What should you be doing to promote your vaginal health? As little as possible, Good hears.
Vaginal health is a famously taboo topic – I mean, how many times have you heard the phrase “vaginal health” said publicly?
Much like menstruation, vaginal health in general gets very little airtime and is often considered a shameful subject. We don’t talk about it and we’re not taught about it at school, even though half the population has a vagina.
But maybe 2022 is the year we can change that. As new period products open up the conversation about menstruation, maybe we can also seize the opportunity to learn about how we can take care of ourselves down there.
So, what can we do to look after our vaginal health? We asked the experts at Family Planning NZ.
Know what’s normal
“You know you!” say the Family Planning NZ team. “You’ll know what your vaginal discharge looks like and you’ll know that it is often heavier between your periods, if you have an IUD, if you’re pregnant or after sexual intercourse. There is less discharge when you are breastfeeding, after menopause or if you’re using depo provera [the contraceptive injection].”
Normal discharge is good as it’s part of the vagina’s self-cleaning process. Specifically, clear or white vaginal discharge that doesn’t smell or itch is
no cause for concern – it naturally fluctuates during your cycle. But knowing exactly what’s normal for you can help you know when something’s amiss – so keeping an eye on your discharge is key.
Take action if things seem off
The second part of that tip is to see your doctor if your discharge starts to look abnormal.
“Discharge is not so healthy when it itches or irritates, smells unpleasant or changes colour,” say the Family Planning NZ team. “It’s also not normal to have bleeding between periods, uncomfortable or painful sexual intercourse or lower abdominal pain.”
If you notice anything funny down there, it pays to have it checked out by a medical professional sooner rather than later, as it could be a sign of infection – whether thrush or bacterial vaginosis, or a more serious sexually transmissible infection (STI). Your doctor will be able to run the appropriate tests and suggest treatment, so you’re well again ASAP.
Keep it simple
You may have heard that your vagina is self-cleaning – and that’s absolutely true.
Your vagina regulates its own pH and flora by secreting discharge, so there’s no need to do anything other than rinse your vulva with warm water in the shower.
“The notion that [vaginas] are dirty things that need to be cleaned is a symptom of a patriarchal view of women’s bodies,” say the Family Planning NZ team.
“The balance of bacteria in a normal, healthy vagina keeps it healthy and prevents infections. When you attempt to ‘clean’ the vagina, in fact you are disrupting this healthy balance, making you more prone to infections. Also, squirting liquids up in your vagina can force liquid up into your uterus, putting you at risk of a number of serious health complications.”
Douches, gels and perfumed sprays and wipes, or steaming, are not needed for a healthy vagina – and the Family Planning team recommend avoiding them. But if you simply must, Good suggests chatting to your doctor about a natural option like the Kolorex vaginal care range.
According to the Family Planning team, putting yoghurt in your vagina is also unhelpful. “Yoghurt might be great for your acai bowl morning routine but it’s not going to cure your yeast infections,” they say.
“For many years the myth has been circulating that putting yoghurt inside your vagina will cure your yeast infection due to all the good bacteria in yoghurt that will help rebalance the bacteria in your vagina. This is simply not true. All it will do is make a mess and possibly cause further irritation.”
However, if you have ongoing issues with thrush or bacterial vaginosis, the Good team has anecdotally had success with an oral natural probiotic supplement – like those offered by Maab Probiotics or Clinician’s. Chat to your doctor to find out what might be right for you.
If you’re experiencing vaginal dryness or discomfort during perimenopause or menopause, don’t try to address it with a barrage of products! But you could try a natural product to relieve itching.
Good likes NatFem Balm, a Kiwi-made natural product containing calendula, chickweed and plantain to soothe the area.
Embrace your pubes
The idea that women should remove their pubic hair is commonplace now – but it’s both sexist and inconvenient.
Much like shaving your legs – which there’s now a movement against – removing your pubic hair is costly, time-consuming and occasionally painful, a social norm we’ve accepted for reasons that aren’t scientific or rational.
There’s nothing wrong with keeping pubes clipped and tidy or neatening up your bikini line, but keeping your hair can have a few benefits.
Your pubic hair can prevent extra bacteria from entering a vulnerable area of your body and stop issues related to sweating and friction.
“Your pubic hair is there to protect your genital area from infection and to trap partner-attracting pheromones,” say the Family Planning NZ team. “We say if you’re going to remove pubic hair, do it safely and only if it’s something you want to do.”
It’s important to note that shaving your pubic hair actually doesn’t make it grow back thicker or faster – and it doesn’t necessarily cause more ingrown hairs.
The Family Planning experts also stress that the idea that it’s “cleaner” or “more hygienic” to remove your pubic hair is a myth. In fact, minor cuts and abrasions from hair removal can cause an infection. “We sometimes see clients who think they have an STI when it’s actually an infection from hair removal,” they say.
Choose breathable underwear
Your underwear could also impact your vaginal health. “Underwear that is too tight or made from highly synthetic fabric can irritate your vulva,” say the Family Planning NZ team. “Some detergents can be irritants too.”
It pays to choose underwear made from a natural fibre such as cotton or bamboo. Both are great choices because they are moisture-wicking and breathable, preventing excess sweating (which is important as excess wetness can encourage bacteria growth) and helping you stay comfy.
Using a sensitive laundry detergent to wash your underwear is also a good idea, especially if you’re prone to irritation or itching.
Be sexually responsible
Finally, to maintain a healthy vagina, make sure any sex you have is safe and comfortable.
The Family Planning NZ team emphasise that lubrication is key, guarding against irritation and pain during sex.
“Sex that is pleasurable and allows time for arousal is the best sex,” they say. “Using lube can help this process, although you might want to check the contents list and avoid anything you buy at the $2 shop!”
Of course, using condoms with new partners is essential to avoid infection – and if you are moving from anal to vaginal sex, remember to change condoms or clean up first, so you don’t introduce a host of new bacteria into your vagina!
It’s also a good idea to pee before and after sex, which can help prevent UTIs.
Less is more
If you take nothing else away from this article, remember that the golden rule when it comes to vaginal health really is “less is more”.
Because vaginas are self-cleaning, you don’t need to meddle. Keep it simple and give yourself a quick daily wash in the shower, and head to the doctor if you notice anything funny, especially if you have recurrent issues. Otherwise, you really don’t need to do anything else.