Every time a woman complains to Dr Ayan Mukhopadhyay, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at Ruby General Hospital, Kolkata of vaginal itching or curdy, white or watery discharge, the first question he poses to them is, “Are you using any intimate wash products?”
“If she says yes, I tell her that she needs to stop it right away,” Dr Mukhopadhyay says.
Being a taboo topic, intimate hygiene is rarely discussed among women. Intimate areas comprise the vulva (the female external genital area which includes the clitoris, labia, and urethra) and the vaginal opening. Intimate hygiene or wash products are chemical solutions used to clean the vaginal area.
Doctors add that many women lack awareness of vaginal care and vaginitis, a commonly seen condition in women caused by the imbalance of the natural bacteria present in the vagina.
Dr Nivedita Jha, consultant gynaecologist at Sparsh Hospital, Bengaluru reiterates that the female body has essential microbiota (microorganisms) to maintain vulval hygiene.
“A natural bacteria called lactobacilli resides inside the vagina and vulva to maintain vaginal health. This bacterium helps to prevent infections as well. Hence, the intimate area doesn’t need extra care,” says Dr Jha.
Doctors say that the usage of intimate wash products dries up the vaginal mucosa, which hampers the self-cleaning mechanism of the vagina. When the vaginal mucosa dries up, it can aggravate an existing infection.
Intimate wash is not a necessity
Dr Mukhopadhyay says that normal tap water is enough to keep intimate areas clean. While an intimate wash product is good for maintaining vaginal pH and cleanliness among women without any infections with a doctor’s recommendation, if someone with a vaginal infection uses the product, it aggravates their condition, he says.
“Intimate wash can be used by those who have any problem with vaginal discharge like foul-smelling discharge. The product may be good at maintaining the pH level in the vagina (ideally 3.8 to 5). The problem arises when they use it while suffering from an infection. Intimate wash products are freely available in the market and the sheer accessibility is why so many people who do not need it end up using the product,” says Dr Mukhopadhyay.
“Intimate wash products are not medicines for problems. Women must reach out to doctors if they have any issues,” he adds.
Debangana C, 25, a teacher from Kolkata, used an intimate wash hoping to maintain vaginal hygiene, frequently, without a doctor’s recommendation.
Subsequently, she experienced increased irritation and itchiness in her vaginal area. After consulting the doctor, she was advised not to use the chemicals and to wash her intimate area with warm water once a day.
Maintaining hygiene during vaginal discharge
Dr Jha says that vaginal discharge, the off-white fluid/mucus discharge which contains dead cells and vaginal bacteria from the vagina, is common, adding that it protects the vagina from infection. The vaginal discharge becomes a cause for concern only when it is produced in abnormal quantity, has a foul smell, changes colour or causes itchiness.
“Discharge before periods is also normal. Hence, warm water is enough to maintain hygiene during vaginal discharge,” Dr Jha says.
She says that women should also avoid pantiliners (a thin material like a sanitary pad that helps absorb the vaginal discharge) as it can aggravate the vaginal infection.
Dr Mukhopadhyay points out that women should not use intimate wash products if they are experiencing watery discharge, curdy white discharge, greenish discharge or problems like UTI (urinary tract infection). “Expert consultation is always better than blindly using products,” he cautions. If not treated, infection due to bacteria or fungus in the intimate area can spread to the urinary tract leading to UTI, doctors say.
Experts add that women are often misguided by some intimate wash products which claim to prevent dryness, itchiness and bad odour.
How to prevent vaginal infection?
“Don’t overwash,” warns Dr Jha. She says that the most common cause of infection is wetness. “If a woman sweats a lot or washes her intimate area frequently, it increases the chance of infection. Hence, the best way to prevent infection is to keep the vulvar area dry.”
In December 2021, Meghna P, a 29-year-old data analyst from Kolkata, started experiencing itchiness in her vagina. As the itching increased, she started a frequent washing routine, not consulting a doctor. The condition only worsened.
“A month later, I was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection. The doctors informed me that the infection could have worsened if I had continued the frequent washing,” says Meghna.
After taking the prescribed medication, Meghna’s condition improved, and now she is free from itchiness and infection.
Dr Jha and Dr Mukhopadhyay suggest that the vaginal/vulvar area should be kept dry and washed once daily. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Avoid coloured tissue paper or scented perfume toilet rolls.
- Use white toilet paper or a towel instead of wet wipes.
- Avoid tight garments, especially while having an infection.
- Use cotton fabric and light-coloured undergarments.
- Warm water is better for vaginal care.
- During periods, keep changing sanitary napkins to avoid infection.