You may have heard or read somewhere that the vagina is “self-cleaning.” But you’ve probably also noticed that there are about a million products on the market specifically for cleaning vaginas. So what gives?
First, a point of order. The vulva is all the parts on the outside, including your inner and outer labia and your clitoris. The vagina is the part that’s on the inside of the body, where tampons and other things (wink, wink) can go if you so choose.
We spoke with Robin Watkins, a nurse practitioner and certified nurse-midwife, to get the definitive answer to the question that’s crossed everyone’s mind at some point or another—how do you clean your vagina and vulva? Spoiler alert: you don’t need ANY products to clean your vagina or vulva. Not one.
Here are some guidelines:
The exception to this general rule is if your provider told you to put something inside, like a topical antibiotic, to treat a condition like bacterial vaginosis.
The vagina really is self-cleaning. The discharge that’s naturally produced by the vagina essentially keeps it constantly rinsed out, clean, and moisturized all on its own. This discharge can range from clear to milky white and from slippery to sticky at various points in your cycle.
People often wonder if it’s okay (or even healthy) to douche, squirting water or sometimes vinegar or other formulations into the vagina. According to Watkins, douching is never a good idea. Douching with vinegar or a mix of chemicals and fragrances can seriously upset the healthy balance of bacteria in the vagina and the vagina’s normal pH, causing an infection. Even douching with plain water isn’t safe. That’s because there are bacteria and other microorganisms that normally live inside the vagina, and that are healthy to have there, but that you wouldn’t want getting pushed up into your uterus.
There are plenty of “washes” for sale that are intended for use on vulvas. But not everything that’s for sale is a good idea, is it? Remember Olestra? We rest our case.
Some health care providers will say it’s okay to wash your vulva with mild soap. But for many people, even the mildest soap can upset the vagina’s natural balance. Watkins says, “The only thing you need to clean your vulva is water.” When you’re in the shower, separate your labia and let the water run between and around them. Use your fingers to gently rub between the folds of skin. You can also pull back the clitoral hood and give your clitoris a good rinse.
Remember, the goal is not for your vagina or vulva to be sanitized and odorless—or to smell like flowers—whatever the “feminine hygiene” industry would like you to think. Think of it like a little plant. You mostly want to leave it alone, and then occasionally you’re going to want to douse it in water.
P.S. Something not right down there? Here’s what to expect from a trip to see your provider.