Gynecologist and obstetrician Dr. Vandana Sinha of Apollo Hospitals, Ahmedabad, opines that the inadequacy in the education system as well as the inhibitions of the older generation are major reasons why there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding the female genitalia.
“We sometimes mistakenly call the entire genital region “the vagina,” but really this is just the inside part”, explains Dr. Gemma Sharp, in her 2018 TEDx talk “Why we should talk about vulvas, not vaginas”. The visible exterior, which includes the labia minora and labia majora, is actually called “the vulva”.
The vagina is powerful and self-cleansing. The vulvovaginal appearance, structure and bacterial composition vary from person to person. Incidentally, the discolouration of the crotch area of your underwear is a completely healthy phenomenon. Vaginal discharge is acidic in nature, therefore it tends to bleach the fabric.
Moreover, often-shamed things like pubic hair, labia of a certain shape or colour, natural scent, menstruation etc. are not unhygienic. It’s important to use correct terminology and have honest conversations, instead of perpetuating the taboo by calling them ‘feminine’ or ‘sanitary’ products.
In a 2018 study of 1435 adult women, published in BMC Women’s Health, it was revealed that certain products, like gel sanitizers, were associated with eight times higher risk of yeast infection, as well as an almost 20-fold higher risk of bacterial infection. These products “may be preventing the growth of the healthy bacteria required to fight off infection,” observes lead author Kieran C. O’Doherty.
HOW TO CARE FOR YOUR VULVA AND VAGINAL HEALTH
1. Trust water more than deceptive products: In a 2017 study, published by the journal Women’s Health, it was reported that “women with vulvar use of bubble bath were twice as likely to have bacterial vaginosis (an inflammation caused by the disbalance of naturally occurring bacteria in the vagina) than women who did not use this product, and bacterial vaginosis was three times more common in women using antiseptic solutions on the vulva or in the vagina and six times more common in women using a douching agent.”
Therefore, if you must use a soap, make sure it is hypoallergenic, dermatologist-approved and fragrance-free. “90 percent of the time, water is enough”, recommends Dr. Sinha, unless advised otherwise by a professional. Though many workplaces do not have ideal restroom facilities, washing and drying before and after urination at least at home is extremely important, she adds.
2.Maintain a healthy menstrual routine: Menstrual hygiene is a big part of vulvovaginal health. The usual pads and tampons not only pollute the environment, the dye and materials used also cause chafing, irritation and sometimes when not changed frequently (the average consensus is every 4 to 6 hours, and not more than 8), a bacterial infection called Toxic Shock Syndrome. Additionally, calling them ‘sanitary’ products implies that periods are something to be disgusted or ashamed by.
Recently, environment-friendly options like menstrual cups and reusable pads have been gaining more currency among people who menstruate. They are safer as well as economically convenient.
3.Wear fresh and comfortable clothes: The Women’s Health study also revealed that the widespread use of panty-liners “can increase the temperature, skin surface moisture, and pH of the vulvar skin, thereby significantly changing the microclimate of the vulva.”
It is important to change your clothes and underwear at a regular interval, especially after exercising or coming home from work. Dr. Sinha advises against wearing tight and unwashed fabrics for a long period of time. Wear fresh and breathable clothing, preferably cotton, to prevent excessive sweating, unpleasant odour and infections.
4.Be careful about hair removal: Pubic hair protects our privates, since the skin and the vagina are extremely sensitive and fragile. Dr. Jen Gunter, author of The Vagina Bible, notes that “pubic hair removal is a cause of injury—over 50 percent of women who have removed pubic hair report at least one complication such as lacerations, burns, rashes, and infections.”
Therefore, she suggests either professional waxing or trimming the more sensitive areas instead.
5.Perform a Vaginal Self-Exam: Just like a breast exam, an easy way to get more acquainted with your genitalia is through a vaginal self-exam. Though it does not substitute your regular doctor check-ups, doing these self-tests regularly can help you be more in tune with your body and its changes.
First, learn about the basic anatomy of the vulva. Then, with the aid of a handheld mirror and a light, examine carefully to check for irregularities. Always make sure that your hands are clean and your fingernails are clipped. You can either visually examine the vulva for any rashes, smelly discharge or unusual colouration, or you can use your fingers to feel for any pain, irritation or warts on the labia or in the vagina (up to the cervix, which feels like the tip of your nose upon touch).
According to Dr. Sinha, many patients continue using over the counter products and self-diagnose, not coming in until the infections get much worse. Therefore, be attentive to any warnings and seek prompt medical help.