Washing your body is a pretty intuitive process...until you get to your most sensitive areas. What kind of soap (should you even be using soap) should you use? Are you doing waaaaaaaay too much—or maybe waaaaaaaay too little? What happens if you have itchy skin and a full-on yeast infection? When things are uncomfortable down there, things are uncomfortable everywhere.
But luckily for you, I spoke to Katinka Locascio, owner of Earth+Sky Healing, Mayan abdominal masseuse extraordinaire, FAM practitioner, and a member of doula and reproductive health advocate Ash Spivack's CYCLES+SEX squad.
Here's how to cleanse your vagina to keep it happy, healthy, and feeling fresh.
Soap, shower gel, or nothing at all?
Many commercial products contain endocrine disruptors that are just not necessary, especially in the vagina. I personally don't think you need to be washing it with anything. If you want to wash your vulva, a mild natural soap externally is fine, but everyone is different for what they tolerate well on their skin. I like liquid or bar soaps with shea butter and coconut oil personally, or you could make your own!
So are our vagina's self-cleaning?Most women produce regular amounts of vaginal cell slough, which is a way that the vagina self-cleans. The other way is that the pH is such that it takes care of most intruders. So, yes, if things are working then it's not necessary to clean the vagina. If things are out of whack, a systemic approach might be better (treat your microbiome, cut out sugar) to get the pH and flora back in balance. Vaginal treatments can be helpful to treat specific pathologies, but I would recommend working with a qualified practitioner like an herbalist or naturopath if you are trying to go the natural route.
Oils in your vagina? Yup, seriously.
I don't use herbs directly on the vagina unless there's an indication. But oils are great externally on the vulva. One thing that doesn't get talked about much is the effect that low-estrogen states have on perineal and vaginal tissue. Think about vaginal dryness either postpartum, peri- or postmenopausally, or even while on hormonal birth control. Estrogen helps keep the vulva and vagina lubricated—when our natural estrogen is low, we need moisture to keep the tissue healthy and well-nourished. For example, while breastfeeding I use plain coconut oil externally on the vulva daily. It makes a big difference in keeping sex feeling good even when lubrication levels are low and on helping the tissue heal. This can be especially important for women who nurse for a longer time, but the same can be true for women on hormonal birth control, which can atrophy the vaginal tissue and even reduce the size of the clitoris. Keeping the area well-lubricated can help reduce those side effects. You can use an oil infused with herbs if you like. I use a diluted calendula blend, especially postpartum, but again, it's more about the moisture.
Itching and burning 101
Consult your doctor or midwife first. Then check your underwear—if it's synthetic—swap it out for 100 percent cotton, or my favorite, merino wool. Or go bare: The more breathable, the better the area can come back to normal. Also make sure you're not using any pads or products with fragrances. Most of these contain endocrine disrupters that can really wreak habit on the flora and microbiome of the vagina. I really like a cool yogurt on the vulva. For example, in pregnancy I got mild yeast infections in the third trimester. I put a natural pad in my underwear and put two tablespoons of plain organic yogurt right on the pad and wore that overnight. My symptoms would clear within a day. If it came back I'd just repeat it.
Douching vs. steaming
This is a controversial topic for sure, but I will say this: I'm not a fan of douching with any commercial products, but a yogurt or green clay douche can be helpful when done at the appropriate time—for example to clear up a yeast infection. I don't think they are necessary or appropriate for regular maintenance though. Steams, on the other hand, are useful for a myriad of reasons and are a great part of regular self-care. They can increase circulation, improve lymph drainage, reduce congestion, and improve secretions. This is helpful if you are having painful sex (more common than we think), for painful periods, and to improve the quality of cervical fluid. You can even steam before a Pap smear to make the procedure less painful. When it comes to your vagina, do what feels right!
Balance your vaginal bacteria and pH.
If you are on hormonal birth control, you may have to work a little harder at this because they can affect both the gut microbiome and the vaginal flora.
1. Avoid fragrances, synthetic/commercial soaps, or scented pads.
2. Wear cotton or pure merino wool underwear.
3. Eat lots of fermented foods in your diet, avoid white stuff whether sugar or carbs, and if you need to, supplement with probiotics.
4. If the problem persists, make sure you get treated, and if you have a partner, get them treated too!