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15 Everyday Habits That Can Mess with Your Vaginal Health

The vagina is a delicate microbiome and everything from your diet to your wardrobe can affect it.

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Washing it

No, you shouldn’t start wearing your underwear in the shower to avoid cleaning your vagina, but you don’t need to scrub it like you would your armpits or your feet—a simple splash of water will do. “I always see folks who think they need to get a strong soap and scrub it, but plain water to rinse is more than enough. Scrubbing that area can make the vulva very raw and a scented soap can irritate it if you’re sensitive,” says Tosin Goje, obstetrician gynecologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. If you do want to use some sort of cleansing agent, look for a mild unscented hypoallergenic soap and just use your hand, never a loofah or washcloth.

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Wearing pantyliners

“For patients with a sensitive vagina, I always tell them to stop using pantyliners when they’re menstruating,” says Dr. Goje. “Sitting in a liner all day can irritate the vulva.” If you like to wear a liner instead of tampon when you’re just spotting, look for an all cotton liner and be sure to change it regularly.

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Running errands in dirty gym clothes

It might seem like you’re saving time by running to the grocery store after you’re done running on the treadmill, but you could end up wasting more time in the long run when you’re sitting in your gyno’s waiting room with a yeast infection. “For the sake of your vaginal health, you need to take off your gym clothes down to the skin as soon as you’re done working out. Sweat is a breeding ground for infections, especially yeast because it thrives in a moist area,” says Dr. Goje. If you do need to grab groceries or toiletries on the way home, try to rinse off in the gym’s shower and keep an extra pair of underwear and sweats in your gym bag so you can change into something dry. Should you wear underwear with your workout clothes?

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Your thong obsession

We all have our panty preference and if a thong is yours, you may be putting your vagina at risk. “Not everyone who wears a thong regularly will develop infections or irritation, but in people prone to that I tell them to stay away,” says Dr. Goje. The shape of a thong means it tends to cover the front of your groin area and then tapers toward the back; since the vaginal opening is actually closer to your anus, this means it doesn’t get full coverage, she says, leaving an open door for bacteria to settle right in. This is the best underwear for your butt shape.

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Smoking

If you have chronic vagina infections like bacterial vaginosis (BV), your cigarette habit could be to blame. Doctors have been unsure of the exact link between smoking and increased BV risk, but a small study in the journal BMC Infectious Diseases found that female smokers had a greater imbalance of their vagina’s natural flora than non-smokers, which can lead to recurrent BV. Here’s how to quit smoking for good.

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You never go commando


Go commando when you’re at home! Wearing your sweats or PJs without underwear allows that area to be dry and breathe without moisture accumulating in the vaginal or anal area,” says Dr. Goje. She even suggests going panty-less all the time if you’re comfortable with it, except when you’re wearing tight pants like skinny jeans or leggings, which can cause germs to be pushed into the vulva and up into the vagina because of the direct contact.

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Douching

Your vagina has a specific pH balance and its own flora profile that keeps things in order, so douching with anything will throw all of that off, leading to infection or irritation. “The normal flora helps it stay acidic, which is the normal pH, so douching may make people feel better psychologically but it can be very disruptive and irritating to the vagina itself. It can even leave it with zero lubrication, which isn’t good,” says Dr. Goje. Find out the answers to the questions you’ve always been too embarrassed to ask your gyno.

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Shaving


It may be time to embrace the natural look whether your partner’s on board or not. You both might like how you look when shaving downstairs, but pubic hair is beneficial for your vaginal health. The follicles form a natural barrier between your skin and clothing and allows for air to flow, cutting down on the growth of moisture-loving infectious bacteria, writes Jessica Black, MD, on her website. Try grooming only your bikini line, which she said puts you at no greater risk for infection. If you do feel the need to get rid of everything, be extra careful not to nick yourself and wear loose-fitting bottoms sans underwear to get proper airflow.

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Self-diagnosing an issue


You probably don’t want to run to the doctor every time your vagina feels a little itchy or off, but it’s a good idea to give your gyno a call and explain your symptoms instead of heading to the drugstore and treating yourself with over-the-counter anti-itch or anti-fungal medications. “Taking a medication without knowing the problem can make things worse and cause a pH imbalance,” says Dr. Goje. “You’re just introducing more substances into the vagina, so I encourage patients to always talk to their doctor and never self-diagnose.”

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A poor diet


“Eating right is important for good vaginal health,” says Dr. Goje. A high sugar diet can cause an overgrowth of candida, the bacteria responsible for yeast infections, and certain foods or spices can change your vagina’s natural pH, which in turn may alter how it smells or tastes. One thing to get enough of: probiotics, which help keep your gut bacteria balanced and may also do the same for your vaginal flora, too.

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Using liners or tampons for discharge

Pantyliners and tampons are meant for absorbing menstrual blood, not heavy discharge, so you should never…ever…wear one if you’re having a discharge problem. “Some of my patients with heavy discharge are self conscious and think it helps absorb it and keep them cleaner, but it can be highly irritable to sit in a liner all day (it’s basically like a baby sitting in a wet diaper!) and a tampon absorbing discharge can cause bacteria to incubate inside you,” says Dr. Goje. Discharge is usually normal but can also signal an infection or hormonal issue, so always talk to your doctor if you experience it out of the blue.

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Not getting tested for STDs

“Having untreated STDs can do a lot of harm to your vagina and body as a whole,” says Dr. Goje. Many sexually transmitted diseases don’t cause symptoms right away, so it’s always a good idea to get tested regularly, especially if you have a new partner or suspect they’ve been unfaithful. If left untreated for a long time, some infections like chlamydia can affect your fertility down the line. Any burning, itching, or unusual discharge is a clear sign you need to see a doctor.

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Leaving tampons in all day


Even if it doesn’t feel full, pay close attention to the directions on the tampon box. “Leaving a tampon in longer than suggested can predispose people to toxic shock syndrome,” says Dr. Goje. These are the 13 things your vagina wants to tell you.

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Not cleaning your sex toys

Whether you’re engaging in a solo session or having fun with your partner, always be sure to properly sanitize any sex toy after using it, otherwise you run the risk of introducing potentially harmful bacteria into the body.

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Having multiple partners


Not only do more partners increase your risk of contracting an STD, but also hopping from one monogamous relationship to the next can impact your health. A new partner means new microorganisms from their body are introduced into yours, which can make you prone to bacterial vaginosis, says Dr. Goje.

 

Alyssa Jung
Alyssa Jung is a writer and editor with extensive experience creating health and wellness content that resonates with readers. She freelanced for local publications in Upstate New York and spent three years as a newspaper reporter before moving to New York City to pursue a career in magazines. She is currently Senior Associate Editor at Prevention magazine and a contributor to Prevention.com. Previously she worked at Reader's Digest as an editor, writer, and health fact checker.