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You’d be hard-pressed to find an ob-gyn on the planet who recommends douching. Everyone we interviewed for this article said some version of this: Flushing your vagina with a douche may make you feel cleaner, but the practice actually does more harm than good. “Douching depletes healthy bacteria and alters your vaginal pH. This can result in an overgrowth of unhealthy bacteria and increases your risk of bacterial vaginosis and even pelvic inflammatory disease,” says Anita Shrivastava, MD, an ob-gyn in the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive science at the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City.
“A healthy vagina does not need to be maintained with over-the-counter products,” says Dr. Shrivastava. Consider popular vaginal products such as wipes, sprays, creams, or washes more marketing gimmicks than hygiene necessities. If you’re cleaning the outer area of your groin with a gentle soap, you’re doing all you should to maintain a healthy, hygienic vagina. In fact, a recent study of nearly 1,500 Canadian women found that those who used common vaginal products (including moisturizers, lubricants, and anti-itch creams) were more likely to experience bacterial, yeast, and urinary tract infections than those who didn’t.
Your vagina benefits from a light touch, so ditch any harsh or scented soaps—and don’t scrub. “Excessive washing of the vagina will get rid of the good bacteria, which makes the bad bacteria stronger and multiply faster, which could lead to infection,” says Jessica Shepherd, MD, an ob-gyn in Chicago.
We’re all time-starved and don’t necessarily want to run to the doctor when we *know* we have a yeast infection. But ob-gyns would really prefer that you don’t self-diagnose, as many vaginal infection symptoms can be similar to each other and there’s a chance you could be self-treating the wrong health problem. Symptoms like itching, abnormal discharge, odor, or irritation might very well be your usual yeast infection, but they could also be a different issue called bacterial vaginosis, a sexually transmitted disease, or even a complication related to a separate chronic health issue, like diabetes. Play it safe and see your doc for the right diagnosis and treatment.
During the summer months, it might seem like you’re constantly preening and pruning your pubic hair. Shaving every day or getting full Brazilian waxes every couple of weeks may help you feel clean and beach ready, but too much shaving and waxing can be risky. “Hair grows on the labia to protect the vagina and trap germs. Removing pubic hair can traumatize the skin and lead to ingrown hairs or potential infections,” says Dr. Shrivastava. “My advice is to avoid the full Brazilian,” says ob-gyn Mache Seibel, MD, author of The Estrogen Fix. If you’re going to wax, you can simply maintain a hair-free bikini line. If you’re going to shave, choose razors or trimmers that are specifically designed to safely give your bikini line a close shave. If you do get ingrown hairs, gently cleanse the area and skip trimming until the irritation disappears, Dr. Seibel adds.
“Avoid wearing tight, restrictive underwear and pants. That traps moisture and sweat around your vaginal area, which can potentially increase vaginal odor,” says Dr. Shepherd. Dampness down there could also lead to an overgrowth of candida, which can contribute to a yeast infection. If you wear tight yoga pants or bike shorts for exercise, change out of them as soon as you can post-workout. Sitting around all day in sweaty athleisure clothing isn’t doing your vagina any favors.
Going commando is perfectly fine—encouraged, even!—in the comfort of your own home. Bedtime is the perfect time to drop your drawers: It allows your vagina to breathe, which can help prevent vaginal odor and infections. When you do don underwear, opt for those with a cotton crotch—it’s breathable, which allows air to circulate and moisture to evaporate. “Cotton is best. Even if lycra and spandex are ‘moisture wicking,’ they may still increase your risk of irritation and infection,” says Dr. Shrivastava.
Don’t use petroleum jelly as a lubricant during sex. “It’s messy and greasy,” says Dr. Seibel, which makes it harder to clean up. Because residue can remain for days, petroleum jelly can increase your risk of getting an infection like bacterial vaginosis. In fact, one study in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology found that women who used petroleum jelly in their vagina were more than twice as likely to test positive for BV. If you’re using condoms, petroleum jelly is a big no-no; it can weaken condoms, making unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections more likely. Instead, buy a lubricant that’s water- or silicon-based, Dr. Seibel advises, or try a vaginal moisturizer such as Replens if you struggle with chronic vaginal dryness.
If you’re looking to spice or, uh, sweeten things up in the bedroom, go for it, but do yourself a favor and keep these edibles away from your vagina. “Introducing foods like chocolate syrup or whipped cream to the vagina can upset the balance of a delicate ecosystem,” says Dr. Seibel. “If you want to lick a drop of chocolate or dollop of whipped cream off the outer skin above, that shouldn’t cause a problem, but don’t let it go inside.”
You’d be surprised what some people may be tempted to use to achieve the big O if they don’t have a vibrator handy. “Vibrators are designed for one purpose—to be used safely in sensitive places. They’re designed to vibrate at the right speed and to fit the space they’re intended for,” says Dr. Seibel. “You wouldn’t make a phone call with your vibrator.” Translation: A vibrator is the only vibrating thing that should go near your vagina. The reasons go beyond shape or vibrating power. Other products could cause irritation or injury. Cell phones, for example, are downright filthy and covered with germs, multiple studies show. No need to cozy it right up to your nether region.
OK, so foods high in sugar and white flour (aka refined carbs) don’t usually go near your lady parts, physically speaking, but they can affect your vaginal health if they’re a big part of your diet, especially if you have prediabetes or diabetes. These foods have a high glycemic load, which means your body digests them and turns them into sugar quickly. “In people with diabetes, elevated glucose levels may help yeast thrive, setting the scene for a yeast infection to take hold,” says Dr. Seibel. In one study, women between the ages of 15 and 44 received quarterly pelvic exams for a year and provided detailed dietary information; researchers discovered that those who maintained a diet heavy in high glycemic foods experienced more BV episodes than those who consumed fewer of those types of foods.