What we often label as ‘feminine hygiene’ is a topic often shrouded in euphemisms and inaccuracies. Here, we aim to address the key aspects of vulvar and vaginal health in a straightforward, factual manner. The term ‘feminine hygiene’ subtly implies the idea that bodies with vaginas are inherently dirty. Instead, we prefer to use the term ‘vulvar/vaginal hygiene’, acknowledging the importance of maintaining health and cleanliness in these areas, just like any other part of our bodies.
Anatomical Definitions and Understanding
Let’s first differentiate between two important terms: vagina and vulva. The vagina is the internal part of the genitals, a canal that extends from the uterus to the external part of the female genitalia. On the other hand, the vulva encompasses the external parts of the female genitalia, including the pubic mount, inner and outer labia, clitoris, and vestibule.
Parents bear a responsibility to educate their children about the care and tending of their genitals, not unlike teaching them the basics of oral hygiene. Awareness of the proper care for these body parts, from childhood can contribute significantly to an individual’s overall health and well-being.
Diet and Genital Health
The diet you consume plays a critical role in maintaining the health of your vulva and vagina. A balanced diet rich in antioxidants, vitamin E, vitamin C, omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids, protein, and probiotics promotes optimal genital health. These nutrients help support the health and integrity of the skin and mucosal tissues, boost immunity, and balance the microbiome of the vagina.
The vagina is a unique organ, possessing the ability to clean itself naturally. Therefore, douching or washing the vagina internally is not necessary and can, in fact, disrupt the natural balance of microbes. Contrarily, the vulva requires regular washing with mild, fragrance-free soap and water while showering. Gentle cleaning helps prevent irritations or infections that could occur due to accumulated sweat, dead skin cells, or microbes.
It’s crucial to maintain cleanliness after using the bathroom. Wiping separately for the anus and vagina is recommended to prevent cross-contamination and reduce the risk of urinary tract infections. Additionally, peeing after sex is a wise practice as it helps to flush out bacteria, further reducing the risk of infections.
Pubic Hair Care
Pubic hair, while not having a direct hygiene function, still has biological purposes, including protecting the skin and maintaining temperature. For those who choose to remove pubic hair, using a fresh blade or a vulva-only blade is ideal. Proper storage of the blade, away from moisture, can prevent the growth of mold or rust. Ingrown hair can sometimes occur post-shaving. A warm compress usually provides relief, but if symptoms like discharge, odor, or pain occur, it’s crucial to consult with a healthcare provider.
Skin Care and Monitoring
Irritation can sometimes happen around the vulva skin, and it’s essential to soothe the area using a mild soap with hydrating components like aloe vera. However, if irritation persists, seeking medical advice is crucial. It’s important to monitor the appearance, smell, and feel of your genitals to detect any changes or unpleasant side effects. Regular doctor visits are also recommended as a part of preventive healthcare.
Sexual activity necessitates knowledge about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and the importance of screening. It’s advisable to get tested after every new sexual partner, which aids in early detection and treatment if necessary. During pregnancy, less cleansing of the genitals is recommended to prevent the growth of foreign bacteria that could harm the developing fetus.
Menopause and Genital Health
Menopausal women may experience a decrease in the natural moisture of their vulva and vagina due to changing hormone levels. Supplements like vitamin E, vitamin C, multivitamins, and collagen protein can provide additional support during this transition, enhancing skin health and moisture levels.
Finally, it’s important to discuss popular but potentially harmful practices like douching and steaming. These trends offer no benefits and can cause harm to the genitals, disrupting the natural microbiome and potentially causing infections or irritations.
Common Infections Women Face Due to Lack of Hygiene
Inadequate vulvar and vaginal hygiene can lead to various infections, some of which can be particularly troublesome due to their recurrence or persistence. We highlight a few of these infections below, including urinary tract infections, which are commonly misunderstood or misdiagnosed.
Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)
Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) are one of the most common infections women face due to inadequate hygiene practices. These infections occur when bacteria enter the urinary tract, typically through the urethra, and begin to multiply. The most common symptoms of UTIs include a burning sensation during urination, frequent urination with little output, cloudy urine, strong-smelling urine, and lower abdominal pain.
One particularly challenging aspect of dealing with UTIs is understanding UTI symptoms and conditions that mimic UTIs. Some conditions, such as interstitial cystitis, sexually transmitted infections, and certain vaginal infections, can have symptoms remarkably similar to UTIs. Therefore, it’s important to consult a healthcare provider if you suspect a UTI to ensure accurate diagnosis and treatment.
Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)
Bacterial Vaginosis is another common infection that can arise due to improper hygiene. It occurs when the natural balance of bacteria in the vagina is disrupted. Symptoms include an unusual vaginal discharge with a strong, foul odor. Washing the vulva correctly and avoiding practices such as douching can help prevent BV.
Yeast infections are caused by the overgrowth of a type of fungus known as Candida. This can occur due to various reasons, including a weakened immune system, hormonal changes, or poor hygiene practices. The typical symptoms include itching and irritation in the vagina and vulva, a burning sensation during urination or sex, and a thick, white vaginal discharge that resembles cottage cheese.
Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)
While not necessarily caused by poor hygiene, sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis can cause similar symptoms to the infections listed above. Regular screening and safe sexual practices are key to preventing these infections.
To sum up, a clear understanding of vulvar and vaginal hygiene can go a long way in maintaining overall health and preventing infections. This guide aims to provide practical and direct advice on this important but often overlooked aspect of health. Remember, your body is not something to feel embarrassed about – take care of it with knowledge and confidence.