I never fell asleep in my school chemistry class, but I may as well have. I zoned out and doodled the whole time. But I might have paid more attention if my teacher would have started with a lesson about vaginal pH.
If you’re someone with a vagina, this topic will remain relevant for your entire life (unlike your ability to memorise the periodic table). If you don’t know much about pH, and aren’t really sure how it applies to your vagina, you’re not alone. But your pH levels down there are an important factor in determining whether you’re healthy, according to Dr. Sharman L. Reed, MD, an OB/GYN at Kaiser Permanente.
What Is Vaginal pH?
pH measures how alkaline or acidic something is on a scale of 0 to 14. The number seven is the median, and anything below that is acidic, and anything above it is alkaline, or basic. The pH of your vagina is affected by bacteria coming from your gut, blood from your period, and external irritants such as tampons, lubes, or semen, Reed explains.
What is a normal vaginal pH level?
Dr. Heather Bartos, an OB/GYN and the founder of MindShift Medicine, says the vagina is at its healthiest if it’s maintaining a lower pH than the rest of the body. In general, a normal pH for the vagina is between a 3.8 and a 4.5, although it might be higher if you’re going through menopause. “To compare, battery acid is a one, and lemon juice is about a three,” Bartos says. You pH might be affected temporarily by factors such as semen and period blood, which both have a higher, more alkaline pH. Basically, your vagina is at its best when it's acidic.
What happens when your vaginal pH balance is off?
It’s unlikely that your pH will become overly acidic, unless you’re externally inserting a substance like undiluted apple cider vinegar, Reed says. Yes, people do this. And yes, it’s a bad idea. “It can actually burn your skin because it’s so acidic,” she says. “Acidic products are used for things like chemical peels.”
But a more basic pH is a common problem. The issue with this is that it allows unhealthy bacteria to start growing, which can put you at risk for infections such as bacterial vaginosis. As we mentioned, blood and semen entering the body through unprotected sex can raise pH levels. Antibiotics can also contribute, because they’re killing both good and bad bacteria you need to keep your vagina acidic and happy, Reed explains. Douching can also impact the vagina, disrupt the pH, and facilitate the growth of harmful bacteria. She warns that scented products can also be irritants. "Douching is not necessary," Reed says. "With the vagina, 'clean' doesn’t smell like a rainforest or a fruit basket. It smells like nothing."
Signals something is off include a fishy smell, itching, discharge, and possible burning when you urinate, Bartos says. However, these are signs don’t always point to an off pH level, so you should see your healthcare provider if you’re experiencing them consistently.
How can I test my vaginal pH?
There are at-home tests you can take, but they’re not always indicators that something is wrong. As Reed mentioned, factors like your period can raise your pH, but it’s usually temporary, and the vagina can usually get back to its acidic tendencies all on its own. But if you test at home, say, right after unprotected sex, your results could indicate that something is wrong when it’s really not.
An at-home test also can’t diagnose the underlying problem if your pH really is out of whack. It’s best to just let your doctor do the testing, as they have more information at their fingertips to figure out what’s happening in your nether regions.
Can I restore my vaginal ph?
The good news is that the vagina is generally self-cleaning, and will do most of the work to restore its pH levels on its own, Reed says. She also says you can take probiotics, which play a role in recolonizing the bacteria in your gut. You buy those in a supplement form from companies like Seed or get probiotics from foods such as sauerkraut and yogurt.
If you’re having recurring problems, Bartos says you can try an over the counter medication called RepHresh, which helps to maintain vaginal flora.
Are there natural remedies to restore my pH balance?
Again, you can eat yogurt, which contains natural probiotics and the vagina-friendly bacteria lactobacillus. But we emphasize that you eat it. Bartos says she’s heard of patients putting yogurt inside their vaginas, which can actually make things worse. Many yogurts contain added sugar that feeds yeast.
The best natural hacks are also just common sense: Use protection during sex. Don't leave your tampon or menstrual cup in for too long. Avoid scented products down there.
There are all kinds of out-there remedies people try, but there's not a natural silver bullet. Reed says having a healthy diet and lifestyle is the best way to make sure your vagina exists in its happily acidic state. Ultimately, the vagina is a complicated, scientific, beautiful microcosm of bacteria, and it needs to be treated thoughtfully, gently, and practically.