The beauty industry has long equated genital hygiene with vulvas and vaginas that are fresh and smell like a fruit smoothie. But besides the psychological brainwashing that comes with this messaging (your body’s natural scent cannot and should not be strawberry), one has to wonder if some of these vaginal care products can be physically harmful as well.
The answer is a resounding yes. And while much of the industry targets the man-made insecurities of women, the following principles hold true for all genitalia — not just vulvas.
Here’s what you should avoid when considering maintenance down under:
1. Products with fragrance
Fragrance is one of the most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis, or skin irritation. And fragrance can be found in tons of products catered to “maintaining the genital area,” including soaps, body wash, bubble bath, pads, tampons and now even “genital deodorants.”
These scented-products can cause allergic reactions, which present as an itchy red rash that often develops one to three days after exposure. And that can make it hard to identify the actual culprit.
To avoid this, it’s best to wash the sensitive skin of your genitals with water only or even a mild, unscented cleanser rather than a soap.
FYI, your skin also cannot differentiate between a synthetic fragrance and “natural,” “organic” or “plant-based” fragrances. It’s all the same to your skin: a potential allergen.
If you currently use something with scent or fragrance and it doesn’t bother you, it’s OK to continue to use. But beware that the more exposure you have to an allergen such as fragrance, the more likely you are to develop a contact allergy to that allergen.
2. Essential oils
Essential oils are special in that they can cause both contact irritant dermatitis and allergic dermatitis.
Undiluted essential oils can be potent and caustic (a.k.a. they can cause burns) if placed directly on the skin. People who use these may feel immediate burning, tingling, redness and swelling. As you can imagine, this does not feel great on the genitals.
In addition, adding essential oils to bath water can do the same. Oil and water do not mix. So, simply adding a few drops to your bath does not dilute the essential oil — and can significantly irritate your sensitive parts when you hop in.
Even in diluted amounts or within bath products, the use of essential oils can lead to a delayed allergic reaction too. Remember, your skin cannot differentiate synthetic fragrance from “natural” fragrance like essential oils.
I know you follow SkinTok, and what does every skin influencer tell you? Stay away from facial wipes. They strip the skin of natural oils and leave skin dry, irritated and vulnerable to other irritants.
Well, guess what? The same thing goes for the genital region.
The skin of the genitals and anus also have protective oils and a protective skin barrier that shouldn’t be disrupted. And for the vulva, in particular, the labia minora are even more sensitive than the skin on the rest of your body.
So put the wipes down! Rare use can be OK, if you don’t have access to a shower, like when camping or after a workout. But choose something like Water Wipes or a sensitive skin version that is unscented.
I know, I know. People want to keep everything clean and tidy down there, and many think shaving pubic hair is the way to do that.
A couple of things to keep in mind here: pubic hair is there for a reason. It’s protective. It protects the skin from chafing and abrasions, and helps maintain natural oils that are also protective. Removing it is solely a personal choice, not a health-related one.
Trimming with clippers or scissors is best to avoid the irritation and knicks from razors that could lead to painful infections and ingrown hairs. But if you must shave, make sure you are using a clean, sharp razor, and shave in the direction of hair growth.
5. Bleaching products
Do not try to bleach your vulva or your anus. I repeat: DO NOT try to bleach your vulva or your anus.
The labia minora (small lips), labia majora (large lips or pads) and the anus often can be slightly darker than the rest of your skin, especially with age and hormonal changes. This is very normal, common and healthy. There is nothing that needs to be changed here. Products advertised as skin lightening and homemade concoctions should be avoided, as they are both very irritating to the skin.
Some skin-lightening creams contain the ingredient hydroquinone, which can have skin-damaging side effects. Others may contain dangerous levels of mercury.
DIY concoctions often use things like lemon juice or orange peel, which are acidic, irritating to the skin and can actually lead to patches of hypopigmentation, i.e. patches of skin that are lighter than your overall skin tone.
Lemon juice has a pH of around 2 (ouch!), while the skin’s natural pH is between 5-6 and the internal vaginal mucosa’s pH is around 4. Using topicals that are too acidic can cause burn-like side effects.
And finally, if you’re self-conscious about a darker anus or labia, ask yourself why. The desire to have lighter genitals is mostly driven by colorism and beauty standards in the porn industry. Unless your job literally depends on it, steer clear of skin-lightening products on the genitals.
Certainly, every body is different — so choose what is best for you. But beware of the seemingly benign products that have potential side effects and are largely driven by an industry targeting your wallet rather than your best interest.
If you found this article useful, learn about the things that can actually “cancel out” your birth control.
More from In The Know: