A staggering variety of so-called feminine hygiene products seek to help with “vaginal odour” and discharge, and “keep you fresh”. From deodorants to cucumber cleanses, scented “panty liners”, and the newest fad “vaginal steaming”. These products actively promote the view that women’s vaginas should be discharge-free and either have no smell at all or exude the whiff of rose petals or vanilla pods.
Many women perceive vaginal discharge as undesirable and unnatural rather than physiological and normal. Data suggest around half of all women use “panty liners” to absorb discharge with up to 30% using them on a daily basis. While Australian women are generally not big fans of “douching”, a French term for washing out the vagina using a liquid spray, it’s important to understand why cleaning the vagina is not recommended.
What is vaginal discharge and why is it important?
The vagina is self-cleaning, and vaginal discharge plays an important role in keeping the vagina healthy. From puberty, when oestrogen kicks in, the vagina becomes colonised with healthy bacteria from the Lactobacillus group which produce lactic acid.
This finely balanced vaginal ecosystem is referred to as the vaginal microbiome and the resulting acidity of the vagina provides protection against sexually transmissible infections.
Healthy vaginal discharge is made up of fluid from the vaginal walls, mucus from the cervix as well as the lactobacilli, and because the vaginal environment is hormonally influenced, variation in the amount of discharge throughout the month is to be expected and completely normal.
As well as providing a protective environment, vaginal discharge provides natural lubrication with between one and 4mls of fluid produced every 24 hours. Healthy vaginal discharge has a characteristic smell – and in some women this can become stronger because of the large number of sweat glands in the hair-bearing pubic area. So while washing inside the vagina is not recommended, it’s important to keep the outer skin clean.
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