The vagina is a self-cleaning organ that does not require special cleaning products. It does not even need any cleaning products at all.
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, they should clean the vulva lips gently. Excessive cleaning can have negative effects.
In this article, we discuss the anatomy of the vagina, how to clean the vulva safely, and which methods of cleaning to avoid.
The vagina is the internal portion of the female genitals.
The vulva refers to the external portion, which includes structures such as the clitoris, the labia majora and labia minora, and the vaginal opening.
The vagina is an internal organ, and like other internal organs, it does not require cleaning.
A complex colony of good bacteria and other microbes helps keep the vagina healthy. Washing, especially with harsh soaps or douches, can throw the vaginal pH out of balance, increasing the risk of infections and unpleasant odors.
The vagina and vulva produce a variety of fluids that are important for overall health.
People should not try to eliminate all vaginal odor by washing the vagina. A healthy vagina naturally has a slight odor.
Washing the vagina will also not remove vaginal infections. In some cases, it may even make them worse. Using harsh soaps may dry out the delicate vaginal tissue, causing tiny tears that make it easier for dangerous bacteria to infect the vagina.
Research consistently finds that washing the vagina increases the risk of a wide range of health problems.
A 2013 study of Egyptian women who frequently douched found that the practice increases the risk of preterm labor and pelvic inflammatory disease.
Douching correlates with a higher risk of numerous adverse effects on pregnancy outcomes, including:
- ectopic pregnancy
- low birth weight
- chorioamnionitis, a type of infection in the membranes surrounding the baby
- preterm birth
Other risks of vaginal cleaning methods such as douching include:
- cervical cancer
- endometritis, which is an infection of the lining of the uterus
- increased risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV
- bacterial vaginosis (BV)
- yeast infections
- vaginal pain
Although a person can clean their vulva, its proximity to the vagina means that any cleaning products may enter the vagina. Harsh cleaning products can also irritate the vulva.
The vagina is a self-cleaning organ, and people do not need to clean it. Regular douching is unnecessary.
People can help keep the area clean and healthy by:
- using barrier methods, such as a condom, to reduce the risk of pregnancy and STIs with a sexual partner
- keeping the vaginal area as dry as possible, which may involve changing underwear if it becomes wet with sweat, menstrual blood, or other fluids
- urinating after having sex, to avoid developing a UTI
- wiping from front to back after urinating
- refraining from having vaginal sex straight after having anal sex, as this can spread bacteria from the anus to the vagina
To clean the vulva, people can wash the external area with warm water. If they wish to, they can use a mild, unscented soap. Afterward, they should rinse the vulva thoroughly and then pat the area dry.
It is important not to put soap into the vagina, and it is not necessary to use soaps that manufacturers have specifically labeled as being for the genitals.
To avoid infections, pain, and irritation, it is important not to use the following products:
- douches, even those that the manufacturers claim are safe or natural
- feminine deodorant sprays
- detergent soaps
- soaps containing perfume
Some alternative health sites advocate vaginal steaming, which involves sitting on a steam bath with a variety of herbs.
These herbs supposedly clean the vagina and improve the health of the uterus.
There is little evidence to suggest that vaginal steaming is effective. The steam cannot penetrate the vaginal tissue or reach anywhere near the uterus.
Additionally, the herbs may irritate the tissue of the vagina or vulva, and very hot steam can cause severe burns.
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A person should see a doctor if they experience a sudden change in vaginal odor, especially if the odor is very strong.
A fishy odor often signals BV. Frequent cleaning will not make the odor go away, and it may even make the infection worse.
The symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection, or thrush, may include:
- white or yellow discharge
- discharge with a chunky texture
- white coating on the lining of the vulva
- pain during intercourse
If a person has BV, they are likely to notice the following symptoms:
- fishy odor
- pain when urinating
- pain during sex
There is no medical reason to clean the vagina.
Douching and other cleaning methods may cause more harm than good, and there is little evidence to suggest that they clean a person’s vulva or vagina effectively and without risk.
If a person wishes to clean their vulva, they should use warm water and perhaps a gentle soap if they desire.
If a person is experiencing unusual discharge or an unpleasant vaginal odor, they should see a doctor. These are among the first signs of an infection, which will require treatment.