Washing Your Vulva & Vagina: Soap Isn't A Friend.

HelpingTeens Administration Note: This article and its contents may not necessarily apply to your own body. We believe that a quick wipe over your vagina with a sponge that has body wash or soap or whatever won't be washing away too much of the "helper bacteria" but a more thorough wash using body wash or soap might present a problem. If the soap irritates your skin, you should use a soap without perfume.

For many, washing our vulva with our favourite shower gel or soap is a regular part of our daily routine. We grew up knowing our mothers, sisters, and friends did this and many of us were told that washing themselves with soap is necessary to stay clean and avoid unpleasant odor. How many of us ever stopped to think whether this is what we should be doing or was it just what we were told to do. There are a plethora of products aimed specifically for 'intimate freshness' for women, playing on an idea that we will smell unless we wash with fragranced cleaning products. What's worse is that more than half of the women do not even know that this can be potentially harmful to them and their bodies.

Many women will say soap is fine, even those who know the potential risks will say that a mild soap is still suitable, that they themselves use this without having any problems occurring. However, as true as this may be for those individuals, for a large number of women this can cause problems that can go on without the knowledge of the cause. Regardless of how fine cleaning with soap may feel, it still remains bad for vaginal health; an unnecessary act which is often seen as a necessity.

Women who use soap often do not know any different. It has been ingrained in our mind that to be clean one must use cleaning products but it is often a surprise to women to finally know how harmful this can be. Truthfully women's vaginas and vulvas are not as dirty as some people seem to think, certainly the smell of the vagina is not one that should be removed or covered up. It is not a foul smell and far from something that should repel men as it is a natural sexual attractant.

We as women are supposed to have a smell, we are supposed to have bacteria (both good and bad), we are supposed to have yeast and we are supposed to have fluids leaving our vagina both during menstruation and as everyday discharge. Left to it's own devices the vagina is a self-contained environment, it keeps itself healthy and is self-cleaning so needs little help from us unless an infection occurs, and then it is up to your friendly gynecologist to prescribe just what we need.

That is not to say women cannot take an active role in their vaginal health. Many doctors will support the use of natural remedies to help aid in vaginal health such as the use of yogurt or tea tree oil to treat infection rather than using medical treatments for infection, the more natural things used to treat this delicate environment the better.

For the vulva, soap can be quite traumatic. Firstly, for girls pre-teen and early teens, this can be the first warning sign for soap vaginitis and UTI's. Before puberty, the mucosa can be very sensitive, and it can easily become irritated when it comes in contact with soaps. Many women have sensitive mucosa that can often become inflamed and irritated by the presence of soap. Much like soap can remove oils from your skin and cause irritation and dryness, soap can strip the vulva of it's natural oils as the vulva is naturally moist. This can cause significant irritation and it should also be noted that soaps can cause vaginal dryness which may become an issue if one is sexually active.

For the vagina more problems can occur. Soap can cause irritation and inflammation of the mucosa much in the same way as it would cause irritation of the vulva. This not only causes discomfort but can also leave women more susceptible to STD's. The vagina has a very delicate bacterial and PH balance and with the effect of soaps having differing PH levels, it can affect the normal vaginal PH level and may lead to imbalances in the bacteria levels.

Bacteria are naturally occurring in the vagina however when the anaerobic bacteria, genital mycoplasmas and gardnerella vaginalis overgrow or lactobacilli are reduced, then this can cause bacterial vaginosis. Bacterial vaginosis is a bacterial infection that is common in many women, most commonly caused by this PH imbalance. The symptoms are not always present however when they are women will experience excessive discharge and a foul 'fish' type smell. This infection is not necessarily serious, unless the women has a IUD or the infection progresses further into the vagina, however this infection can be very stubborn to get rid of and modern medicine cannot always guarantee successful treatment. The PH imbalance can also affect the naturally occurring yeast in the vagina, again leading to infection and further irritation through yeast infections.

It may be tempting to use soaps, douches or feminine sprays if an infection is already present, however these will only complicate existing infections. Douching can have these negative effects, as it pushes harmful bacteria farther up into the reproductive system as well as using soap which removes all vaginal bacteria. For women who do not experience infection through use of soap they may well still wish to use soap, however this remains completely unnecessary as your body knows best.

There are also unseen risks, that of synthetic chemicals, many soaps and cleaning product contain synthetic chemicals as a way to improve the shelf life of the product. The majority of modern cosmetics are constructed from complex mixtures of synthetic chemicals. Alone these chemicals pose little risk, however, combined with other products, they can create a cause for concern, particularly if exposed to the delicate mucosa of the vagina and vulva.

Many commonly used chemicals cannot only cause allergic reactions but are suspected hormone disrupters and so are potentially harmful. The skin on our bodies absorbs chemicals in cosmetics but because it has keratinized squamous epithelium, which is the protective outer layer, it is largely protected. However, as the vaginal/vulva mucosa does not have this protective layer, its absorbency is higher. Fragranced soaps alone can contain between 50-100 different fragrances, many of which are potentially harmful. The United Kingdom currently only requires manufacturers to label 'parfum' or in the US 'fragrance' so it is hard to tell the exact chemicals used in specific products.

Triclosan is another concern; a chlorophenol commonly used in soaps and vaginal washes. This kills any type of bacteria it comes across. It cannot tell the difference between what is good and what is bad so it can remove beneficial bacteria. This too can be converted into dioxin with exposure to sunlight in water. Many potentially harmful synthetic chemicals can be found in soaps and washes, it is therefore unwise to use these around an area where absorption rate is high, such as with vaginal mucosa.

Correct bathing would be to avoid allowing chemicals around the vagina and vulva area, such as avoiding bubble baths, or other bathing products containing chemicals which may disturb natural vaginal health. Sometimes we cannot help but get soap in the vulva when showering, and washing the outer labia with soap is perfectly safe, however, using soap specifically to clean the vagina or vulva should be avoided. Although many feminine washes, sprays or talc's may claim to be safe to use these are not needed and more often than not, they are no better than soap.

To clean the vulva gently spread the inner and outer labia to wash between them with your hands while in the bath or shower, wash forwards towards your clitoral head being careful not to clean too harshly or excessively. While cleaning be sure to use your fingers to gently wash away any dead skin within the inner labia and clean away any discharge. The vulva should be dried gently with a towel - remember detergents used on your flannels and towels can also cause irritation and harbour bacteria. An even better method is to avoid friction which causes the spread of bacteria. This can be done by setting a hairdryer on it's cool setting, or better yet, run around the house free and naked.

When drying avoid talc's, these have been linked to numerous cancers, including vulva, vaginal, cervical, uterine and ovarian. Also avoid using sprays. Again, even if advertised as feminine hygiene sprays these too can have a similar effect as soaps.

As tempting as it is if you suffer from infections or feel uneasy about your natural smell it is in your best interests to learn to wash and care for your vagina without the use of soaps, douches, talc's, sprays, wipes or coloured/scented toilet paper.