Your lady parts are pretty awesome: they clean themselves, they can deliver mind-blowing orgasms and they are generally low maintenance. Yet sometimes, they throw a curveball or two.
Your lifestyle habits have the ability to throw off your vagina's balance, leading to infections, strange discharge and general discomfort (Not the most fun, obviously.)
The good news? Small lifestyle tweaks can do wonders in preventing issues down the line. Here are seven super common vaginal health mistakes to avoid making. Your lady parts will thank you.
Mistake #1: Sleeping in the Wrong Material
Wearing the wrong underwear material to bed? Due to excess bacterial growth, this could lead to a vaginal infection. "Try going commando while sleeping at night. This allows your vulvar and vaginal areas to breathe and can be especially helpful for women with frequent yeast or bacterial infections," says Dr. Mary Rosser, MD, an OB-GYN and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University Medical Center.
If you prefer to wear underwear, she suggests going for cotton or bamboo, as they help wick away moisture.
Mistake #2: Wearing Sweaty Gym Clothes for Too Long
A tough, sweaty workout session can be invigorating and great for your health — however, you'll want to change out of those sticky workout clothes ASAP. "Besides the offensive odor, sitting in sweaty clothes may cause irritation or chafing, rashes, ingrown hairs, itching and even yeast and bacterial infections," says Rosser.
To protect yourself, she suggests wearing material that isn't too tight and can wick away sweat. Synthetic materials such as nylon and lycra are great options.
If wearing your sweaty gym clothes has already gotten you in trouble, don't fret! For bacterial vaginosis (symptoms include a thin grayish discharge, itching, irritation and a fishy odor, per Rosser), go straight for a prescription. According to Rosser, an over-the-counter cream like Monistat works for vaginal yeast infections (cottage-cheese type of discharge and itching).
Mistake #3: Douching
Because your vagina is self-cleaning, there's no need to use homemade or store-bought douches. "There is good, protective bacteria that keeps it clean and keeps out troublesome bacteria," says Rosser. Yet if you introduce your vagina to unfamiliar substances that may disrupt the pH level, it can lead to a vaginal infection, like bacterial vaginosis or vaginal yeast infections.
According to a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology, participants with bacterial vaginosis were more likely to douche, which explains the correlation between the habit and the vaginal infection. "Douching, washing with body wash or scented soap upsets the natural balance by removing these good bacteria and may increase the risk of infection. It is best to wash only with warm water and very mild, unscented soap if desired," she explains.
Mistake #4: Not Taking Probiotics
Taking probiotics can keep your vagina's microbiome balanced, warding off unwanted vaginal infections, UTIs and discomfort. "Lactobacillus (a type of friendly bacteria) lives in the vulvo-vaginal area and keeps the vagina's ecosystem stable at an acidic pH.
Anything that changes this pH will cause troublesome bacteria to take over the protective (good) bacteria," explains Rosser.
There are many on the market, but for women, the best probiotics for vaginal health will have a high content of Lactobacillus acidophilus, she says. According to a 2008 study in Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Infectious Diseases, probiotics can help prevent growth of bacteria related to vaginal infections, like bacterial vaginosis and yeast, so taking vaginal probiotics regularly will lower risk of contracting these conditions.
Mistake #5: Not Being Responsible About Sex
No one is encouraging you to give up sex (it's good for your health AND fun!), but it's important to note that sex with new partners, unfamiliar products and rough sex can all increase the risk of vaginal infections. "Rough sex can cause microtears in the vagina or anus," says Dr. Jennifer Landa, MD, an OB-GYN and chief medical officer at BodyLogicMD.
These tears can upset the vagina and lead to vaginal yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis and transmission of STI's and bloodborne pathogens, like HIV, HCV, and HBV, she explains. To lower risk, use a condom with new partners and pee after sex (which can also decrease the likelihood of contracting a UTI.)
Mistake #6: Not Cleaning Sex Toys
If you use toys without washing them, the bacteria that builds up can throw off your vagina's natural microbiome. So, advises Landa, sex toys should be washed after each use and before switching between the vagina and anus.
"The delicate balance of bacteria in the stool is different than the bacteria in your vagina and you want to wash your toy before you switch from one to the other," she explains.
You should also wash toys when sharing with others, as STIs like chlamydia and herpes can be transmitted through mutual toy use, she says. "Being exposed to someone else's bacterial balance in their vagina might not be a good thing for your microbial balance. If one woman has a vaginal yeast infection of BV, the other partner has a higher likelihood of getting it," she explains.
What's more, a study in BMJ Journals found that women who had HPV and used sex toys were more likely to pass it along to others who shared the toy.
Mistake #7: Cutting Yourself When Shaving
Unfortunately, this happens a lot — and it is not great for your vaginal health. "For one thing, shaving or waxing can cause folliculitis which is an inflammation of the hair follicle which is usually caused by bacteria or fungus. This can lead to ugly bumps that become red, irritated and uncomfortable," says Landa.
And that's not the worst part. Cutting yourself during shaving leaves you at risk for developing STI's, the most worrisome of which is HIV but also Hepatitis B or C, she says. "All of these STI's are transmitted through the blood. Having open cuts increases the risk of transmission of these blood borne diseases," she explains.
If you do cut yourself by shaving, don't have sex until the cut has healed or make sure to use a condom. And be extra cautious about the types of clothing you are wearing to avoid contracting vaginal infections, like bacterial vaginosis or vaginal yeast infection, as bacteria has more access to disrupt your vagina's pH levels.
Mistake #8: Eating Too Much Sugar
Yikes! Your taste buds may love that slice of chocolate cake, but your vagina sure doesn't. "Sugar increases yeast infections because yeast thrives on sugar so eating candy or even carbs which quickly turn to sugar can increase your risk," says Landa.
Note: That includes fruit as well, so while you should still eat a serving or two per day, you might want to stay mindful of the amounts you're putting in your body. Options such as oranges, cherries and grapes are examples that should be consumed in moderation, while avocados, raspberries and strawberries are great lower-sugar options. "Fruit is full of sugar that yeast will be more than happy to feed on," she says.
When you eat sugar, you provide food for the bad bacteria from a vaginal yeast infection to feed on. "The yeast in a candida infection comes from your gut and yeast will thrive in the gut when it's able to feast on sugar," Landa explains.
"Additionally fermented foods that are fermented with yeast can increase your risk of a yeast infection. You want to avoid brewer's yeast and baker's yeast (i.e. bread and beer!)," she says.
Taking control of your vaginal health can be an empowering process, and these lifestyle tweaks are a quick and low commitment way to start. Time to treat yourself to that new pair of luxe (cotton) underwear!