Should I be washing my vagina?
A gynaecology doctor debunks myths about the health implications of washing your vagina
words Sophie Williams
By now (Goop candles, be damned!) we'd hope that we all know that vagina smells like vagina, and that’s normal - but there is sadly still a stigma around how vaginas smell, periods and vaginal discharge. This leads many of us to wonder, often not in the best frame of mind, "Should I be washing my vagina?" Well, to find out and to delve into the world of vaginal wellness and to reassure you that there really is nothing wrong with your vagina, we asked an expert.
Should I be washing my vagina?
Before we answer this question, banish the idea that there's anything innately "dirty" about the vagina in its natural state or how it smells. Gynaecology doctor, Dr Sarah Welsh even explains that “there’s a huge misconception that the vagina’s scent and taste should be romantically floral or artificially fresh,” adding that “it’s not realistic, or healthy.” It turns out, vaginas are actually one of the only parts of the body that are self-regulating.
But even though vaginas are self-cleaning, we do get that some people want to make an extra effort to make sure everything is ship, shape and shiny down there - and there are things you can do - albeit minimal. Thanks to Dr Welsh, your vaginal health will never be so good…
How to wash your vagina
“A clean vagina is simply a vaginal microbiome with a healthy amount of good bacteria,” she says.
“Vaginal odour and taste are frequently held up to impossible standards, with negative tropes about 'fishiness' or ‘dirtiness’ creating a pervasive culture of shame around the natural processes of our body.”
Explaining that every vagina has its own eco-system “known as the vaginal microbiome,” she says that when the natural pH of it is disrupted, it can cause ‘bad’ bacteria to grow.
“This can develop into infections such as BV, (bacterial vaginosis)” Dr Welsh adds.
So, “the best thing to do to keep a healthy vaginal microbiome (and keep the infection-fighting lactobacilli happy), is to disrupt it as little as possible.”
With that, she advises to gently wash the vulva (the external area e.g. labia) with clean, warm water in the shower or bath and nothing more.
This study, titled ‘Role of female intimate hygiene in vulvovaginal health’ confirms this, adding that “gentle vulvar cleansing is desirable, and evidence suggests that it is an important aspect of female intimate hygiene and overall vulvovaginal health.”
“Because of the risks associated with internal washing/douching,” the study continues, “external feminine washes are considered more appropriate for intimate health.”
In addition to this, it also details how clinical practice guidelines recommend that vagina owners use “a pH-balanced hypoallergenic cleansing agent” for everyday vulva cleaning.
It’s important for these external products to be carefully formulated, too, as this dictates how mild and gentle they will be on the area, regardless of how much is used and how often.
Plus, “in cultures where women may use these products frequently,” the study adds, they won’t impact “the natural flora.”
Best vagina wash
As you've gathered, the vagina doesn’t need much and is pretty good at surviving and thriving on its own, without the help of anyone or anything else.
However, while we already know that using water is generally enough, if you do want to use additional intimate products, Dr Welsh suggests - just like the above study - choosing a mild, hypoallergenic soap and not using it internally. With an emphasis on not using it internally, people.
And, when shopping for such products, make sure that they’re vulva-safe (i.e pH-balanced) and essentially designed for the external part of your genitalia. As well as being dermatologist-tested and gynaecologist-recommended.
Because when you wash your vagina safely (and cater to its un-needy needs), you’re helping it with the following things:
- Keeping it fresh.
- Preventing vaginal infections like UTIs or thrush.
- Preventing bacteria from invading your vag after sex - especially if it’s unprotected. More on this later, though.
Best vaginal wash products
According to Dr Welsh, scented perfumes, washes or internal soaps are a massive no-go. This is because they can disrupt your microbiome and leave you susceptible to an overgrowth of ‘bad’ bacteria. Plus potential infections like bacterial vaginosis and the ones listed above. (Let’s be honest - who’s really got the time to be struck down with a UTI?)
She also stresses that harsh fragrances can be especially irritating to the vagina’s delicate skin, alongside antiseptics like tea tree oil.
“You might be tempted by feminine sprays designed as a deodorant for the vulva,” she adds, “especially on hot sweaty summer days.”
Adding that avoiding these irritants is non-negotiable and any products containing them should raise major red flags, Dr Welsh explains that the chemicals used in such formulas can cause “itching, burning or even UTIs as they disrupt your sensitive microbiome.”
Unfortunately though, “over-the-counter vaginal cleansing products are part of a growing market,” with consumers - especially in the US - “spending over two billion dollars a year on douches, deodorant sprays, washes, personal wipes, and powders.”
This is according to the study ‘Is the vaginal cleansing product industry causing harm to women?’
The answer, sadly, is yes. And Dr Welsh’s earlier statement regarding society’s misconception of what a vagina should smell like (what is the scent of ‘romance’ anyway?) has only been the catalyst for this expanding industry.
“Advertising for these types of products tends to construct vaginal cleansing as both desirable and trendy for women,” it reads.
“Perhaps more concerning, the advertising of vaginal cleansing products often suggests to women that they are necessary for vaginal hygiene.”
Essentially, to avoid the adverse health effects that the study (and Dr Welsh) mentions, it’s best to stick to the minimal approach.
Let’s talk about sex
As well as generic cleaning to maintain personal hygiene, the vagina also appreciates it when you take measures to protect it during sex.
While we probably don’t need to tell you, Dr Welsh recommends using condoms with new sexual partners, or you could be at risk of sexually transmitted infections.
Granted you may be able to list every single ingredient of your skincare routine, but “many people don’t think to check what’s going into their vagina,” she says.
Avoiding condoms and lubricants that include unnecessary chemicals that can cause irritation is an important factor, with Dr Welsh adding that “glycerin and/or sugary novelty flavourings” are key culprits. Why? Because they can “can disrupt your pH and potentially cause yeast infections, such as thrush.”
Similarly, “if you’re using lube,” she says (recommending it for everyone, regardless of your age, gender or whether you’re having solo or partnered sex), “make sure to double check the ingredients.”
This is because many use tingling sensation gels, which not only include glycerin but potentially also menthol or ginger extracts for a warming or cooling effect.
“These are best avoided going anywhere near delicate vaginal skin!” Dr Welsh concludes.
The v in love is for vagina
The take-home from all this? Yes - you should be washing your vagina. But no, you shouldn’t be following a strict regime full of creams, oils and serums like you would when you’re taking your makeup off at night.
We think the term less is more has never been more appropriate.
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