Deborah Evans, Fellow of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and mother of four, gives us some straight-talk about women’s intimate health.
It can be embarrassing to talk about female hygiene, particularly for young women.
The taboo of openly discussing intimate hygiene and periods can mean that many women might not know the best way to look after themselves ‘down there’. And in trying to do what they feel is best, they may actually be triggering some painful, irritating issues such as cystitis and thrush and not realising it.
Here are some of the most common mistakes women make and how to put them right, so you’re being gentle to your sensitive area.
Mistake 1: being ‘too clean’
Most girls and young women want to feel clean and smell nice. This can make them particularly aware of their body odour, especially during their period. But this may mean they end up washing with the wrong products, such as fragranced soaps, which disrupt the vagina’s pH balance and can lead to other infections potentially making the smell worse.
It’s recommended that women avoid using highly perfumed or antiseptic products that might irritate the sensitive areas. To wash, you just need to use simple lukewarm water and unperfumed soap, ideally twice a day.
Women should also clean the area between the vagina and anus (called the perineum) daily. And always wipe from front to back when going to the toilet. This is to minimise transmission of bacteria, helping to avoid running the risk of getting a urinary tract infection (UTI).
Top tip: it’s normal for the vagina to have a scent. Vaginal odour can change at different times of the reproductive cycle and shouldn’t always be thought of as being a sign of infection or illness.
Mistake 2: vaginal douching
Some women ‘douche’. This is essentially a way of cleaning your vagina by flushing water up into it. They can be bought in pharmacies and usually come in a bottle or a bag which is then sprayed through a tube upwards into the vagina.
But once again, this can disrupt the normal bodily functions. In fact, it has been found to potentially increase the risk of infections and pelvic inflammatory disease, which is when normal vaginal bacteria finds itself in a woman’s reproductive organs.
Rather than douching, wash your external vaginal area as described above. Vaginal wipes and deodorants can also disrupt the vagina’s healthy natural balance, although everyone is different, and they may be okay for some women.
Mistake 3: wearing the wrong underwear
It’s likely that we choose which pair of knickers to wear on the basis of our outfit. In fact, we should also take our personal hygiene into account too.
Although thongs can be a good option for avoiding a visible panty line, they can also be unhygienic. This is because they make it more likely for bacteria from your anus to travel to your vagina and up your urethra, which can cause a painful infection. If you do want to wear a thong, consider wearing it for that special occasion but remember to change out of it into your everyday underwear as soon as you can.
It’s important to bear in mind the activities you might be doing each day too. A sweaty session at the gym can cause bacteria to harbour in intimate areas. So wearing breathable underwear made from cotton, rather than synthetic materials, can help avoid any post-gym nasties.
Mistake 4: drinking too much coffee and fizzy drinks
Drinking too much coffee, fruit juice and too many fizzy drinks isn’t just bad for your overall health. They can affect your urinary tract and vagina too. That’s because these drinks tend to irritate the bladder. So if you are sensitive to UTIs, you may want to limit your intake.
However, some people believe that drinking cranberry juice can actually provide help with a sensitivity to UTIs. You should also drink water to stay hydrated.
Mistake 5: falling asleep after sex
Not practicing good hygiene before sex and then falling asleep right after sex may leave you feeling uncomfortable the next day. This is because intercourse introduces new bacteria into the urethra.
Washing your intimate area before and after sex stops bacteria getting into places it shouldn’t, and prevents it from harbouring. This is especially important if you have been using lubricants. One easy and effective way to flush the urethra of bacteria is to always pee immediately before and after sex, to help to avoid developing cystitis and thrush.
Top tip: sexual intercourse makes your vagina vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases, so you should always practice safe sex, use protection and have your sexual health checked regularly.
Mistake 6: putting off your cervical screening
In the UK, a third of women don’t attend cervical screening check-ups due to embarrassment, according to charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.
The women I talk to are worried about getting a result which needs further investigation. But the screening can pick up changes in cells long before they might change to cancer, so it’s crucial that you attend your appointments so any changes are detected early.
You might feel a bit awkward when addressing good intimate health habits but keeping on top of them will help you to feel more comfortable in your skin.
If you think you may have an infection, it’s important to remember that doctors and pharmacists deal with these types of issues all the time, so try not to feel embarrassed. If you’re concerned, your local sexual health clinic can also help.
This blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding your own or your family’s health.