For the study, researchers surveyed nearly 1,500 Canadian women about their feminine hygiene habits. More than 95 percent of the women surveyed reported using at least one product—such as moisturisers, anti-itch creams, feminine wipes, washes, sprays, and powders—in or around their vaginas.
The problem? Those women had a three times higher chance of experiencing some kind of vaginal health problem, like an infection.
For instance, women who used gel sanitizers were eight times more likely to get a yeast infection and 20 times more likely to experience a bacterial infection, the study found. Those who relied on feminine wipes were twice as likely to get a urinary tract infection, while lubricants or moisturizers were also linked to yeast infections.
It’s not entirely clear if the women in the study purchased these products to address a problem they already had with their vagina or if they simply just wanted to keep things smelling rosy. Either way, there’s still a strong correlation between the use of these products and irritation or infection, the researchers note.
What's the best way to clean your vagina?
So if feminine wipes and washes are a no-go, how exactly do you stay clean down there?
Turns out you don't need to do anything—seriously. Your vagina doesn’t really need all of that extra stuff to keep things running smoothly, explains Alyssa Dweck, a gynaecologist.
“I love the saying ‘the vagina is like a self-cleaning oven,’” she explains. “The vagina has natural mechanisms to keep the pH in the acidic range, and thus keep the natural balance of yeast and bacteria in order.”
Basically, your vagina really just wants to be left alone to do its thing. When you start incorporating fancy feminine hygiene products, you actually mess with the good-for-you bacteria that work to fight these infections, the study authors note.
“Intravaginal douches are specifically frowned upon since they disrupt the pH and this delicate balance, which can lead to infection. They really are just not needed,” explains Dr. Dweck.
As for your vulva—the external part of your genitals surrounding your vaginal opening—keep things simple and use hypoallergenic products that don’t include dyes or heavy fragrances, suggests Dr. Dweck.
That means, in most cases, rinsing around the outer portion of your vaginal opening with warm water using just your hand will do the trick. Avoid any harsh scrubbing or loofahs, says Dr. Dweck. If you can’t go without soap, use a gentle unscented brand, like the Dove Beauty Bar for sensitive skin. If you don’t experience foul odours, itching, redness, or discharge that seems out of the norm, then your vagina is likely doing just fine.
But what if your vagina smells?
It’s important to note that certain habits can up your risk of odour, vaginal discharge, itching, irritation, and infection, says Dr. Dweck. For instance, constantly wearing tight-fitting clothes (lookin’ at you, yoga pants) or panty-liners may not give your vaginal area enough room to breathe, she says.
Having sex with multiple partners without a condom can also bump your chances of bacterial vaginosis, a condition that causes itching and a fishy odour. If you’re more prone to yeast infections, using a lubricant that contains glycerin can also cause issues. Some women also have problems if they stay in wet swimsuits or sweaty clothes after exercising, says Dr. Dweck.
“If a woman notes a different, foul, or uncomfortable discharge signifying enough to warrant one of these products, then she should consider getting checked from the gyno to ensure all is okay,” says Dr. Dweck. “If an actual infection is present, then treatment with an approved antibiotic or anti-fungal would be in order.”
This article originally appeared in Prevention.