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Let’s demystify feminine hygiene

  • Busting myths, presenting truths and expert advice to maintain good vaginal health

Maintaining good vaginal health is crucial for a woman's overall well-being.
Maintaining good vaginal health is crucial for a woman's overall well-being. (Unsplash)

It’s complicated. The subject of feminine hygiene that is – because as a woman you are either shushed or met with awkward giggles when you want to talk about it. Or you are exposed to tone deaf ads making preposterous claims. A general reluctance to discuss the subject means that today, most people have a foggy idea about feminine hygiene and brands market many products under the garb of feminine hygiene to make their products look trendy and woke. This article’s an attempt to demystify the subject and, with the help of experts, offer practical advice and dos and don’ts to maintain good vaginal health. And are feminine hygiene products actually necessary? Read on to find out: 

What is feminine hygiene?
Feminine hygiene essentially is the health of the vagina, a closed muscular canal that lies between the vulva (opening of the genital region) and the cervix of the uterus. Many factors affect vaginal hygiene including sex, pregnancy, pelvic inflammatory disease, birth control methods, feminine hygiene products like condoms and tampons, and most importantly, hormones. Forming a consistent, healthy routine to safeguard the vagina against these factors is important.

What does a typical feminine hygiene routine include? 
Just like you have a regular skin care or hair care routine, you need to follow a healthy vaginal routine. However, despite how important it is to keep the vagina clean, most women do not know how to do it correctly. Unlike skin, the vagina does not need scrubbing and excessive cleaning it is a self-cleaning machine. It has an acidic pH between 3.8-4.5, with a large amount of good bacteria that keeps it naturally lubricated and wards off infections. Over-cleaning the vagina can decrease these bacteria, doing more harm than good. You only need use water and your fingers to gently clean out the outer skin of the vagina. While cleaning, never point water directly at it, instead, let it run down from the top to the bottom. 
“Another important aspect of a healthy vaginal routine includes cleaning from the front to the back to avoid any bacterial infection of the vagina and the bladder,” advises Dr Jyothi Unni, director, department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Jehangir Hospital, Pune. Following this routine from early years can help a woman maintain good vaginal health all through her life. Certain factors would, of course, necessitate special attention and a tweak in the regular routine.

Also read: How to avoid falling for wellness myths

Should your routine change over time?
Women go through different phases during their lives in terms of vaginal health starting from puberty and menstruation to childbirth and menopause. All these factors affect the vagina and requisite care needs to be taken to keep it in perfect health. “Feminine hygiene should begin right from birth. A mother must be taught how to take care of the baby’s vulva. The first form of feminine hygiene instituted is to wipe the baby from front to back,” says Dr Ghanorkar, senior consultant—Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Ghanorkar Hospital, Nashik.

Girls aged 4-12 years tend to have a lot of discharge, itching and burning as they have no estrogen. They need to keep the vulva clean with just moist cotton and water. The puberty phase when girls start menstruating is when a lot of care needs to be taken to keep the vulva and vagina in optimum health. Regular changing of tampons, sanitary pads and underwear is a must. Menstrual cups should be sterilised before and after use. Besides this, pubic hair should be trimmed to keep the area clean. Avoid using hair removal creams as they can cause skin allergies. 

A sexually active adult woman should definitely prioritise her genital health as she can be more prone to Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). Urinating every time after having intercourse is essential as it removes bacteria and other germs. An extra cautious step would be to wash vagina with water; but only the outer part of the vagina should be cleaned or else it will wash away the good bacteria too. Over-the-counter lubricants, coconut oil and castor oil are recommended if there is vaginal dryness. 

Menopause is another phase when women face many issues. Needless to say, it is important to take extra care during that sensitive time. After menopause, the vulva skin gets dry due to estrogen deficiency, which can cause itching and burning. Dr. Ghanorkar recommends supplementing this deficiency with vaginal and estrogen creams so as to prevent recurrent vaginal infections. However, these are unavailable over the counter and can be purchased only with a doctor’s prescription.

Also read: Why culturally diverse online education on contraception is important

Debunking myths about feminine hygiene trends
In this age of social media and influencers, there are conversations happening around feminine hygiene products like intimate washes and lubricants. In fact, according to Research and Market’s report titled Feminine Hygiene Products Market in India 2019, the feminine hygiene market stood at INR 25.02 billion in 2018 and was expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14.92% between 2019 and 2024 to touch INR 58.62 billion. New brands are foraying into the Indian market making a splash with fancy hygiene products. Though products like sanitary pads, menstruation cups and tampons are essential for maintaining hygiene, others like V-washes, intimate washes and sprays are a definite No!

“Avoid using intimate washes or lubricants around your vagina as they can change the vaginal pH and cause allergic reactions such as itching and dryness”, Dr Unni advises.  There is a lot of talk about trends such as douching and steaming on social media. Dr. Ghanorkar says, “These trends might sound fancy and grab the attention of young women due to their influential marketing strategies. While in fact they are detrimental to vaginal health. Douching involves washing the vaginal canal with a water soap mixture or a water-vinegar combination. This can change the vagina’s natural microbiome and its natural defense to fight infections. Steaming can cause imbalances in the vagina’s natural way of warding off infections. It can be painful and unsavoury if you happen to scald the vaginal tissues and vulva skin.” “Stay away from these instagrammable hygiene products and trends. They look good only on camera. When it comes to vaginal health, it is best to let your vagina do its work with little assistance from you in keeping it clean,” recommends Dr. Ghanorkar.

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