It's not necessary to clean your vagina as thoroughly as you would your hands or face, explains Cliona Elliott
Over the past decade, there has been an explosion of women proudly reclaiming their bodies. We're putting self-care higher on our to-do lists, talking more openly about women's health and generally seem to be more loving and accepting of the skin we're in. V-Care, or 'vagina health care', is a new buzzword in the world of wellness. Our bodies are wonderfully unique and what's normal is different for everyone, but there are some things we should and shouldn't do to keep our vaginas healthy and happy.
"One in 42 women in the UK will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in their lifetime, but 99.8% of cervical cancer cases are preventable."
Keep the balance
The pH scale measures how acidic or alkaline something is on a scale of 0-14. Vaginas are naturally acidic and are usually considered healthy when they have a pH of 3.8 to 4.5. Things that can affect the pH level include your period, fragranced soaps, tampons, lubes or sex. When vaginas have a higher pH and become more alkaline, it's easier for bacteria to grow and cause infections such as thrush and bacterial vaginosis.
Douching and washing the inside areas flush out natural bacteria. It's really not necessary to clean your vagina as thoroughly as you would your hands or your face because vaginas clean themselves - they're pretty amazing. Wash the external area only, using warm water and a gentle, fragrance-free soap if it doesn't irritate your skin.
Look after your gut
The gut is often referred to as the second brain, hence the term 'trust your gut feeling'. There are 100 million neurons in the digestive system, running from the oesophagus to the anus. There's also a large visceral nerve in the gut called the vagus nerve, which carries information about the vital organs to your brain. Around 90% of serotonin, the marvellous neurotransmitter that regulates our mood and social behaviour, is made in the gut. Antibiotics, bad diet and alcohol can easily upset gut bacteria, which is why these things can lower your mood. Vaginas need friendly gut bacteria to ward off infections like thrush. You can maintain gut health by ensuring you are eating enough probiotics, and by generally eating a wholesome and balanced diet. Probiotic-rich foods include natural yoghurt, miso, tempeh and pickles.
Wear breathable undies
Certain fabrics and styles of underwear can irritate sensitive areas. It’s easy to head straight for the skimpy undies, but the most important thing is that they feel comfortable. If they’re too tight and don’t give you much breathing space, you could develop a yeast or other vaginal infection. Synthetic fabrics like nylon, polyester and spandex can also be a no-no as they trap heat and moisture, gradually leading to bacterial infections. Whether you like the Bridget Jones-style knickers or frilly smalls, just be wary of what feels good for your body and allow yourself to take a breather every so often.
Go for smear tests
One in 42 women in the UK will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in their lifetime, but 99.8% of cervical cancer cases are preventable. This means it's so important to go for your routine smear test. A smear test, which takes just a minute or so, picks up changes to the cervical cells. According to data from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, 81% of women who had delayed or put off going for a test felt embarrassed, 58% were scared it would hurt, and 37% didn't know what would happen during a test.
It's completely normal to feel anxious and vulnerable about smear tests, but there's honestly nothing to worry about. Doctors and nurses are trained to answer any questions and put your mind at ease about anything you're worried about. Going for your smear tests can potentially save your life, so never put it off.
Get to know yourself
Getting to know and love your body is something you are entitled to. Women and women's bodies have been oppressed throughout history, and for many years, pleasure was considered shameful and taboo. You have the right to love every inch of yourself without feeling any shame. Increasing your awareness of your body and what feels good is natural, healthy and can improve your intimate relationships. Orgasms are one of the best ways to relieve stress and boost endorphins, which is all the more reason to have more of them. As I once read by a very wise and funny individual, and I apologise for not remembering who wrote this, "The clitoris has 8,000 nerve endings. If you're going to get on my nerves, get on one of those."