- Alyssa Dweck, MD, FACOG, board-certified OB/GYN at the Mount Kisco Medical Group
- Jodie Horton Hearsawho, MD, board-certified OB/GYN and advisor at Love Wellness
- Lauren Streicher, MD, board-certified OB/GYN and author of Sex Rx: Hormones, Health, and Your Best Sex Ever
- Mary Jane Minkin, MD, board-certified OB/GYN and clinical professor at the Yale University School of Medicine
- Staci Tanouye, MD, FACOG, board-certified OB/GYN
- Stacy Henigsman, DO, board-certified OB/GYN and medical lead at Allara Health
What is the difference between the vulva and the vagina?
The vulva and vagina are two distinct parts of the genitalia, says Mary Jane Minkin, MD, board-certified OB/GYN and clinical professor at the Yale University School of Medicine. The vulva is the area outside of the vagina, consisting of the labia, or the inner and outer folds of skin that surround the vaginal opening, the clitoris, the pubic mound (the area above your pubic bone and clitoris), and the perineum (the region between the opening of your vagina and anus). Your vagina, on the other hand, is the canal that leads to the cervix, or the opening to the uterus, she says.
Why you should avoid washing your vagina
While it’s important to wash your vulva daily, cleaning your vagina is unnecessary and even harmful—and you never, ever want to wash the inside of your vagina, says Alyssa Dweck, MD, FACOG, board-certified OB/GYN at the Mount Kisco Medical Group in New York. For one, your vagina keeps itself clean. Additionally, douching—the method of internal cleansing—can disrupt your vagina’s natural cleaning abilities and alter the vaginal microbiome, which can result in an increased risk of irritation and yeast infections.
What is the correct way to wash your vulva?
Your vulva and vagina are considered as one of the most sensitive areas of the body, says Dr. Minkin, so you’ll want to treat it with tender loving care—and when washing your vulva, plain warm water is more than enough for the job.
How to wash your vulva
- Wash your body, including the pubic mound, with a mild soap.
- Let the soapy water run down your body.
- Cleanse your outer labia using just water.
- Pull back your clitoral hood and use your hands to gently clean it with water.
Can you use soap to wash your vulva?
When washing your vulva, experts recommend using plain water, though you can opt to use a mild soap, says Dr. Minkin. Specifically, she recommends the Dove Beauty Bar for Sensitive Skin, an unscented, hypoallergenic bar soap that is ideal for the most reactive of skin, making it a safe choice for the vulva, too.
Keep in mind that what works for one person might not work for you. “It’s important to note that everybody is different,” says Dr. Dweck, with the caveat that you’ll want to avoid harsh soaps that can strip the skin of moisture and cause irritation.
What about intimate washes, wipes, or sprays?
You can, but don’t have to, use a specific product for your genital area, so long as it’s formulated without problematic ingredients that could cause irritation or throw off your pH balance, the latter of which can put you at increased risk of bacteria and yeast infections.
According to Stacy Henigsman, DO, board-certified OB/GYN and medical lead at virtual healthcare platform Allara Health, in a previous interview with Well+Good, you’ll want personal washes that steer clear of ingredients like fragrance, parabens, sulfates, formaldehyde, glycerin, mineral oil, and dyes. Moreover, you’ll want to make sure that it is close to the natural pH range of your vulva. (For reference, the vaginal pH typically ranges from 3.8 to 5.0, though it can vary depending on your age and whether you’re on your menstrual cycle.)
You can also opt to use intimate wipes or sprays as a quick cleanse after a sweaty workout, sex, or to clean up any leaks from menstrual products, though they’re only ideal when you’re “in a pinch,” says Dr. Dweck, so as not to disrupt your vaginal microbiome. If you plan to use the products, make sure they contain moisturizing and anti-inflammatory ingredients and are free of alcohol, parabens, dyes, and fragrances, as well as iodopropynyl butylcarbamate (IBPC), a common cosmetics preservative that can irritate vulvar skin, and chlorine and formaldehyde releasers, which can kill the beneficial bacteria in your vaginal microbiome.
How often should you wash your vulva?
As for how often to wash your vulva, the answer will vary according to the individual, says Dr. Dweck. A spinning instructor who teaches multiple classes a day, for example, might want to wash their vulva several times per day, whereas a writer who spends most of their hours on the couch can probably wash once a day. There are certain situations in which you’ll also want to wash your vulva. (For instance, you’ll typically want to wash it after having sex.)
How should you wash your vulva during your menstrual cycle?
If you’re on your period, wash your vulva as recommended by experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): with plain water. However, as mentioned, you can opt to use an intimate cleanser. It’s also important to keep in mind that period blood can have a metallic-like smell—according to Lauren Streicher, MD, board-certified OB/GYN and author of Sex RX: Hormones, Health, and Your Best Sex Ever, in a previous interview with Well+Good, this is likely due of the presence of iron in your blood.
Is it normal for your vagina to smell, even after washing your vulva?
Vagina smells are normal. The scent can vary from person to person, and it changes on a daily and even hourly basis based on factors like exercise and sweat, hormone levels during your menstrual cycle, or what you ate for lunch. In most cases, you don’t have to worry about vaginal odor. That said, if you’re experiencing a persistent and unusual odor, it could point to an underlying issue. To rule out this possibility, it’s a great idea to talk to an OB/GYN.
What about vaginal discharge?
According to the Cleveland Clinic, vaginal discharge is normal, and it signifies that your body is working as it should be. Your vagina produces discharge—which is typically clear or white (or brown during or after having your period) and vicious or paste-like in consistency—to clean and lubricate itself. Like vaginal odor, discharge can increase when you’re aroused or around the time of your menstrual cycle. However, if your discharge looks (or smells) unusual or is accompanied by symptoms like itching or swelling, it can indicate an infection or another issue—matters that are best taken up with an OB/GYN.
More vulvar health tips
Washing your vulva on the regular is just one way to keep it happy and healthy. Ahead, OB/GYNs provide a few more vulvar and vaginal health tips for consideration:
- Avoid washing with loofahs and washcloths: Dr. Minkin advises against using loofahs and washcloths as part of your hygiene routine, as they are too rough for the sensitive vulvar tissue.
- Use vulva-appropriate moisturizers prior to high-friction activities: Activities like walking, running, and indoor cycling—and not to mention sex—can all cause vulvar and vaginal chafing. OB/GYNS recommend using specific moisturizers and creams for the area and lube when you’re having sex or masturbating.
- Wear underwear made from breathable, moisture-wicking materials: Believe it or not, there is a right type of underwear for your vaginal health. According to OB/GYNs, the right underwear is typically made from breathable materials with moisture-wicking properties like cotton, modal, bamboo, and hemp). They won’t just keep your nether regions cool but also protect against moisture-loving bacteria.
- Treat yourself to a “vajacial:” A “vajacial,” aka vaginal facial, is a procedure that involves thoroughly cleansing and exfoliating the vulva, plus treatments that target ingrown hairs, acne, and inflammation. While a vajacial isn’t necessary, it can be an occasional treat (or save yourself a few Hamiltons and DIY a vaginal facial at home.)
Frequently asked questions
How should I clean my vulva every day?
The experts we spoke to recommend cleaning your vulva with plain water every day, though they also mentioned that you can opt to use intimate washes or, when in a pinch, wipes or sprays, so long as they’re made without ingredients that can cause irritation or infection.
Should I wash my vulva every day?
The short answer is yes. While your vagina, or the canal that leads from outside your body to the uterus, is capable of cleansing itself, your vulva—the exterior of the genitalia—is not. Most experts we talked to agreed that you’ll want to clean your vulva at least once per day to keep it healthy and free of unwanted bacteria.
Why does my vulva smell after washing?
All vaginas smell to a certain extent, and there’s no shame in that. If, however, your vagina is emitting a persistent and unusual odor that is stronger than usual, it could indicate an infection or underlying issue—and if you suspect that’s the case, make sure to pay a visit to an OB/GYN.
- Fashemi, Bisiayo et al. “Effects of feminine hygiene products on the vaginal mucosal biome.” Microbial ecology in health and disease vol. 24 10.3402/mehd.v24i0.19703. 25 Feb. 2013, doi:10.3402/mehd.v24i0.19703
- Lin, Yen-Pin et al. “Vaginal pH Value for Clinical Diagnosis and Treatment of Common Vaginitis.” Diagnostics (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 11,11 1996. 27 Oct. 2021, doi:10.3390/diagnostics11111996
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