Vaginal Hygiene: What is a Vulva and How Do I Keep it Healthy?

Just like any part of your body, keeping your vagina and vulva healthy, clean and comfortable should be an important part of your everyday routine. So, just as you’d have a shower in the morning to clean your body, might practice mindfulness to ensure your mental health stays in good shape, or do a number of other things to keep healthy, you should find ways for maintaining vaginal health.

The Importance of Maintaining Vaginal Health

Vaginal health is an important part of your overall health. Maintaining a healthy vagina and vulva isn’t just about your physical wellbeing, it can also play a big role in your sexual confidence.

Ruth Bailey, nurse team leader in sexual health, says:

“Sexual health is a really good measure of your own general health and wellbeing. If you find that you’re rundown, tired or stressed, those are the times that you’re going to experience poor sexual health. Your immune system will be less able to fight off infection, whether that’s viruses or bacterial infection. So, it’s really important to look after yourself – physically, emotionally and sexually.”

Three pairs of feet in a bed

Where is the Vulva?

The vulva is a term that can be used to describe the outer part of your vagina. This includes the opening of the vagina, the clitoris and the labia majora (outer lips), the labia minora (inner lips). So, when we’re talking about how to properly clean a vulva, we mean that entire external area. You can find out more on our Get to Know Your Own Vulva page.

What is Discharge?

It is important to recognise that vaginal discharge is normal. It’s really healthy, it’s supposed to be there, and its function is to self-clean the vagina, to protect against infection and to increase the pleasure of sex and the opportunity for pregnancy. Discharge changes during the cycle – that’s normal.

Often, people are really worried if they’ve had more discharge. What’s really helpful is if people know what’s normal for them and come to us when they have abnormal changes – there’s more discharge, it smells, it’s a different colour – because they can be really important indicators that something’s not right. That can indicate things like bacterial vaginosis, which is the most common vaginal infection; thrush, which is also reasonably common; and less common sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia, gonorrhoea, trichomonas vaginalis or having a retained product (such as a tampon) inside the vagina.

Often, things that change discharge are the use of pessaries and douches. Those things don’t help and are likely to cause irritation and inflammation. At the moment, there’s been a bit of a fashion for steaming vaginas and that’s not helpful either.

Vaginal Health Tips

Keeping your vagina healthy and maintaining hygiene is about much more than just jumping in the shower once a day (although that’s important too!). Caring for your body properly and maintaining good wellbeing can involve a lot of different factors. Here are some tips to help you when maintaining vaginal health.

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Keep Your Vaginal Hygiene Routine Simple

All the vulva needs to stay healthy is to be kept clean with water. Vaginas have a smell – a really positive, earthy smell – and that’s a great thing. It’s full of pheromones to help excite a sexual response and it’s supposed to be there.

Remember that the skin on the genital area is just skin, like on any other parts of the body. And because it’s like any other parts of the body, it’s vulnerable to any other skin infection, eczema, dry skin, dermatitis or psoriasis.

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Ask the Experts If Anything’s Wrong

If people are feeling itchy and uncomfortable, have it checked out. If people self-treat for thrush and bacterial vaginosis they can start using pessaries and creams that they don’t need, when actually what they have is dry skin that just needs an aqueous cream moisturiser.

Ruth Bailey says, “Those of us who work in sexual health look at genitalia all the time. To us, it’s just a body part. We are really happy to advise and support people, but they need to come and talk to us. That can save lots of time and energy rather than self-diagnosing and treating yourself incorrectly.”

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Embrace Your Pubic Hair

At the moment, it’s really fashionable to shave your pubic area. Trends with pubic hair often tend to be heavily influenced by the increased of use of pornography. Pornography will portray a vulval area where the lips are really neat and tidy – sometimes they’re made neat and tidy by surgery – and they’ll show a hair-free pubis. That’s not what a healthy vulva looks like.

Pubic hair is part of our protective system. It’s designed to protect us from bacteria and things that might get inside the vagina. People who shave it get rid of their first line of defence.

It’s also really common for people to come in to see us with something called folliculitis – inflamed hair follicles from shaving. That’s quite painful. And shaving rashes are really common. They will make your vulval area really dry and uncomfortable.

It’s important to remember that sex is for fun. It’s to be enjoyed. If you’ve got an itchy, uncomfortable vulva, it’s not going to be enjoyable.

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Accept that vulvas look different

Part of being healthy is recognising that one of the fantastic things about bodies is that they’re all different. It’s really common for people to say, ‘I think there’s something wrong with me. My lips are too big. My lips are uneven.’ But it’s absolutely normal. This is you. The growth of porn has given people unrealistic expectations of what their vulva should look like. Feeling negative about how your vulva looks, how your lips look and having unrealistic expectations is unhealthy.

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What’s the Best Underwear for Vaginal Health?

With your underwear, what your vulva really wants is big Bridget Jones pants. Tight clothing can be uncomfortable and stop air getting to the vulva.

Tight nylon thongs particularly will increase the risk of thrush. If you’ve got a thong that's going to be really near the anus and around the perineum, it’s a trap for bacteria. Wearing no underwear is better than wearing a really tight thong. Go for bigger underwear in natural fibres.

Remember, the key to sexual wellness is being in tune with your own body and always remaining mindful of your health. Worried about other vaginal health topics? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered! From vaginal dryness to treating vaginismus, our Sexual Wellbeing guides are designed to help you stay well and live your best sex life!