If you've got a vagina, you've probably dealt with your fair share of weird itches, bumps, and sore spots. For all the many reasons why having a vagina is great (we've got a sexual system that includes a whole organ dedicated solely to sexual pleasure and the potential to have multiple orgasms, which is a pretty sweet deal!), having so much external genitalia and perhaps getting some foreign visitors (penises, fingers, tampons, and more) means people with vaginas often wind up with random, strange, and sometimes seriously debilitating pain down there because of the exposure to outside bacteria and irritants.
The road to a happier, healthier vagina (and, consequently, a better sex life) starts with our own habits and health practices. We talked to two board-certified obstetrician/gynecologists—Dr. Lakeisha Richardson and Dr. Mary Jane Minkin—about the top things they wish their patients would stop doing that will promote better vaginal health:
1. Stop putting up with dry sex.
Women are conditioned to put up with a lot of bad sex, and even those who are aroused and want sex can have trouble getting their body to respond the way they might want. But for a person with a vagina, not having enough lubricant during penetrative intercourse can cause tears or soreness from the friction.
"I see a lot of women with complaints of bleeding or pain from vaginal dryness," Dr. Richardson says. "I think it is a lack of education of when it is appropriate to use lubrication. For example, even if a [person] doesn't need lubrication in the beginning, vaginal dryness can occur with prolonged intercourse, and vaginal lubrication may need to be applied several times through the sexual encounter to prevent vaginal dryness. Even with arousal, the vagina sometimes cannot keep up the production of vaginal lubrication needed for an extended sexual encounter."
Lube is a vagina's best friend. If you don't naturally get very wet—or your wetness tends to wear off mid-romp, keep some water-based lubricant by your bedside to use during all sexual encounters. It's nothing to be shy or embarrassed about—this is about protecting your vagina from wounds and enhancing your own pleasure.
Dr. Richardson adds that people who deal with vaginal dryness that's unrelated to sex (it could be hormone fluctuations or your menstrual cycle, for example) can consider using a vaginal moisturizer like Replens every three days for longer-lasting moisture. "Vaginal moisturizers that are pH balanced, nonhormonal, and unscented do not cause vaginal irritation or infection," she says, though you'll need to avoid any products with excess chemicals or scents, which can cause irritation themselves. Talk to your physician to make sure you're selecting a good product and using it appropriately.
2. Stop trying to make your vagina smell like a flower.
Vaginas aren't supposed to smell sweet, flowery, or otherwise artificially fragranced; they're just supposed to smell like vaginas, which are naturally acidic and just smell like normal body fluids. Both OB/GYNs stress that you should avoid any product attempting to clean, freshen, or give them specific scents.
"One hears and reads about things like 'steaming your vagina' or applying masks to the vulva—both of those could be very dangerous and have no clinical benefits whatsoever," Dr. Minkin says. "The vagina does not need to 'sterilized'—there are good bacteria that live in the vagina—and you don't want to kill them. And if you have bacteria that are dangerous, there are specific antibiotics that should be prescribed to treat them. And in steaming the vagina, you could induce a serious burn. Similarly, the most sensitive tissue in the body is the vulvovaginal tissue—so why would you want to apply a potentially toxic mask to the most sensitive tissue in the body?"
On that note, Dr. Minkin also discourages people with vaginas from any kind of strongly scented soaps or anything with deodorants, which can also irritate that very sensitive vulvovaginal tissue. "Many of the strong soaps have a very high (basic) pH," she explains. "Although many women get nervous when they hear this, you actually want the vagina to have an acidic pH (acid in the vagina is good—contrary to too much acid in the stomach, for example)."
3. Stop relying on treatment only when it comes to vaginal infections. Get proactive!
It's easy to stay on the defensive and only seek out treatment in reaction to an itch or irritation, but that's how many people with vaginas end up having to get treated over and over for the same infections. Instead, consider going the preventive route, Dr. Richardson recommends.
"A vaginal probiotic [can] help maintain the natural balance of yeast, bacteria, and lactobacilli," she says. "There's one brand that delivers two strains of lactobacilli that are naturally occurring in the vaginal ecosystem—RepHresh Pro-B. It's an easy way to help promote vaginal health and is especially helpful for [people] who experience recurrent imbalance or infections."
4. Stop thinking that using birth control alone counts as safe sex.
Not all birth control methods protect you from sexually transmitted infections. The pill and IUD are excellent, very effective contraceptives, but they will not prevent the majority of STIs. That means it's extremely important to stick with condoms, even if you're on some kind of hormonal birth control, and especially if you're not in an exclusive relationship.
"I think that women's greatest fear of unprotected sex is an unplanned pregnancy," Dr. Richardson explains. "Everyone has this 'It can't happen to me!' attitude when it comes to sexually transmitted diseases. I think women simply forget that hormonal birth control does not protect against STIs."
5. Stop being shy about your sex life with your OB-GYN.
"People are always shy to talk about any sexual issues with their physicians," Dr. Richardson says. "I wish patients would definitely be more open about any health problems that they are having. I see too many women who suffer in silence. ... Even issues such as domestic abuse or date rape can be discussed with a physician. I think it's important for patients to know that their visits are strictly confidential and that physicians aren't asking questions to be nosy or to judge. We are trained to ask certain questions to screen patients to see if they need intervention. For example, if a woman has been date raped, she may not want to report the incident, but she still needs to be tested and treated for STIs. She may also want to start prophylactic therapy to prevent HIV. These are interventions physicians can't offer if they don't know that the patient needs them."
Even if you haven't been through any kind of trauma, just talking through your sexual lifestyle with your OB/GYN with total honesty and transparency can allow them to make sure they're giving you any possible treatment, interventions, or recommendations you might need.
Dr. Minkin emphasizes that having a lot of questions is a good thing and nothing to feel awkward about: "There is very little that an experienced gynecologist or nurse practitioner or midwife hasn't heard, so don't be embarrassed," she says. "I always encourage women to establish a good rapport with their gynecological care provider."
Your gynecologist is there to give you care and support, and your office visits are intended to be totally safe spaces. Find a gyno you trust and can be open with, and make them your personal sexual confidante.
Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.
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