Do you really need a vaginal wash?
I don’t need my vagina to smell like roses or lavender
I remember standing in the aisle of ‘feminine hygiene’ products with my schoolmate as we giggled over India’s first scented vaginal wash that had just been introduced. Neither of us could figure out why our vaginas needed to smell like white jasmine, or why they were using words like ‘long-lasting freshness’ to describe female genitalia like it was a pile of laundry.
We quizzed her mother when we got back to the car and got a scolding instead of an education.
Like most Indian girls, my knowledge of my own body was so limited that the promises of ‘freshness’ and ‘cleanliness’ convinced me there was something unhygienic about it, more so during menstruation. When I moved to Mumbai, my mother made sure I kept a Lactacyd wash in my toiletries bag to combat the cesspool of bacteria and infections that lay ahead. But I noticed little difference between rinsing with the pale pink liquid and regular H20. What was I even spending this money on?
What does a vaginal wash do?
According to Dr Tripti Sharan, a Delhi-based gynaecologist and obstetrician, natural vaginal flora maintain a slightly acidic environment with a pH 3.5 – 4.5 to stave off any infections. Women are directed to use a vaginal wash by doctors in the case of recurring ailments like urinary tract infections (UTI). Unfortunately, most women will experience a UTI at least once in their lifetime, and it could be related to having a short urethra or improper wiping (always go front to back) for that. Bacteria from the anus, namely E. coli found in the gastrointestinal tract, gets swiped towards the vulva and sneaks up your urinary tract, triggering a nasty chain of events.
There are points in a woman’s natural life cycle where hormonal changes take place — like during puberty and menopause — and this natural pH balance gets thrown off. That’s when a compensatory vaginal wash can be prescribed. When I was young I used to think of the menstrual cycle as akin to tapping ‘reset to factory settings’, returning our uteruses to a pristine state. In an interview, Dr. Felice Gersh commented that for some people, UTIs actually tend to pop-up more around the time of their period. “Estrogen is anti-inflammatory and this hormone is at its lowest during your menstrual bleed, so you can be more susceptible during this time,’ she said. Which is why Dr Gandhali Deorukhkar Pillai, Mumbai-based OB-GYN suggests the use of a well-formulated, mild vaginal wash to patients during menstruation.
Your odds of getting a UTI also increases if you’re sexually active. Urologist Sovrin M Shah, MD, says that “fingers, toys, or anything that causes movement of bacteria” can lead to bladder infections. Which is why peeing after sex becomes important, same applies to hydration, to flush out bacteria before it settles down. Vulvar cleansing can be a useful addition for women recovering from infections which cause odorous discharge. The regular use of a vaginal wash could reduce the risk of recurrence of bacterial vaginosis.
Your vagina is smarter than you think
But for the most part, the vagina is like a ‘self-cleaning oven’, with a microbiome of good bacteria (like our gut) in the form of lactobacilli, and glands that produce mucus to clean out the house and expel dead cells and unwanted particles if and when the need arises. In fact, some vaginal washes may have harmful chemicals in the form of preservatives and fragrances that could disrupt the body’s highly effective immune system and aggravate any inflammation or odour that’s present. In the worst-case scenario, if someone who already has an infection brewing uses a douche, it might push the bad bacteria further up into the reproductive tract where it can cause major health problems.
Whether you trust your lady bits to do what they were biologically programmed to do, or prefer a little pharmaceutical assistance every now and then, remember the words of Professor Ronnie Lamont: “If nature had intended the vagina to smell like roses or lavender, it would have made the vagina smell like roses or lavender”.