For starters, please stop washing her.
By Zahra Barnes
Another fact: Vulvas are also wonderful. Vulvas are kind of unsung heroes—they're the external part of your genitals while your vagina is strictly internal, but it's so much easier to refer to the whole anatomical shebang as your vagina. But vulvas grow pubic hair that you can style into an initial, lightning bolt, or whatever strikes your fancy. That's pretty cool. And as you'll see below, they're a little hardier than vaginas.
Still, both your vulva and vagina are pretty sensitive, and keeping them healthy is actually quite simple.
Here, two ob/gyns explain how to avoid six common below-the-belt irritants so your privates can continue being awesome.
1. Choosing the right underwear is key.
"Breathable, natural fabrics such as cotton are a good choice," Linda Nicoll, M.D., an assistant professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at New York University's Langone Medical Center, tells SELF.
If you like to switch up your fabrics, she still recommends choosing underwear that has a cotton gusset (the part that's against your genitals). "Cotton allows for better ventilation," largely because it wicks away moisture, board-certified ob/gyn Antonio Pizarro, M.D., tells SELF. "Too much moisture leads to friction between the skin and the garment."
If you're especially prone to infections, retiring your thongs can also be a smart idea. "Thong underwear, though fashionable, can create a direct fabric path between moisture and bacteria in 'the back' and the area in 'the front' where irritation can occur," says Nicoll. She suggests choosing boyshorts or bikini-style bottoms instead. "You don't have to sport 'granny panties' for your health," she says. True.
2. You can wash your vulva, but skip your vagina.
Washing your vulva makes sense, but you don't need to clean your vagina at all. Nicoll says many women think vaginal discharge is a sign they're due for a scrub-down, but it's the opposite. "Vaginal discharge can actually be the evidence of the natural cleaning process. Discharge can be clear, white, or sometimes yellow. It can be thick or thin. But as long as it's not accompanied by a foul odor, itching, bleeding, or pain, it is not necessarily a sign of trouble," says Nicoll.
OK, so washing your vulva is a go, just be gentle. "[Use] unscented, mild soaps. Loofahs and other objects that sit in the shower day after day should be avoided, but a clean washcloth can be used," says Nicoll, who also notes that you don't need to do any vigorous cleansing. A simple wipe-down should do it.
3. And pass on any douches (both packaged and human).
"Vaginal health depends on the maintenance of normal bacterial flora, which can be accomplished in part by avoiding douching," says Pizarro. The process, which involves washing out the vagina with liquids, may interfere with important bacteria called lactobacilli that help keep your vagina healthy and infection-free. Douching can "disrupt or remove these lactobacilli and give 'bad' bacteria and yeast a chance to move into the neighborhood," says Nicoll.
And that goes for that time of the month, too.Pizarro says some women tell him they like to douche during their periods to feel "cleaner." "The normal menstrual period is not an unclean time, and the normal vagina is actually very clean," he explains. Isn't it a relief to have one less thing on your to-do list?
4. Some contraception can cause irritation, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't use it.
Finding the right contraception is about more than whether you can remember to take the Pill every day. "Women may have either allergies or sensitivities to latex condoms or chemicals in spermicide," says Nicoll. Ingredients in different lubricants can also cause irritation.
Symptoms like intense redness, itching, or burning at the contact areas can be signs of an allergy, but if they're less intense, they can also hint that you're sensitive to a particular chemical. Luckily, you can still find a good contraceptive option even if you do have a sensitivity or allergy to your preferred method.
Things like tampons, menstrual cups, and contraceptive rings can also be tricky. "[They] can cause mechanical irritation from friction against the vaginal walls, and they can also be a breeding ground for harmful bacteria if not changed or cleaned appropriately," says Nicoll.
5. Simple toilet paper trumps all other kinds.
"The skin of the vulva is very delicate, very much like the skin under the eyes," says Pizarro. "If [a product] is likely to irritate the eye, then don't use it on the vulva or vagina either, unless it serves a very clear medical purpose."
To that end, he recommends using unscented white toilet paper, and if you're super sensitive, consider washing underwear, sheets, towels, and other things that come into contact with your nether regions in unscented detergents.
6. If your vagina is very sensitive, wearing tight jeans all the time could have negative results.
She needs some breathing room. "Tight clothing can cause friction against sensitive genital tissues, [which can lead to] microscopic tears," says Nicoll. "Discomfort, discoloration, and a susceptibility to certain types of infection can follow." Beyond that, tight clothing can trap moisture in the area, which Nicoll says can "predispose [you] to yeast and other skin infections."
It's fine to continue on with the skinny jeans sometimes, just make sure that's not all you're wearing. Especially not if you pair them with thongs.
This article was originally published at SELF. Reprinted with permission from the author.