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Up until fairly recently, vaginas and the surrounding parts have been considered taboo. We didn’t talk about them and we certainly didn’t teach people (with or without vaginas) much about them. Even today, our society does a pretty good job of making us feel like vaginas are inherently well, wrong. As a result, it’s no surprise that many people aren’t totally clear on the best ways to care for their vaginas and vulvas.
But here’s the thing: Taking care of your vagina (in the way that feels right for you) is a radical act of power.
So let’s spend some time talking about the best ways to take care of vaginas and vulvas. But first, as a refresher, here is a diagram of pelvic anatomy, from The Motherly Guide to Becoming Mama.
The vagina is the internal part, the j-shaped tube-like structure, while the vulva is comprised of the outer structures like the labia and clitoris.
Now, here 8 empowering ways to take care of your vagina.
1. Get to know your vagina and vulva.
I know that this might be uncomfortable. After all, we’ve all grown up in a society that calls vaginas and vulvas “private parts;” it’s no wonder we don’t spend a ton of time with the parts of us that are deemed inappropriate. But spending some time with a mirror and your pelvis can be not only empowering, but it could also save your life.
You get to be the boss here, which means you get to choose if, how and when you scope out your pelvis. Consider starting super slow; the first step: get a mirror. A few days later, just look at your thighs. As you gain comfort, you can start checking out more and more of yourself.
First and foremost, this is an exercise and getting acquainted with your body. Now as a midwife, I think the anatomy is fascinating (and you might too!). But it’s also an important step in being able to identify changes, which could be a reason to seek medical care.
- Changes to the skin coloring (darker, lighter, etc.)
- Lumps or bumps
- Thickening of the tissue
- Anything else concerning
Pro-tip: The next time you have a pelvic exam, you can ask your provider to hold a mirror up and teach you what’s what.
2. Get to know your vaginal discharge.
Vaginal discharge is normal, and I invite you to join me in geeking out over the science behind it. Essentially, vaginal discharge changes based on where you are in your menstrual cycle, all to support conception. The vaginal discharge that accompanies ovulation has the consistency of egg-whites and is ideal for allowing sperm to travel through it so it can find an egg to fertilize.
Vaginal discharge can also let us know when there might be an infection.
Concerning discharge to look for could be:
- Green, yellow, frothy or bloody discharge
- Discharge that smells fishy
- White, chunky discharge that looks like cottage cheese
- Any type of discharge that accompanies discomfort, such as itching, burning or pain
Trying to get pregnant? Learn more about signs of ovulation, including vaginal discharge.
3. Think about cleaning.
And today, in “things the patriarchy has made us believe” we have: the notion that vaginas are dirty. Y’all, they’re not. They are just not.
Vaginas are like rainforests (attribution to my dear friend Ericka, another midwife). They are complex ecosystems that, when left relatively undisturbed, do a phenomenal job of healing, changing and thriving. The messaging about making sure vaginas are clean and fresh and smelling like vanilla is quite harmful to vaginal health.
This includes things like douching, which can drastically disrupt the NORMAL AND HEALTHY vaginal flora (bacteria) as well as the delicate pH balance, which in turn increases the risk of infections and discomfort.
The best way to clean your vulvar area is gently. Avoid harsh chemicals and fragrance and avoid the temptation to clean inside your vagina—the temporary clean feeling could lead to issues moving forward. When choosing a soap, a mild body wash is often fine, though some people prefer products meant specifically for the vulvar area. If that’s you, check out my recommendation below.
4. Air it out.
Bacteria grows best in dark, warm, moist environments; and vaginas are the trifecta. If you think about it, vaginas and vulvas spend a lot of time in the dark and without fresh air, so see if you can incorporate some outdoor time into its day. (Bonus points if you do this outside—just mind your local laws, please.)
Here are some ways to get more vulvar ventilation:
- Wear cotton underwear.
- Sleep naked.
- Take breaks from tight clothing (ahem, black leggings all day every day).
5. Rethink intimacy.
This one is deeply complex, and potentially triggering for some, so please only read if it feels right.
Sexual pleasure is not bad. I know you know this, but like, do you really know this? Deep in your soul? Because people with vaginas have been indoctrinated to not actually believe it—to believe that they are wrong, dirty, immoral and bad for wanting sexual pleasure.
There are so many things to say about this, but for now, I’ll just stick to the science. Did you know that the clitoris, the organ responsible for sexual pleasure, can be 5 to 7 inches long? That’s not a typo. Only a small part of the clitoris is visible from the outside, but the organ is actually quite large—and anything that’s given that much real estate in the body must be on purpose, right?
What’s more, the clitoris has 8,000 nerve endings in it (that’s twice as many as a penis).
But listen. This is not the part where I tell you to have more orgasms, and it’s certainly not where I tell you to have more sex. Because the truth is that no one should tell you what you should or should not do with your pelvis. What I am going to tell you is to learn, over time, how to listen to your body without judgment and then respond accordingly, and to feel free to communicate your intimacy needs. To yourself, your partner, whoever!
Pro-tip: There are therapists that can support you if intimacy is triggering for you.
6. Reassess your periods.
How are periods for you? If you have a system down that works well for you, that’s awesome. But if you don’t, it might be time to reassess and reimagine the experience.
Motherly’s Brand Editor, Sara Goldstein, wrote a comprehensive article on menstrual cups if you’re intrigued.
But whether or not it’s menstrual cups or something else, it can be great to reimagine the experience. And if periods are problematic for you—lots of bleeding, lots of pain, lots of emotional struggle—seek help. There are often simple interventions that can help.
7. Rethink your medical care as it relates to your pelvis.
This section may be potentially triggering for some, so please only read if it feels right.
I became a midwife to make getting a pelvic exam better. Yes, I love babies and I love supporting pregnant people, but the truth is that a deep-rooted desire to improve pelvic exams was what started all of this. (Midwives do a lot more than catch babies! Gynecology visits, birth control prescriptions, STI management, menopause support and so much more. I’ve even diagnosed and treated a few ear infections in my day.)
Here is how I believe a respectful gynecological visit should go (though it’s your body and you are very free to make changes as they best apply to you):
Your provider greets you while you are still clothed and sitting in a chair. They conduct most of the visit in this way, including letting you know if a pelvic exam is recommended—if it is, they tell you why and explain the research to support their recommendation, along with the benefits, risks and costs (and this includes the benefits and risks of not having a pelvic exam). They ask you if you have any questions and whether you agree—and they give you time to think about it if you’re not sure.
If you agree, they leave the room and allow you to undress and position yourself comfortably. And when you are ready, even if that takes a long time, the provider asks for permission and chooses their words carefully.
It is not, “Scooch down to the edge of the table for me,” but rather, “Would you mind moving so that your bottom is at the edge of the table?”
It is not asking “So how was your weekend?” as they insert a speculum, but rather asking, “Is it okay if I place my hand on your labia and then insert a speculum?” (And then, please feel free to discuss your weekend, if you’d like to.)
If at any point you want to stop, your provider should stop—immediately and without any implication that you are annoying them or wasting their time.
Your body, your pelvis, your rules.
Please understand this: To be your health care provider is a tremendous honor. Anyone that makes you feel otherwise doesn’t deserve the privilege.
Transfer your care as many times as you need to to find the best match for you.
8. Make peace with your pubic hair.
This is not where I tell you to stop waxing or shaving—because again: your body, your rules. I do, however, suggest that you make peace with your pubic hair, whatever that means for you. Like pretty much everything else we’ve discussed here, the notion that we need to be ashamed of pubic hair is the fault of our society, not you and your body.
Pubic hair is there for a reason (two actually). The first is to protect your vulva and vagina from intrusions (think dirt, bugs and anything else of hunter-gatherer ancestors contended with daily). The second is the distribution of pheromones— vaginas omit different pheromones depending on where you are in the menstrual cycle. Public hair creates more surface area for those pheromones to attach to, which in turn increases the chances that a potential reproductive partner will become aware of those pheromones, and, well, ask to reproduce with you.
Now, if you do choose to shave or wax, there are ways to do it that can minimize your risks of irritation, in-grown hairs and infection:
- Exfoliate first. Removing the dead skin cells prior to hair removal can decrease the risk of in-grown hairs.
- Aim to wax one week after your period and let the hair grow to at least ¼ inch before waxing.
- Minimize the risk of infection by ensuring your tools (or the wax professional’s tools) are clean, washing your hands and being mindful of protecting the delicate skin after hair removal.
One more thing: Never in my career as a midwife—not ever, not once—have I made a judgment about someone’s pubic hair. But so many people have apologized to me for it! “I’m sorry I didn’t have a chance to shave.”
Here’s the thing: You should do whatever makes you comfortable with your body—but stop apologizing for your body. It’s marvelous. It is how it should be. It’s you.
Having an empowered relationship with your vagina doesn’t need to cost a cent. But, after over a decade of being a midwife, I have grown to trust a few products for clients that are in the market. Here are some of my favorite things for vaginas and vulvas.
But first, and I cannot stress this enough, talk to your provider before trying to treat a concern on your own. Deciphering between what could be a small pH imbalance and an infection with potentially devastating consequences is impossible to do at home. Visit your provider and make sure that your concern doesn’t warrant medical treatment before attempting to treat anything at home.
But, once you get the green light…