Vaginal Health 101: Vaginal Care Practices by Dziedorm

black and white image of an African woman's vulva

Most people say “vagina” when what they’re really referring to is the vulva. The vulva is the external, visible part of your genitals — your labia (lips), clitoris, vaginal opening, and the opening to your urethra (the hole you pee out of). The vagina is the tube between the vulva and the cervix. This tube is the connection between the external parts and the uterus. The vagina is what babies come out of during birth, and what menstrual blood comes out of through during your period. The vagina is also used for penetration and insertion, such as with a penis, fingers, female condoms, sex toys, tampons, or menstrual cups. 

What does a “normal” vulva look like? Frankly, there’s really no such thing as a “normal” looking vulva. Vaginas and vulvas are as unique as faces or fingerprints; they all have the same parts, but everyone’s looks a little different. Different, but beautiful. Labia (the inner and outer lips) come in several different shapes and sizes. People can have dangly labia, puffy labia, or barely-there labia. Some inner labia stick out past the outer labia, and some inner labia are more tucked in. All perfectly good. All perfectly beautiful. The clitoris can be big or small, and it may stick out or be tucked away under the clitoral hood. Vulvas are usually asymmetrical it’s common for one side to look different from the other. 

Vaginal discharge is basically the wet stuff that comes out of the vagina (usually clear, white, or slightly yellow when it dries on underwear). Most discharge is completely normal as it is the vagina’s way of cleaning itself. Your vaginal discharge changes throughout your menstrual cycle so it is VERY important that you know what your vaginal discharge normally looks and smells like (during each point in your cycle) so you’ll know if something changes, as it could be a sign of an infection. It’s normal for your vagina and discharge to have a light smell. 

A healthy vagina shouldn’t smell like roses and lilacs. Everyone has a distinct smell peculiar to them and their vagina. Musky, tangy, coppery have been a few adjectives I’ve heard people use. Your vagina and vulva should however not smell like fish or some other variation of rotting food. If it does, there’s most likely a problem. Vaginal discharge is perfectly normal. Smell, consistency and colour checks are necessary to track cycle and notice changes. An unpleasant or “off” smell is likely a sign of a problem.

The vagina is self-cleaning so the best way to clean is to just wash the outside parts (vulva) with water and mild soap, especially for people with fleshy labia and clitoral hoods. You do not have to put soaps up the vagina to clean. 

pH levels

A pH value is a number from 1 to 14, with 7 as the neutral point. Values below 7 indicate acidity which increases as the number decreases, 1 being the most acidic and above 7 indicate alkalinity which increases as the number increases, 14 being the most alkaline. A normal vaginal pH level is between 3.8 and 4.5, which is moderately acidic. 

Why does vaginal pH matter? An acidic vaginal environment is protective. It creates a barrier that prevents unhealthy bacteria and yeast from multiplying too quickly and causing infections. A number of things can throw off your vagina pH and cause it to become unbalanced, resulting in a number of infections. 

Periods, douching, unprotected sex and taking antibiotics are major causes of unbalanced pH. Menstrual blood is slightly alkaline and when it passes through the vagina and is absorbed into a tampon or pad, it can raise the pH level of the vagina.  Some women wash out their vagina with a mixture of water and vinegar, douching products on the market and I’ve even seen someone use a concentrated salt solution before! This irritates and increases the vaginal pH level, and also encourages the overgrowth of bacteria. 

Vaginal health care is very important, and the best care practices are usually the simplest ones. 

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