Medical journalist Carole Beck takes a closer look at the questions many women have around vaginal health and gives guidance on how to keeping our vaginas happy and healthy…
Last year, Vogue declared V-care (vagina care) the biggest wellness trend of 2019. And along with the world’s first vagina museum opening in London; a noticeable shift in sales of vaginal health-related products (pelvic floor trainers, sex toys and vaginal probiotics) and a boom in books about women’s bodies, such as ‘Vagina: A Re-education’ and ‘Hormonal: A Conversation About Women’s Bodies’ it’s clear that we’re talking about vaginal healthcare more than ever before.
Despite this increase in conversation, there are still a lot of myths and misconceptions about what’s best for our vaginal health and even what the vagina is, so we’ve answered some of the most common questions below.
1. Vagina vs Vulva – what’s the difference?
The vagina is the tube of muscle that lies inside your body, stretching from your cervix to your vaginal opening, while the vulva is the outer sex organs (and the bits you can see) made up of your vaginal opening, clitoris and labia (the inner and outer lips).
2. What causes infections?
Vaginal infections happen when the natural pH balance (acidity levels) of your vagina increase above pH 4.5. This is because the acidity levels actually go down and bad bacteria can multiply.
There are different reasons for this change in pH: using soaps that disrupt your pH level; douching (see more below); a change in hormones before your period and sex.
3. Is all bacteria bad?
A healthy vagina is home to lots of ‘good’ bacteria, which the body needs to keep the acidity/pH of your vagina at healthy levels. That’s why douching (spraying water up your vagina to give it a cleanse) is definitely not recommended – it can upset the natural balance of bacteria (stripping away the good bacteria) and make you more prone to infection.
And while it’s important to wash your vulva with an unperfumed soap daily, perfumed soaps, deodorants and scented wipes can cause irritation (and affect that all-important pH level), so it’s best to avoid them too.
These products are often meant to completely disguise the smell of your vagina, but the reality is: a healthy vagina is supposed to have a gentle, natural scent. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s completely natural and there should be no need to cover it up.
If your vagina does smell strongly, however, book an appointment with your GP or an online appointment on the Vitality GP app as it could be a sign of bacterial vaginosis.
4. Is Vaginal dryness normal?
Vaginal dryness is a condition that will affect around 17% of women aged 18 to 50. But rather than suggesting that you’re ‘unhealthy’, vaginal dryness points to you experiencing a drop in oestrogen. This can happen at various stages of your life – after the menopause; during breastfeeding; if you’re taking the contraceptive pill or experiencing stress. In essence, at any point in your life when your hormone balance changes.
For day-to-day vaginal dryness, a specially designed vaginal moisturiser can help, or you may want to discuss a solution with your GP (particularly if you are experiencing menopause). For sex, you’ll need a water-based lubricant, according to the NHS, which will reduce your risk of irritation and up your enjoyment factor.
5. Is period logging worth it?
Your period is an important window into your health – and that includes your vaginal health, too. It’s important to know your menstrual cycle – and not just when you’re trying to get pregnant. An irregular or missed period can indicate stress or health issues, like ovarian cysts. Try logging your dates digitally on one of the many period-tracking apps available, such as Clue and Flo; or go old-school and jot it on a calendar.
6. Which underwear is best?
Your vulva is very sensitive and prone to irritation, so it’s best to stick to natural fabrics. Cotton is hands-down the best material, as it’s breathable, absorbs your discharge and is also soft against your skin.
In contrast, nylon and other synthetic fabrics are not breathable so they hang on to moisture and heat, making you more likely to get thrush and other yeast infections. If you are prone to yeast infections or irritation, doctors recommend going commando at night to give everything a bit of an airing.
7. Is hair removal more hygienic?
Trimming your pubic hair may be popular aesthetically, but it isn’t actually that good for your health. A 2017 study found that 25% of people who remove some or all of their pubic hair have experienced injuries, such as ingrown hairs, eczema, waxing burns and vaginal irritation.
In addition, a 2017 German study reported that shaving your pubic hair is linked to inflammation in your vulva, and may raise your risk of vulval cancer and STIs. To stay safe, try grooming your pubic hair less often and remove less hair when you do.
8. Should I do pelvic floor exercises?
Whatever your stage of life, it’s important to do pelvic floor exercises. They help to improve blood flow to your vagina and pelvic floor (the muscles around your bladder, bottom and vagina) and maintain its strength, which in turns helps to avoid health issues later down the line. Plus – things like pregnancy, having a baby and going through the menopause can all impact the strength of your pelvic floor. A weakened pelvic floor can lead to urinary incontinence, and also impact your sex life.
If you keep up your exercises though, it could even increase your sensitivity to sex and your ability to orgasm.
To locate your pelvic floor, try stopping your urine flow mid-wee. Those muscles are your pelvic floor muscles. To exercise them, do a set of 10-15 clenches while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil. As you get better, try holding each squeeze for a few seconds.
Vaginal health is as important as the health of the rest of our bodies, so the fact we’re talking about it more is positive – keeping awareness of vaginal health prominent.
We’re all about maintaining healthy habits, which is why we reward our members for regular check-ups including smear tests. You could earn 150 Vitality points for after your scheduled check. Have a look in Member Zone for more information. You can also talk to a Vitality GP about any other issues you may want to discuss.