Most of us treat our face differently to the rest of the body, as the skin on the face and the body are not the same. However, most women are unaware the skin on the vulva is different too!
Vulva is the general name given to the part of female genitalia that lies outside of the vagina. It includes the mons pubis (the fatty pad that is covered by pubic hair), labia majora and minora (the outer and inner lips), the clitoris, the urinary opening (urethra), the vagina opening, and the perineum (the area between the anus and vagina). This skin is very sensitive and delicate, making it susceptible to problems when improperly cared for, which unfortunately is common due to myths, commercial advertising, and fashion.
Contrary to popular belief, the female sex organs are designed to self-clean. The vagina has a rich blood supply and special glands that produce mucous and lubrication to “flush” out germs. Together with the acidic pH produced by the normal bacteria that live inside the vaginal cavity, it helps to protect the vagina and vulva from harmful germs.
Washing and Cleaning
The use of products such as body shampoo, soap, feminine hygienic products, deodorant, wipes and douches can cause harm in various ways. Frequent cleaning, especially with products, can strip the skin of its natural oil making it dry and susceptible to further insults. The chemicals in these products, such as perfumes and preservatives, can be too harsh. It can also disrupt the normal acidic pH in the vagina, thus promoting the growth of the unhealthy or harmful germs.
• Wash the vulva with hands once a day with warm water only
• Limit the frequency and time in hot bath, especially bubble baths
• Avoid using washcloths, loofahs, or puffs as these are too rough for the vulval skin and they are known to harbour germs
• Pat dry or dry with hairdryer set at “cool” after cleaning
The use of tampons, sanitary pad, menstrual cup or menstrual underwear is a very personal choice. So far, there is no convincing evidence to say that one is superior to the others. Women need to weigh the pros and cons of each option to decide the best product to use.
Sanitary pads may not be suitable for all women, especially women with vulval problems as pads can cause chafing and prolonged contact with menstrual blood can cause irritation, especially when the skin is already brittle. The use of adhesive at the back of the pads may also mean some are not as “breathable”, trapping the moisture and dampness which can increase the risk of irritation and infection.
• Change sanitary products regularly
• Do not use scented sanitary products as chemicals can cause irritation and alter the natural pH in the vagina
• Do not use panty liners on a daily basis between your periods. Instead, change your underwear frequently if you have to
Clothing and Underwear
Fitted clothing, such as skinny jeans, leggings, and gym pants are fashionable and body flattering but unhealthy for the vulva. Tight clothing puts pressure on the vulva and can cause rubbing and irritation. The tightness and many synthetic materials do not allow for good air circulation, hence supporting a warm environment, retaining sweat and trapping moisture. Some women do better with silk underwear as its fibres are perfectly smooth, regular and rounded thus less friction or irritation.
• Loose fitting pants or skirt is better than tight fitting pants
• Wear gym pants for workout only and change out of it after exercising
• Avoid panty hose or tights. Instead, try knee-high or thigh-high stockings
• Avoid harsh textile material and non-breathable fabric (e.g. nylon, viscose, polyester, etc)
• Avoid G-strings as it causes rubbing and it is easier for germs to spread from the anus to vulva
• Wear all cotton or silk underwear instead of underwear made of synthetic material even if it has a cotton crotch
• Consider not wearing underwear at night time or at home to allow air flow
In part 2, we will explore the effect of other common practices such as toilet paper, laundry, lubricants, and hair removal on vulval health.
Let’s Talk Private Matters – Part 1
Dr Phoebe Hong
Level 2 Cairns Central Plaza, 58-62 McLeod Street, Cairns QLD 4870 (opp Cairns Shopping Centre)
Ph: (07) 4230 0030
F: (07) 4079 5490