I have recently noticed a lot of advertisements on TV for feminine hygiene washes, and am seeing them more in drug stores and even in the U-Store. Do I have to use one of these washes, and are they even safe to use?
— Hygienically Concerned
Dear Hygienically Concerned,
It is smart that you are questioning product marketing and media influences when it comes to your health! Even though we’ve made strides in inclusive marketing and sex positivity, lots of media attention and marketing target specific socialized beliefs and contribute to shaming people for natural consequences of having a human body. Feminine hygiene washes are a good example of this. In this case, the message is that people should be uncomfortable or embarrassed with how a vulva naturally smells and use products to “fix it.” Not only do you not need to spend your money on these washes (or wipes or sprays), many of these products can even be harmful to vaginal health.
First, to clarify: there is a difference between washing the vulva (the external genital area) and the vagina (the first part of the reproductive system inside the body, leading to the uterus). These washes are specifically meant for use on the vulva, while douches are meant to clean the vagina. There is absolutely no need to wash the vagina; it is a self-cleaning device with regular cell turnover and a highly-tuned pH and microbiome. Altering any of these factors with douching can lead to irritation and even infection. Douching is also not effective in preventing pregnancy — a common myth. The vulva, however, one can clean — but should only be cleansed with very mild soap and warm water. Avoid fragrances and other harsh chemicals in this area, as they can cause irritation and inflammation, which can lead to itching and pain. Although many washes claim to be tested by gynecologists, they usually still contain fragrances. To further prevent infection and irritation, make sure to dry the area gently but thoroughly after showering or bathing, and wear underwear made of a breathable fabric, like cotton.
However, if you notice a change in odor, that could indicate that you should get a checkup. Some natural life cycle changes (like pregnancy or during the menstrual cycle) or even a change in diet might contribute to a slight odor change. A different odor or change in amount/color/consistency of vaginal discharge could indicate an infection, such as a yeast infection. If this change does not go away with removal of any irritants or is accompanied by pain and itching, visit a medical professional for a diagnosis and treatment. This is another reason why it is a good idea to know (and appreciate!) your own natural scent, rather than cover it up — so if there is an issue, you can get it checked out!
Remember, despite what these hygiene washes might advertise, your vulva doesn’t need to smell like a flower! What matters is that your vulva and vagina are healthy, and with proper care, this is easy to maintain.
Information retrieved from The Mayo Clinic, Go Ask Alice, and the Summer’s Eve website.