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Understanding the Vulva: Hygiene, Care, and Common Misconceptions

Understanding the Vulva: Hygiene, Care, and Common Misconceptions


You’ve probably learned something in school about the internal reproductive organs, and how babies are made, but there’s very little attention paid to the external genitals, particularly the vulva.


Because, after all, we’re still very much given the message that for people with vulvas, sex should be about having babies, not orgasms.


But for people of all genders, the genitals are a gold mine of pleasure[1]potential. They’re crackling with nerve endings, and virtually each part can have a unique role to play in the experience of sexual pleasure.

And let’s not forget—pleasure is a primary motivation when it comes to why people have sex. Of the millions of people having sex at this very moment all around the world, a very small fraction is doing so with the express intention of having a child. In fact, far more people are probably concerned, instead, with how to ensure that the sex they’re having for pleasure won’t get them pregnant!


Also, this sex-is-primarily-for-reproduction view that vulva-owners, in particular, are fed so relentlessly by society, ignores and delegitimizes queer sexual experiences.

Sex between people with penises and sex between people with vulvas is just as legitimate as sex between a person with a penis and a person with a vulva.

How do I clean my vulva?

When it comes to keeping the vulva clean and healthy, it’s important to remember that the vagina—the internal canal—is a self-cleaning organ, so you do not need to use soaps and cleansers inside it at all. In fact, even just excessive water going inside the vagina can upset its internal ecosystem and cause infections like Bacterial Vaginosis (BV).


And you don’t actually need a special ‘intimate wash’. You simply need to clean the external areas of the vulva—the mons, pubic hair, labia—with mild soap and water. Don’t ever use any type of soap, cleanser or perfume inside your vaginal canal. You can use whatever body soap or shower gel you normally use for washing the external parts; it really doesn’t require a special product.

When it comes to underwear, cotton is your best bet, as it’s much more breathable than synthetic fabrics which can trap moisture and bacteria, especially when it’s humid, or when you’re exercising. For the same reason, wearing fresh undies each day, and changing out of wet swimsuits and sweaty gym clothes as soon as you’re done is always a good idea.

Many of us worry about how we smell and taste ‘down there’, but it’s important to understand that the vagina is not supposed to smell like strawberries or roses. It has its own natural scent and taste, and that’s okay. If there’s a sudden change in odour, or unusual discharge, then it might be worth seeing a doctor, but otherwise, the vagina’s natural everyday scent and discharge are nothing to worry about. Most of us really need to learn to chill out about this during sex—instead of worrying about how we smell and taste, let’s try to focus more on whether we’re having a good time.

Here are some helpful tips


Always pee after sex—it helps flush out bacteria that can otherwise easily enter the urethra and cause a urinary tract infection (UTI).


You don’t want to put anything sugary on your vulva or vagina—save the Nutella for other parts of your body, if that’s your thing. Anything sugary inside the vagina is a recipe for a yeast infection, which is a type of very common fungal infection. (Yeast infections can also occur as a side effect of taking antibiotics.)

Yeast infections, BV and UTIs are among the most common vaginal infections people experience—so common, in fact, that if you have a vagina, you are likely to experience each of them at some point in your life. Though they can be aggravated by sexual intercourse, they are not considered ‘sexually transmitted infections’ (STIs). People who aren’t sexually active can also get them. And while they are no fun at all, luckily, they are totally treatable, and recovery is pretty swift.


Pay attention to things like soreness, itchiness, inflammation, redness, unusually thick discharge, or a burning sensation while peeing—these are often indications of an infection. The sooner you seek treatment, the sooner you’ll be relieved of these rather uncomfortable symptoms. Don’t delay the doctor’s visit out of fear or embarrassment. It really isn’t a big deal, and you don’t want to wait till it gets unbearable.


Should I get rid of my pubes?


Thanks to beauty standards set by pop culture and porn, as well as unexamined religious and cultural attitudes to personal hygiene, many people mistakenly believe that a hairless vulva is somehow ‘cleaner’ or ‘better’ than a hairy one—that it is ‘healthy’ to totally remove your pubic hair. This isn’t true. It’s simply an aesthetic choice, and it is worth noting the potential drawbacks.


Pubic hair exists for a reason—it cushions the genitals against friction and also serves as an initial barrier against bacteria and other unwanted pathogens.


In addition to eliminating these natural benefits, waxing can be incredibly painful, and shaving can lead to cuts. And both waxing and shaving can lead to itchiness, redness, soreness and infected hair follicles. Hair removal creams contain chemicals, and these too can cause irritation.


It is worth keeping these factors in mind instead of feeling pressurized to totally remove your pubic hair.


If you do want to get rid of it, remember, it is purely a matter of personal preference with regard to your own appearance. It is not something you owe anyone.


The approach we would recommend when it comes to pubic hair maintenance for people of any gender is trimming. Super-long pubes can do some annoying things sometimes, like get caught in the zippers of your pants on days you don’t feel like wearing underwear, trap sweat after a workout, or take longer than you’d like to dry up after a shower. Simply trimming carefully with a small, clean pair of scissors, in my opinion, is the best of both worlds—you can keep things tidy without risking pain, rashes or infection.


Why is the skin around the genitals darker than the rest of my body?


For people of all genders, hormone changes during puberty cause the skin around the genitals and nipples to darken. It’s also common for skin to be darker around the butt and inner thighs because these areas experience considerable friction during movement.


Hormonal changes during pregnancy as well as during the natural process of ageing may sometimes also impact the appearance or intensity of the colour of the skin on the genitals.

It’s also normal for the colour of the genitals to intensify a little during sexual activity as a result of all the blood rushing to the area when you’re sexually aroused—kind of like how your face might get a little red when you’re flushed or blushing.


People often ask if they should bleach their genitals. And our advice is, PLEASE DON’T. It can cause severe irritation and it isn’t necessary.


Skin ‘whitening’ or ‘fairness’ products perpetuate the damaging, racist and colonial idea that fair skin is better or superior. I wish brands would stop making and marketing these products. They target people of colour and are sold primarily in countries that are former colonies. It’s infuriating and I hope we stop buying them.

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