When you think about it, the vagina is a pretty undemanding organ. It’s cooperated through childbirth and nights of passion; it’s soldiered on uncomplainingly throughout years of menses and the occasional “oops”—such as the patient of mine who applied Retin-A skin cream instead of Vagisil, or the friend who used Ben-Gay. Her vagina did a little complaining then, but soon returned to its cheerful self.
Because the vagina has rarely been the squeaky wheel, we’ve tended to tend to take it for granted. As we age, however, vaginal tissue thins, loses elasticity, and becomes dry, so, like other parts of our bodies, that wheel tends to squeak a little louder.
Often, vaginal troubles can be addressed—or avoided altogether—with some TLC. While few of us think about how to maintain optimal vaginal health, maybe it’s time to give that longsuffering organ some extra attention. The two major factors in maintaining a healthy, uncomplaining vagina are a good bacterial balance and moisture.
First, a science lesson: pH is a measure of how acidic or alkaline (basic) a substance is. The pH scale ranges from 0 (very acidic) to 14 (highly alkaline) with seven being neutral. A healthy vagina is slightly acidic, in the range of 4.5 to 5. This acidity is maintained by a delicate balance of organisms, notably the bacteria lactobacillus that produces lactic acid. This slightly acid environment helps to ward off infection.
When the pH level in our vagina is out of whack, unwanted bacteria and other organisms can flourish—Candida albicans, for example, which is the fungus causing yeast infections. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to upset the balance. A surgary diet, some kinds of soap, a round of antibiotics, or even one of those nights of passion can upset the flora in the vagina. Sperm, for example, is alkaline with a pH of 7 to 8, and so is blood with a pH of 7.4, which is why hygiene is especially important if you’re still menstruating.
Here are some suggestions for maintaining a good pH balance and for overall vaginal hygiene.
- Don’t douche. Douching actually increases the risk of bacterial infection and reduces the “good” lactobacilli in the vagina. The vaginal walls produce a clear fluid to flush out foreign substances (more on this in the next post), so douching is both unnecessary and harmful.
- Maintain good air flow. Wear cotton panties and loose clothing—at least some of the time! Avoid relying on silks and synthetics that trap moisture on the vulva. Don’t wear thongs. Change out of wet bathing suits or clothing promptly.
- Avoid scented products: feminine sprays, soaps, bubble bath, scented pads or tampons. They can be irritating, allergenic, or alkaline.
- Wash your bottom with warm water. Soap is drying to the delicate vulva and inner labia, and some soaps are alkaline.
- Use tampons rather than pads and change them regularly.
- Keep bacteria where they belong. Wipe from front to rear.
- Avoid sugars and refined carbohydrates. They can create an environment that feeds fungi.
- Talk to your doctor about maintaining good vaginal health if you’re prescribed antibiotics. He or she may suggest eating yogurt, for example, or taking Lactobacillus acidophilus tablets.
- Wash underwear with mild soap, such as Woolite. Rinse well. Avoid scented fabric softeners.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.