How to take care of your vulva.
By Celia Shatzman May 7, 2015
How to take care of your vulva
When it comes to your lady parts, you probably don’t know as much as you think you do. “Many women don’t even know what the vulva is,” says Libby Edwards, MD, chief of dermatology at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. “They call everything down there the vagina, but the vagina is the internal organ and the vulva includes the vaginal lips, clitoris, and the opening to the vagina.”
As a vulvar dermatologist (yes, that’s a thing) Edwards specializes in caring for women with chronic vulvar symptoms like itching, pain, rawness, painful sex, and chronic discharge. (For more on the specialty or to find one in your area, visit the National Vulvodynia Association at nva.org.)
Why see one? The vulva tends to be an area that a general dermatologist will bypass during routine skin checkups, says Cynthia Rasmussen, MD, FACOG, director of vulvovaginal services at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates in the Boston area. But you don’t have to schedule an appointment with a specialist to get their top tips on caring for your skin down there—they’ve shared their knowledge, below.
You clean too well.
The vulva naturally secretes thick oils that protect its delicate skin from the secretions and friction it’s exposed to on a daily basis, Rasmussen says. Scrub off those oils with harsh cleansers (think body washes or douches with dyes, fragrance, or surfactants), and your vulva will be more prone to irritation, she says. Worse, you’ll remove the good bacteria that help maintain a healthy pH and make room for odor- and infection-causing bacteria to move in. So keep it simple and clean your vulva with warm water, by hand, then leave it be.
You use feminine hygiene products.
Products claiming to clean, deodorize, and groom the area are best left at the drugstore, Rasmussen says. The fragrances, dyes, chemicals, preservatives, and anti-itch anesthetics they contain aren’t necessary, and can cause allergic reactions. “Vulvar skin is extra sensitive because it’s thinner than skin on other parts of the body,” she explains. “Also, the vulva and vagina are hormone responsive tissues, and sensitivity goes up after menopause and may increase during parts of the menstrual cycle.” All you really need? You guessed it—water, Edwards says.
You haven’t discovered Vaseline.
Irritated vulva? Moisturize it, Edwards suggests. Just like other spots on your body, your vulva can get dry, even if you haven’t gone through menopause yet. But don’t reach for a regular body lotion, which are typically packed with drying alcohol and irritation-causing fragrances. Try a tiny dot of basic petroleum jelly, like Vaseline ($2, drugstore.com), which is free of fragrance, alcohol, and preservatives.
You don’t know how to deal with post-menopausal dryness.
Nearly every woman deals with some degree of vaginal dryness when she hits menopause. “Post-menopausal skin in the area is thinner, dryer, and more vulnerable to irritation,” Rasmussen explains. It can make sex hurt, predispose you to urinary tract infections, and cause urethral and bladder irritation. Luckily, vaginal moisturizers, available at drugstores, can help: “They help retain moisture, but are designed not to irritate the delicate mucous membrane of the vagina,” Rasmussen says. Still, it’s smart to look for an option with a simple ingredient list and dab just a small amount on your inner thigh to make sure it doesn’t cause burning or irritation before attempting full coverage.
You use fancy lubes.
Lube is a great option for women experiencing dryness, whether you choose water-based, silicone, or oil-based formulas, says Rasmussen. (Oil- and silicone-based lubes stay slippery indefinitely but can stain sheets and clothing, while water-based lubes wash off easily but can dry out and become sticky.) No matter which you prefer, avoid anything with dyes, perfume, fragrance, flavor, or ingredients that claim to give a tingling or warming sensation, all of which can be irritating. Yes certified organic personal lubricants ($7, yesyesyes.org) come in both water- and oil-based versions made entirely of ingredients you can pronounce, like aloe, sweet almond oil, cocoa butter, and beeswax.
You’re using the wrong birth control.
Many women are allergic to latex or spermicides.
Many women are allergic to latex and spermicide, both of which are ingredients in most condoms. If you feel a burning sensation after using one, don’t brush it off. “Latex condoms can cause hives or rashes in women who are allergic to the material,” cautions Edwards. (If you suspect you’re allergic, try non-latex condoms made of polyurethane or polyisoprene.) But that’s not the only form of birth control that should be on your radar. “Some hormonal contraceptives, especially progesterone contraceptives such as Depo-Provera shots, can thin and dry the vagina, making sexual activity uncomfortable,” she adds. If you have sensitive skin or notice an increase in dryness, talk to your doctor about alternative birth control options.
You wear pretty lingerie.
“The way thongs rub your skin can cause tissue irritation,” says Rasmussen. “In general, you’re best off with full-coverage unbleached 100% cotton underwear.” Those with sensitive skin can have reactions to dyes and synthetic fabrics, and the elastic can aggravate women with rubber allergies. But you don’t have to stop wearing pretty little things in the name of health: all of Knock Out’s lacy, colorful underwear have a 100% cotton, dye-free liner (from $19, knockout.com).
You shave (or wax, or use depilatories).
Waxing incorrectly could burn the vulva.
“Most of us store our razor in the shower, a warm, moist environment where bacteria can multiply,” says Rasmussen. “That’s a recipe for infection the next time you nick yourself.” But you don’t have to entirely nix your razor: Just use a natural shaving lotion like Pacific Shaving Company All Natural Shaving Cream ($8, pacificshaving.com), which contains none of the irritating chemicals and fragrances found in traditional foams, and use a brand new blade each time you shave (try buying disposables). Alternative hair removal methods can get you into trouble, too: “The harsh hair-dissolving chemicals in depilatories are very irritating to the sensitive vulvar skin,” Rasmussen explains. Waxing, if done incorrectly, can also be risky because it’s possible to burn the skin. Your safest bets: laser hair removal or trimming hair with small scissors. (Read these 13 things you need to know before your next bikini wax.)
Your laundry smells amazing.
“When someone comes to me with distressed skin, I immediately ask them what they wash their clothes in,” says Rasmussen. That’s because laundry detergent with dyes and perfumes can irritate delicate vulvar skin. Choose detergents that don’t contain dyes and perfumes, and skip fabric softeners and dryer sheets, which are loaded with irritating chemicals. Look for detergents labeled “Free and Clear”, which means they don’t contain dyes or perfumes. One to try: Gentle Extra-Softening Pureturgent Liquid Detergent ($10, worldmarket.com), an unscented, biodegradable formula with aloe vera.