Although most vagina smells are completely normal, women are often unnecessarily self-conscious about them. As a result, many reach for drugstore products like feminine washes that companies market as a way to “feel fresh and clean.”
But if you’re listening carefully to your gynecologist, or read the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists website, you’ll notice women’s health practitioners repeatedly advise against these products. What do they recommend? Basic, unscented white soap and water — if anything.
“Most gynecologists don’t recommend anything but water to flush your external genitalia, and [advise] keeping it all external,” says Dr. Kelly Culwell, an OB-GYN and former medical officer at the World Health Organization. “If you feel you need soap, then a very mild fragrance-free soap is the best way to go to avoid the most potential for irritants.” Here’s why:
The vagina is already self-cleaning
One of the greatest marvels of a woman’s body is that her vagina is designed to clean itself. Estrogen maintains the vaginal lining and encourages the growth of good bacteria, specifically lactobacilli. This bacteria helps maintain the vagina’s acidic pH and prevents the growth of harmful microorganisms. So, according to ACOG, one of the best things you can do for your vaginal health is let this system function on its own.
Feminine care washes can upset the vaginal pH
Meanwhile, researchers have found that over-the-counter feminine washes can disrupt the vaginal microbiota. “Soap is by definition alkaline, whereas your vagina is acidic, and, in general, you don’t want to do a lot to mess with the pH of your vagina or cause any problems; the good bacteria in your vagina needs an acidic environment,” says Dr. Culwell.
They often contain fragrances that can be irritating
Many feminine care washes contain fragrances that can also irritate the vagina. “A lot of these ‘pH balancing washes’ have a lot of fragrances, chemicals, and irritants that actually can make the problem of vaginal itching or vulvar itching worse,” says Dr. Culwell. “Anything other than basic non-fragrant white soap can be irritating. Some women can’t even tolerate that, and then we recommend sticking with just water.”
Feminine hygiene products can lead to bacterial vaginosis
Studies have also found that women who regularly use feminine hygiene washes are more susceptible to bacterial vaginosis, or an overgrowth of bacteria in the vagina. “When women come to us with vulvar and vaginal irritation, itching, discharge, or recurrent bacterial vaginosis or recurrent yeast infections, we often find out that they’ve been using a ton of these feminine cleansing products,” says Dr. Culwell. “They’ve been trying to either make the odor go away or make the discharge go away, and what they’re really doing is making everything worse.”