Should You Be Using Soap On Your Vagina?

Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Whenever someone wants to drive home how unnecessary (and potentially dangerous) douching can be, they compare the vagina to a self-cleaning oven. And it's a totally valid comparison, says Alyssa Dweck, MD, a gynecologist in New York and author of The Complete A To Z For Your V. Your vagina — which, btw, refers to the inner part of your genitals — does clean itself. There are good bacteria inside your vagina that keep its pH in the acidic range (yes, your vagina is acidic), and that keeps it clean and healthy, Dr. Dweck says: "So it doesn't need any vigorous scrubbing or any scrubbing at all, really." You not only don't need to clean your vagina, you also really shouldn't, or else risk throwing off your natural pH and causing infections like yeast infections or bacterial vaginosis. But what about your vulva, the outer portion of your genitals? Should you be cleaning that?
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"The vulva has more exposure to dirt and also sweat because of hair follicles," says Jessica Shepherd MD, MBA, an ob/gyn at Baylor University Medical Center. So you should be cleaning it in the shower, just as you'd clean any other body part. Just be careful what you're using. It's best to use a mild soap that doesn't have any strong fragrances and a washcloth, not a loofa, Dr. Dweck says. "I see a lot of women in my office who get irritated from using pungent, strong, and fake fragrant washes," she says. "So I think less is more when it comes to ingredients."
Of course, the women who come to Dr. Dweck's office are there because something is going wrong, so she does see a biased population. "You're going to see some young women who can literally use anything to wash and they won't have a problem," she says. But, she has seen plenty of people with sensitive skin who end up with rashes, inflammation, vaginal discharge, or even bleeding skin thanks to a harsh soap or vigorous scrubbing. So, if you've noticed some irritation, she suggests switching to something more gentle like Ivory, Dove, or Cetaphil.
So, it's really as simple as that. All you need is soap and water. "It doesn't have to be a big complex situation," Dr. Dweck says. A lot of times, she sees women come into her office concerned about their vaginas smelling bad. Maybe that's caused by an infection, which Dr. Dweck will test for, because a vagina shouldn't smell so strongly that you or other people are noticing. But, if there isn't an infection, there's really no problem with vaginas smelling like, well, vagina. "The vagina is not the dirty horrible place that a lot of the [vaginal wash] advertisers might want you to think it is," Dr. Dweck says. So just grab some soap and stop worrying about it, because your genitals don't need to smell like coconut, or lavender, or cotton candy.
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