Carnal Knowledge: Let’s Talk About Vaginas

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Taking a cue from the first of Good Vibrations’ (a sexual health and pleasure retailer) “New Year’s Sexual Resolutions” to “Explore your own body,” we’d like to stress the importance of knowing your own body—what is healthy or normal and when you should seek a medical professional.

Today we’re going to talk about our favorite subject–vaginas, specifically vaginal health and cleanliness. There are lot of myths that swirl around how to take care of this organ, and the fact that Summer’s Eve products and scented tampons are a still a thing it’s hardly any wonder.

It’s dismaying to enter a public restroom to find the woman before you left a seat full of baby powder. Or to walk the feminine hygiene aisle of Target and see the various douches, soaps, and tampons offering fragrance for your nether regions.

These products, along with our cultural aversion to all things vagina, teach women that vaginas are gross, smelly, and something to be ashamed of.

Before we continue let’s pause for a quick anatomy lesson to make sure we are all on the same page. Many people use the term “vagina” to refer to just about everything between the legs. This isn’t exactly the correct use of the term; the vagina is the organ inside of the body that leads to the cervix and then the uterus. Everything else on the outside of the body that you can see (the outer and inner labia, the clitoris, etc.) is the vulva. It is really only the vaginal opening that you can see.

The vagina is an amazing part of the female anatomy. It cleans itself regularly, no Summer’s Eve necessary. In fact, you don’t need to clean the vagina itself, only the vulva and surrounding external areas.  And the only thing you should clean these areas with is water. Douches, powders, soaps, and fragranced products are very harsh and can cause an imbalance of bacteria which can cause vaginal infections including yeast infections.

Douching is a particular no-no.

The vagina contains a whole host of good, friendly bacteria that help keep it clean. Douching rids the vagina of these good bacteria, making it susceptible to infections caused by overgrowth of certain bacteria that aren’t so friendly anymore.

Even when some products are not intended to be used inside of the vagina, you run the risk of introducing them into the vagina. It is also important to keep in mind that the vulva is often a sensitive area and the chemicals in these products can cause irritation.

Also, please don’t take Gwyneth Paltrow’s advice on steaming your vagina – let that self cleaning magic do it’s thing, no crazy spa session necessary.

The irony is all of the products aimed at preventing vaginal odor can actually cause odor. Why? When these products upset the environment of the vagina and then often produces abnormal discharge.

Abnormal discharge is usually much thicker (or even chunkier) than what you’d normally see and might be yellowish, green, or even pink. Not only is abnormal discharge different in consistency and color, it is usually accompanied by an awful odor, or that “fishy” smell often –and wrongly—used to describe the state of affairs down there all the time.

In case that wasn’t clear, we’ll repeat: A fishy odor is not the norm, contrary to what you may have heard or have been told. Using products that play off insecurities about vaginal odor can certainly lead to smelling that way though.

What do you do when you notice a strong odor and abnormal discharge? If you’ve been using some of the products we’ve mentioned, discontinue their use. Sometimes, the vagina can “right” itself and after a few days things are back to normal.  If that doesn’t happen it is best to see your primary care physician (the doctor you normally see) if he or she can take care of these issues for you (many can at least diagnose and treat the problem), or you can choose to see an OBGYN/gynecologist. Common causes for unusual odor and discharge include yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis (BV), and some STI’s.

A note about yeast infections and BV. These two conditions can appear very similar to each other. There are quite a few over-the-counter options to treat yeast infections effectively, but there are absolutely no over-the-counters for BV. If you think you have a yeast infection, grabbed Monistat, took it correctly, and are still experiencing symptoms, it is time to see a doctor.

This is why It’s important to become aware of your vagina. It’s rather fascinating to note the changes during your monthly cycle. It’s also important to know what’s normal and not normal so you can talk to your practitioner as soon as possible to find out what might be going on and what the course of treatment is. To help gauge what is normal, do know that is normal to produce discharge that is relatively thin and clear to milky-white in color. And yes, normal discharge will often have a mild scent. You can minimize odor from discharge, by using cotton liners and changing them regularly.

We get that bodily fluids can squick people out, so if you’re one of those people who can’t quite shake their aversion to it, take a step back and remember that normal discharge is simply a sign that the vagina is healthy and cleansing itself. Above all, we want our bodies to be healthy right?

And the next time someone insists the vagina smells bad, remember that with our bodies come a whole host of scents. To expect the vulva and vagina to smell like fresh daisies is simply irrational. What is most important is your knowledge of your own body. What is normal discharge for me? What is a normal scent for me? And remember, when it comes to ridiculous products for vaginal odor, just because they sell it doesn’t mean you have to buy it!