Everything you should (and shouldn’t) be doing for your sexual wellness routine.
Written by FLORENCE KANE
As the sexologist Emily Morse pointed out when VIOLET GREY launched the Wellness Edit last year, your vagina deserves its own body wash. But there’s more. In fact, there’s a profusion of information and advice to sift through when it comes to the vagina and vulva and their care, from what kinds of foods or supplements keep bacteria balanced, and the best cleaning or grooming products and practices, to debates over, for instance, whether a pricey jade egg put up there will give you more sexual satisfaction. So we went to a handful of our favorite pros, who’ve helped us zero in on the most important, up-to-date tips for a healthy intimate area. (Note: though the area is popularly referred to as the vagina, they are two separate parts; as Dr. Jen Gunter handily writes in her new book The Vagina Bible: The Vulva and the Vagina–Separating the Myth from the Medicine, “The part of your body that touches your underwear is your vulva; anything inside is the vagina.”)
IF AND WHEN YOU WASH YOUR VULVA, USE THE RIGHT STUFF
“The same sweat glands (apocrine) that exist in your armpits also exist on the vulva,” says Dr. Hedieh Asadi, founder of the intimate skincare line DeoDoc. “This is why there may be a slight odor in the intimate area.” So it has nothing to do with an infection or lack of hygiene. (A persistent odor paired with other symptoms should be addressed by a doctor). If you do decide to clean your vulva with something other than water, however, there are some guidelines to follow: “Aim for a product with a pH between 5.3 and 7.0, but closer to 5.3-5.6 is likely better,” Dr. Gunter writes. And, it should be a cleanser, not soap. The former will leave the skin’s acid mantle (a barrier to viruses, bacteria, and other contaminants) intact; the latter will break it down. Laura Schubert, who co-founded the intimate skin care line Fur adds, “The pubic area is incredibly sensitive, so no one should be applying products that don’t have ingredient lists free of alcohols, parabens, phthalates, and added fragrances.”
SKIP THE STEAM CLEANS AND DOUCHES, EVEN IF THEY’RE “ALL NATURAL”
“Just as the vulva, the vagina also has a very delicate ecosystem,” notes Dr. Asadi. Douching damages your good bacteria, and can make you more vulnerable to increased odors, adds Dr. Gunter, who also points out that steaming can irritate or even burn. And natural or botanical products can contain allergens. The vagina is self-cleansing, so just let her do her thing.
THERE ARE VAGINA AND VULVA FRIENDLY FOODS, BUT THEY’RE NOT WHAT YOU THINK
“There are no bad or good foods as far as the vagina is concerned,” according to Dr. Gunter. So, that cranberry juice you’ve been drinking to avoid UTIs? Multiple studies have found no benefit. She also points out that more research needs to be done on probiotics to determine any benefits, and there is no anti-candida diet. “What you eat,” including the much-maligned sugar, “is not going to give you a yeast infection.” What is recommended: “Eating at least 25 grams of fiber per day is the best preventative health advice I can offer vagina-wise, as fiber is a prebiotic, meaning it feeds good bacteria in the bowel.” It also prevents constipation, which can lead to straining, which in turn can cause pelvic floor spasm (potentially causing pain with sex or pelvic pain).
If you’ve been diagnosed with a weak pelvic floor by a medical practitioner or a physical therapist, specific exercises can help, and can be part of therapy for incontinence, difficulties achieving orgasm or weak orgasm, and pelvic organ prolapse, notes Dr. Gunter. There isn’t sufficient data, however, that points to kegels being preventative care for those without symptoms. In addition, “strength building” or “sex improving” devices, like vaginal weights or crystal eggs, haven’t been studied enough. And those eggs are made of porous materials, which make them harder to clean and more prone to harboring infection-inducing bacteria.
“This is the most delicate skin on our female bodies,” points out Dr. Asadi. “Yet a lot of us know more about how to contour makeup like a Kardashian than how to properly care for our intimate area skin.” The vulva is more sensitive to moisture loss caused by circumstances such as aging, medications, chemotherapy, and oral retinoids. So if your vulva is itching, a moisturizer is totally fine. Just avoid any with salicylic acid or retinol, and see a doctor if the itch doesn’t go away. If there’s no improvement in a couple of weeks, see a doctor. In other words, says Fur’s co-founder Lillian Tung, “listen to your skin’s needs and make sure you’re taking the necessary steps to keep it healthy and happy.”