoon and its function is to move out old cells and other waste. The discharge, just as the vagina itself, has a distinct odor. This odor is mild in most women and can increase briefly during and after sex or when sweating. Sometimes the odor can become stronger permanently — a condition that can last for years if untreated — which is the result of excessive vaginal bacteria growth. While perhaps unpleasant, this is not considered a health problem in itself if there aren’t any other symptoms.
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Vaginal health issues that may signal trouble are the following symptoms:
- Itching or burning sensation on or inside the vagina
- A change in discharge color and/or odor that lasts longer than a week
- Any pain or discomfort in or around the vagina, including the pelvic area
- Increased urge to urinate
- Any menstrual cycle abnormalities
If you experience any of the above, see a gynecologist for a check-up.
Menstrual hygiene: are tampons safe to use?
Both pads and tampons have a long history and are generally considered safe. In the U.S. tampons even are regulated as medical products and thus need to obtain FDA approval before they can be sold to the public. However, the one big issue that’s still being debated today is whether the bleaches used to get pads and tampons (as well as baby diapers) so shiny white can be harmful to the human body. The chief concern is that during the bleaching process dioxins and furans (toxic carcinogens) get inside the cotton and other materials of these hygiene products. Following much research on the subject that started as early as 2002, the FDA concluded that only very low levels of dioxin and furan can be found in pads and tampons, below or at the threshold of what’s considered safe.
Other experts have disagreed with the FDA findings and like to point out that the average woman in the western world uses about 11,000 tampons in her lifetime and a lot of the toxic substances can accumulate in the body this way even if in each tampon the amount is very small. One problem is that tissue inside the vagina is highly absorptive and channels anything it absorbs straight into the bloodstream.
If you are a frequent tampon users (85% of American women are) and you want to be on the safe side, you may want to consider giving unbleached tampons a try. They often are organic (no risk of pesticides) and thus better for the environment. They can be bought online and in health stores. Regardless of which sort of tampons you prefer, stay away from scented ones. Adding fragrances to tampons has become a bit of a fad, but there’s no objective need for it and, moreover, the fragrant substances could irritate the sensitive tissue inside your vagina. The same goes for scented sprays and powders.
Unbleached organic pads are also available. A better alternative yet are menstrual cups. They are a bit messier, but just as effective and comfortable as tampons and much cheaper and more environmentally friendly in the long-run.
Everyday vaginal hygiene: do I need more than water?
No, you don’t. There’s plenty of choice when it comes to vaginal soaps and douches, but you don’t really need to wash the inside of your vagina with anything else but a bit of warm water. Soaps and douches can disturb the vagina’s delicate pH balance and kill the good bacteria. This in turn raises the risks of getting urinary tract infections (UTI), yeast infections, and other health problems. Washing your vagina once a day or your bottom in general after every number two visit to the bathroom is enough to keep the vagina in a healthy shape.
You also should wash your vagina after each time you had sex. If you feel like you really need to use soap, try to buy skin-sensitive, unscented soap and limit its use to only a couple of times a week. Also avoid wiping your vagina with moist toilet paper, as the latter often is full with chemicals that have no business inside the vagina. Try organic baby wipes instead, as they often are just based on water.
An often neglected part of vagina health are the clothes your wear. Tight pants or underwear can raise the risk of bacterial infections, especially in the summer months. In general, you want to make sure your vagina doesn’t sweat too frequently and that it regularly gets some fresh air, by for example wearing a dress once in a while. So, don’t wear tight jeans in the August heat every day. Also avoid underwear made from synthetic materials and go for breathable cotton undies instead.
How safe are condoms for vaginal health?
Conventional condoms are the best choice when it comes to birth control and protection from the worst (but not all) sexual transmitted diseases (STDs). However, how safe are they for vaginal health? Actually, there aren’t any major problems. A minuscule percentage of the population are allergic to latex, but these people can opt for polyurethane condoms. Those are a bit looser and costlier than latex condoms, but the safety record is the same.
In recent years, natural, chemical-free, vegan condoms have also become available in the market and they claim to be better for penis and vagina as well as the environment at large. While this claim may be true, the dependability and safety of such organic condoms still lacks sufficient long-term testing and research.
A word on unprotected intercourse: aside from the STD and pregnancy risks, an unclean penis can carry harmful bacteria into the vagina that can cause UTI. So, make sure your partner washes his penis before sex. Also, switching back from anal to vaginal intercourse should absolutely be avoided or only be done with a change of condoms.
Avoid receiving oral sex from a partner who has oral herpes (cold sores), as he or she can give you vaginal herpes this way, especially if they currently have a cold sores outbreak.
What about sex toys and lubes?
Sex toys come in all shapes and forms, as well as all kinds of material. It’s an unregulated market, where a lot of products are imported from China and other foreign producers. The synthetic materials often include phthalates, which are chemicals used to soften the toy, i.e., make it more malleable and flexible. The problem is that this ingredient may not be even listed on the packaging.
So, if you look for sexually stimulating toys, it’s safest to choose something where the material is obvious. Stainless steel and wood are excellent choices, but there even are precious metal dildos.
As for lubes, their use is justified if your vagina happens to be too dry and you want to avoid skin irritations. This is why many condoms are pre-lubed. However, be careful in picking which lubes you use (or already are applied on your condoms). Avoid oil-based lubes as they can cause inflammations of vaginal tissue. Instead try water-based lubes or, if you need a lot of lubrication, silicone-based lubes.
- Archer, Jeffrey C, et al. “Dioxin and Furan Levels Found in Tampons.” Journal of Women’s Health (2002), vol. 14, no. 4, 2005, pp. 311–5, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15916504, 10.1089/jwh.2005.14.311. Accessed 10 Feb. 2020.
- Brown, Joelle M., et al. “Intravaginal Practices and Risk of Bacterial Vaginosis and Candidiasis Infection Among a Cohort of Women in the United States.” Obstetrics & Gynecology, vol. 121, no. 4, Apr. 2013, pp. 773–780, 10.1097/aog.0b013e31828786f8. Accessed 10 Feb. 2020.
- Cottrell, Barbara Hansen. “An Updated Review of of Evidence to Discourage Douching.” MCN, The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing, vol. 35, no. 2, Mar. 2010, pp. 102–107, 10.1097/nmc.0b013e3181cae9da. Accessed 10 Feb. 2020.
- Gardner, Kevin H., et al. “The Hazards of Moist Toilet Paper.” Archives of Dermatology, vol. 146, no. 8, 1 June 2010, 10.1001/archdermatol.2010.114. Accessed 10 Feb. 2020.