Thanks to the menstrual realness movement, periods are finally being given the props they so rightfully deserve. But what about the substances your vag so diligently produces on the other 21-ish days of your cycle?
If you’re still a little mystified by them, you’re definitely not alone. “There’s been this amazing shift towards period positivity, and it’s interesting because there’s so little claiming of other vaginal fluids,” says doula Katinka Locascio of Earth & Sky Healing Arts.
“There’s been this amazing shift towards period positivity, and it’s interesting because there’s so little claiming of other vaginal fluids.”
Indeed, an entire arm of the personal care industry is dedicated to deodorizing, absorbing, and otherwise cleaning discharge up once it leaves the body. Oh, and have you ever wondered why so many people cringe when they hear the word “moist”? Well, according to one study, it’s because it’s so commonly associated with sexual bodily functions—and women are especially likely to be grossed out by it.
But, as it turns out, all of this discomfort and shame around vaginal secretions is completely unfounded. “You do want discharge, and it’s good for women to pay attention to it,” says Sherry Ross, MD, author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period. That’s because it’s actually able to do some really rad things. The cervix, vagina, and less-discussed lady parts all produce fluids with their own distinct jobs—and when you get to know them, it’s hard not to bow down to their many superpowers. I’d say that’s definitely deserving of a celebratory subway ad.
Keep reading to learn 5 cool things your vaginal fluids do to keep you healthy, improve your sex life, and more.
1. They have their own protective microbiome
By now, you’re totally tight with your gut microbiome—but the vagina has an equally important colony of friendly bacteria all its own. Its job is basically the same as the one further north. “For the most part, our microbiomes exist to protect and nurture us,” says Natalia Hailes, doula and co-founder of women’s sexual wellness organization Brilliant Bodies. “They are thought to be our first line of defense against foreign invaders.”
The bacterial strands in the vagina are different from the ones in the gut, and when they’re in check, their main role is to help prevent infection. But they can be thrown off balance easily—namely by using harsh soaps and wipes. “The vagina is very temperamental,“ says Dr. Ross, who recommends taking a probiotic specially formulated for women’s health.
Need further proof of this little squad’s potency? “The vaginal microbiome can play an important role in setting up a newborn’s microbiome, as it’s absorbed during vaginal birth,” says Hailes. That’s why “seeding”—when the mother’s vaginal fluids are wiped on the newborn’s skin after birth—is becoming a more popular (if somewhat controversial) practice during C-sections.
2. They tell you whether your hormones are healthy
Locascio believes that we should be keeping tabs on our cervical fluids just like we track our periods because they provide valuable insight into our health and fertility. “I get really excited about them, because they tell you what your hormones are doing,” she says.
Here’s what a typical, healthy month in the life of your cervical mucus looks like: As ovulation approaches, Locascio says, many women notice a sticky discharge. This eventually turns into a clear, egg-white consistency around the time of the egg’s release. “What that’s doing is helping to nourish, house, and create a highway for the sperm to get to the egg,” she explains.
Shortly after ovulation, progesterone rises, changing the texture of the fluid again to prevent sperm from entering. “What people commonly experience in the luteal phase is some kind of creamy discharge,” Locascio says. “They think they might have a yeast infection, but it’s totally normal mucus, and it’s not problematic.”
If you’re on hormonal birth control, these fluctuations probably won’t be as obvious—in fact, you may not experience them at all, says Dr. Ross. But if you’re one of the growing number of women who’ve ditched the pill, it’s worth closely watching what’s going on down below. (Preferably with the aid of an app like MyFlo.) “When we notice a lack of change in our cervical fluid, it may be an indication of hormone imbalances that can give clues to our overall fertility and health,” says doula Ashley Spivak, the other founder of Brilliant Bodies. If this is true for you, bring it up with your doctor.
3. They act as a maid service for your vag
There’s another type of white or clear discharge that indicates your vagina is cleaning house by flushing out old tissue and shady microorganisms. “It’s basically the cells recycling themselves,” says Locascio. “Some women notice more and some less, but it’s not coming from the cervix and it’s usually not a lot.” This is happening all the time, but Locascio says you’ll likely notice it most on days when you’re not experiencing much cervical discharge—like, right after your period.
Because of this phenomenon, Dr. Ross stresses that you really don’t need to worry about cleaning anything but the outside of your intimate bits. “You don’t want to douche, you don’t need any steam cleaning in there,” she says. “The vagina does clean itself.”
4. They uplevel your sexual experiences
Okay, so what’s the deal with female ejaculation? As it turns out, this substance is entirely different from the natural lube your body produces when you get busy. As psychologist Laurie Mintz explains in her new book, Becoming Cliterate, it actually comes from the tissues cushioning the urethra (AKA the urethral sponge), which may be stimulated during sex.
“The fluid—usually only about a teaspoonful—is often described as looking like watered-down, fat-free milk,” writes Mintz. She notes that whether or not it happens to you, it doesn’t really serve a purpose and is not a big deal either way. “Female ejaculation is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s also not a goal to strive for. It’s just another beautiful variation among women.”
That said, you should be experiencing some wetness down below when you’re getting it on. There are lots of reasons why you might not be—not enough foreplay, certain types of medication, or even dehydration, says Dr. Ross. Either way, talk to your doc if this is an issue for you.
5. They’re an emergency alert system for your intimate health
We often think of itching and burning as the telltale signs of a vaginal infection, but often the clues are much more subtle. “You can have an infection and not know it,” says Dr. Ross, who adds that sometimes a change in the color, texture, or smell of your vaginal fluids is the only hint you’ll have of an underlying health issue. This could be an indication of a yeast infection, sexually transmitted infection, bacterial vaginosis, or even a cervical abnormality. If you see (or, um, smell) something, say something to your doctor ASAP to prevent complications. Your own personal homeland security system’s counting on you.
Keeping an eye on your vaginal fluids may actually turn you into a master manifester—no, really, a health expert says so. And if you’re too distracted by PMS symptoms to think about much else, here are six ways to eliminate them for good.