What Is the Vulva, and Why Is Vulva Hygiene Important?
Vulva. Such a short, simple term yet one riddled with misconceptions, misinformation, and even stigma.
Unfortunately, the word vulva is often used interchangeably with the vagina, though these two terms refer to distinctly unique structures of the female genital anatomy. In fact, many women do not know the difference between their own vulvas and vaginas…this just highlights how all pervasive these misunderstandings are in our society; sadly often further fueled by the media and the general public.
The vulva has long been formally known as the pudendum. For those unfamiliar with Latin, this term is derived from the word “pudere,” meaning “to be ashamed.” Only as recently as 2019 was that term removed from the “Terminologia Anatomica,” the international standard for human anatomical terminology.
Medicine Mama firmly supports normalizing discussion and care of the vulva for all women. There is no shame in being a woman, and no shame in naming, owning, and caring for your unique and beautiful anatomy.
Let’s get back to basics and take back our vulvas and our power. Vulva 101 class: What is the vulva and why is it so important to care for and love it?
Grab your notebooks and pens, and let’s get started!
What Is the Vulva?
Let’s get one thing straight right away – the vulva is a complex organ with many important parts. It's a broad term referring to all of the structures of the female external genitalia. So, when we’re talking about the vulva, we’re actually talking about several components, each with unique functions and importance.
The vagina, on the other hand, is a singular structure. It’s the canal that connects the vulva to the cervix and, thus, to the uterus. The vaginal canal makes it possible for your uterus to shed during menstruation and allows you to experience penetration during sex and go through childbirth.
The vulva is also involved in some of these processes but in a different capacity. Let’s break down this a bit more.
Vulva and Sex
Let’s get straight to the point – the vulva is the key player during sex. It’s what drives sexual arousal and enhances sexual pleasure in many individuals. How?
When the vulva (or its components) is stimulated, it becomes flushed with blood. The changes to vulvar components directly impact the vagina, which responds by also changing its shape (dilating and lengthening) as it relaxes. In addition, these changes bolster lubrication, leading to more moisture in the vaginal opening and, subsequently, a more pleasurable sexual experience.
Vulva and Conception
Besides being directly involved in sex, the vulva plays an important role in conception. It does so in two ways.
One, it protects the reproductive pathways, serving as your first line of defense against vaginal infections and foreign agents that could interfere with fertility and pregnancy. And two, it promotes conception by secreting lubrication that facilitates sperm transportation, taking you a step closer to fertilization.
Other Functions of the Vulva
The vulva is also involved in the urine excretion. It houses the urethra or the opening of the tube that allows urine to leave your bladder and, ultimately, your body.
The Anatomy of the Vulva
We’ve mentioned that the vulva encompasses all the structures of the external female genitalia. Now, it’s time to take a closer look at all of those structures.
But before we do so, we want you to remember one thing – no two vulvas are the same. And that’s normal! In fact, your vulva is a unique to you as your finger prints or retina! The size, color, and (to some extent) the shape of this structure can dramatically vary from person to person.
This has to do with the magical (and not in any way awkward, confusing, or unpredictable) period we all know as puberty. During puberty, some bodies will secrete more estrogen, the hormone primarily responsible for developing and regulating the female reproductive system and secondary sexual characteristics.
The more estrogen your body produces, the more pronounced (or larger and thicker) will the external female genitals be. The most significant difference can be seen in the inner and outer labia, with estrogen affecting how prominent these folds may be.
However, the functionality of these components has nothing to do with their appearance. In other words, the only thing you should focus on is good vulvar hygiene and overall sexual health.
With this in mind, let’s see what the vulva’s components are and what they do.
The vulva starts much higher than some think – at the pubic bone level. But these bones aren’t considered a part of the vulva. Instead, it’s what lies on top of them that makes the cut – the mons pubis.
The mons pubis refers to the fatty tissue mound located directly atop the pubic bones. Due to its shape, this mound is typically prominent and, thus, visible from the front of the body. It’s also usually covered in pubic hair.
The mons pubis has a dual function – inducing sexual attraction and providing cushioning during sex. The former has to do with the sebaceous glands located in the region. These small, oil-producing glands release pheromones. Or, if you want to get more technical, the natural scents that can elicit a sexual response or attraction between two people.
If you were to translate the term “labia majora” from Latin, you’d discover it means “larger lips.” And that’s precisely what labia majora are – the larger of the two skin folds in the vulva resembling human lips. When you pass the mons pubis, this is the first thing you’ll see, as this component covers all the other vulva parts, from the labia minora to the start of the vaginal canal.
However, keep in mind that the part located directly beneath the mons pubis is a separate part of this structure called the anterior labial commissure. Of course, where there’s an anterior labial commissure, there’s also a posterior one, which marks the end of the labia majora, simultaneously separating the vulva from the perineum and, in turn, the anus.
Besides enclosing and protecting other parts of external genitalia from dryness, infections, and mechanical irritations, the labia majora have an important role in sex. Namely, they help spread lubrication throughout the vulva, thus contributing to the arousal of the vestibule area and the clitoris.
During sexual arousal (and sex), this part engorges with blood and, subsequently, becomes more sensitive. Combine this with enhanced lubrication, and you get more painless and pleasurable sexual intercourse.
Based on the Latin translation for “labia majora,” you can probably guess what “labia minora” means. That’s right, the “smaller lips.”
Besides “smaller,” these “lips” can also be described as “inner” since they lie inside the labia majora, covering the openings of the urethra and the vagina. The labia minora starts atop the clitoris, forming the clitoral hood (the prepuce) before extending downward. By extending downward, this structure forms the borders of the vulva vestibule.
The labia minora end atop the bottom of the vaginal opening by linking their posterior ends together in a skin fold called the frenulum. The frenulum is what stretches during sexual intercourse or childbirth, allowing more accommodation and flexibility during these acts.
We’ve reached the part of the vulva considered the primary source of female sexual pleasure – the clitoris. This sex organ is quite easy to locate and identify (despite what you might’ve been told) since one of its parts protrudes externally.
This external structure is called the glans clitoris, and it lies at the anterior junction of the labia minora, just above the urethral opening. This part is visible because it lies atop an erectile tissue called the corpus cavernosa.
During arousal, this tissue becomes flushed with blood, merging together to further protrude the glans clitoris. The glans clitoris itself also erects and engorges during sexual stimulation, as it’s innervated by thousands of nerve endings.
Besides the glans clitoris, this organ consists of the body and the legs (crus) of the clitoris, all contributing to its visibility. Unbeknownst to most, the clitoris is actually a much larger structure than imagined, as the bulk of it is actually below the skin.
Though considered a separate part of the vulva, the vestibular bulbs work closely with the clitoris during sexual arousal. In fact, these parts are formed from a similar erectile tissue as the clitoris – the corpus spongiosum tissue.
There are two vestibular bulbs, and they start near the back of the body of the clitoris. From there, they run along the middle edge of the legs of the clitoris, reaching the urethra and, eventually, the vagina. But they don’t stop once they reach these parts. Instead, the vestibular bulbs split and surround their lateral borders.
The vestibular bulbs will also become engorged during sexual stimulation, exerting pressure on the clitoris (its body and underlying tissue). This pressure is believed to contribute to a highly pleasant sensation during sexual arousal and stimulation.
The vulva vestibule is the area between the two labia minora. To understand what this part looks like and how it fits in, imagine a smooth surface starting just beneath the clitoris and ending at the posterior commissure of the labia minora. This smooth surface is what houses the urethral and vaginal openings.
Though the labia minora form the outer borders of the vulva vestibule, there’s a part that clearly marks where one part ends and the other begins – Hart’s lines. But even if it wasn’t for these lines, you’d still be able to tell the difference based on the difference in texture.
The labia minora is quite textured, much like most of the vulvar skin. The vulva vestibule, on the other hand, is completely smooth.
The Bartholin's glands, named after the Danish anatomist Caspar Bartholin Secundus who first described them, are two pea-sized (and shaped) structures flanking the back of the vaginal opening.
These glands are also known as the greater vestibular glands, and their function is to secrete a mucus-like substance that aids vaginal and vulvar lubrication. Naturally, this means they help make sex more enjoyable.
Since there’s a part of the vulva called the greater vestibular glands, it’s only natural to assume there’s one called the lesser vestibular glands. If you assumed this, you’re completely right! These structures are known as the Skene’s glands (named after the Scottish gynecologist Alexander Skene, who wrote about their “discovery” in Western medical literature), and they flank the urethra.
Interestingly, the full function of these glands is yet to be fully understood. For now, scientists know one thing – they release an antimicrobial substance that lubricates the urethra opening and possibly prevents infections.
Scientists also believe that these glands might be the source of female ejaculation during sex.
Like the vagina, the urethra is a tube-like structure. Its opening is located in the vulva and is used to excrete urine from the bladder. If you’re unsure about the exact location, look for the urethra opening within the vulva vestibule, above the vaginal opening but below the clitoris.
Though the vagina is not a part of the vulva per se, the vulva does house the vaginal opening. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to reiterate the vulva vs. vagina difference once again.
You’ll find the vaginal opening below the urethra opening, to the back of the vulva vestibule. This opening is partially covered by a thin skin membrane called the hymen. This is a great time to dispel another myth about female anatomy – the hymen is not a reliable indicator of virginity or sexual activity.
The hymen isn’t some shield blocking the vagina entirely, breaking upon the first sexual penetration. In reality, this part is quite soft and elastic and doesn’t necessarily cover the entire vaginal opening. Due to its texture and location, the hymen can break during activities that have nothing to do with sex, like inserting a tampon. Also, you might not even feel when this occurs. It’s not always the bloody, painful affair often depicted in the media.
Beyond this part, you’ll find the vagina – a muscular, elastic tube connecting the vulva to the cervix. This tube plays a huge role in several crucial biological functions, including sexual intercourse, childbirth, and menstruation.
Why Vulvar and Vaginal Hygiene Matters
Sure, this article focuses on the vulva and vulvar health and hygiene. But discussing those without mentioning the vagina and vaginal health would provide an incomplete picture of female reproductive anatomy and well-being. So, we’ll discuss these concepts jointly, trusting that you fully understand the anatomical difference between these parts by now.
You probably don’t need this article to tell you that vulvar and vaginal health and hygiene matter. After all, these parts are integral to women’s health, overall well-being, comfort, and sexual health. But what is it exactly that you do for your body by keeping them clean?
As far as the vulva goes, it acts as the first line of defense against any kind of infection. By taking care of the vulva, you prevent any harmful agents from reaching your genital tract and potentially endangering your reproductive health.
Things like external contaminants, increased moisture, excessive sweating, and menses can collect in the vulvar folds, disrupting the area’s natural balance and opening the door for unhealthy vulvovaginal infections.
With an infection can come odors, irritation, and discomfort, which can interfere with your overall well-being, sex life, and menstrual health.
How to Approach Vulvar and Vaginal Hygiene
Now that you know why vulvar and vaginal hygiene should top your list of priorities, let’s see how you should approach these critical aspects of women’s health.
Start as Early as Possible
There’s nothing taboo about the female genitalia. Or, there shouldn’t be, at least. That’s why parents should teach their young girls how to tend to their genitals as soon as they start bathing themselves. This conversation should be as simple as explaining how to brush your teeth, clean your toes, and wash your hands properly. The earlier girls learn about their bodies and hygiene, the more equipped they’ll be to maintain their vulvar and vaginal health throughout their lives.
Develop a Consistent Routine
Like skincare or dental care, vulvar and vaginal hygiene should become a routine part of self-care. But unlike the face and teeth (and most other body parts), the genital and vulvar skin is significantly more sensitive to topical agents. For this reason, you must choose the products you use in this region wisely, leaving out all that isn’t absolutely necessary.
Remember: The vagina cleans itself!! We will talk about vulvar washes next.
Monitor and Adapt
Let’s say you establish a routine that seemingly works for you. That’s it, isn’t it? You can stick to it for the rest of your life. Well, not quite. For one reason or another, you can start experiencing side effects or pain in the vulvar and vaginal areas. If this occurs, it might be time to change your routine.
Also, some major life events might call for a routine update. For instance, becoming sexually active for the first time (or after a longer period) calls for prioritizing genital hygiene and health. Regular visits to your healthcare provider for Pap smears, exams, and to check your STI (sexually transmitted infection) status are important steps in maintaining your health.
Throughout our lives, our vulvar skin can become dry or irritated. While we often associate these changes with menopause and aging (which is true!), many other factors can create vulvar dryness throughout our lives.
Medications (even birth control pills!), medical procedures or treatments, pregnancy, breast feeding, and even clothing or activities we enjoy can all lead to vulvar changes/dryness. For all of these reasons, we suggest adding vulvar care to your daily skin care routine early on! You wouldn’t wait until your face shows signs of aging to take care of it; why would you wait to take care of this beautiful delicate skin?
What Should Your Vulva Hygiene Routine Consist Of?
When you hear the word “hygiene,” it’s perfectly understandable to think of cleaning right away. However, a proper vulva hygiene routine involves much more than just cleaning. It encompasses everything from what kind of underwear you wear and what nutrients you put into your body to overall self-care practices. Let’s break this down so you know how to properly care for your vulva and vagina.
Be Mindful of What You Eat
Let’s clear up one thing right away – food alone won’t prevent or treat vulvovaginal infections and other similar conditions. However, specific foods can aid your efforts to keep your vulva and vagina clean and healthy.
For instance, probiotic-rich foods (e.g., yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles) can help regulate the microorganisms in your vagina and vulva, protecting you from infections like bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections. The same goes for high-fiber foods that can do wonders for your vulvar and vaginal health.
Choose Your Clothing Carefully
There are times when lots of moisture in your vulvovaginal area is a good thing. But beyond those specific moments, too much moisture can be a bad thing. Why? Well, moisture can promote bacterial overgrowth, which can lead to infections, skin breakdown, or general discomfort.
So, choose underwear (and clothing) that allows your vulvovaginal area to breathe easily and stay dry. For instance, materials like cotton have excellent moisture-wicking properties and make it more difficult for harmful bacteria to build up in this area. So, choose to wear cotton underwear instead, let's say, than polyester or other synthetic fiber garments.
Also, make sure to change your underwear regularly (once a day). If you experience heavy vaginal discharge, do it twice a day. At night, you can forgo underwear altogether, thus reducing the sweat trapped around your vulva.
Avoid Going Overboard With the Cleaning
In an effort to avoid vaginal odor and infections, many women overdo it in the cleaning department. The truth is that your vagina is a self-cleaning machine and will regulate itself. Do not douche or otherwise cleanse the vagina unless specifically directed by your physician.
The vulva, on the other hand, isn’t self-cleaning. So, like any other skin on your body, it needs to be cared for. Because of the delicate nature of this beautiful skin, you should always use a wash that is specifically designed for this area; most other products will likely be too harsh and may lead to drying or irritation of the sensitive vulvar skin.
- Incorporate gentle washing of the vulva into your daily hygiene routine.
- Don’t clean your vulva too vigorously to avoid irritation.
- Avoid rubbing the area dry. Instead, gently pat it with a clean towel.
Be Careful About How You Approach Grooming
We’ve reached another myth-busting checkpoint! Despite the common misconception, pubic hair isn’t unhygienic. In fact, having pubic hair can help you protect your vulva and vagina from bacteria, yeast, and viruses.
Now, like any other hair on your body, pubic hair will trap moisture, oil, and bacteria. But with regular gentle cleaning, this shouldn’t pose a hygiene problem.
If you do, however, opt to remove your pubic hair for whatever reason (it’s entirely up to you!), make sure to do it right. Here are some tips on doing so:
- Avoid using pubic hair removal cream. This product will burn off your pubic hair, potentially harming the sensitive skin underneath in the process.
- Be careful when shaving. Even small cuts can introduce unwanted bacteria into your vulvovaginal area.
- If possible, use a dedicated vulva-only razor. Change the blade frequently and store it away from moisture.
- Take the necessary precautions to avoid ingrown hairs (e.g., exfoliate the area with an extremely gentle product which has been specifically formulated for use in this unique area–before starting, soften the hairs, pull the skin tight).
- Think carefully about whether you want to remove all your pubic hair since this can lead to an increased susceptibility to infections.
Always Keep Your Vulva and Vagina in Mind
Here are a few instances when it’s important to pay attention to this very special area:
- Menstruation. Make sure to change tampons or sanitary pads frequently during menstruation to avoid infection or irritation.
- Sexual intercourse. Don’t forget to pee after intercourse. This simple act can help you avoid contracting a urinary tract infection. How? By peeing, you flush out any bacteria that might’ve reached the urethra during sex. Another excellent practice is to check the list of ingredients of the lubricant you might use during sex. Things like glycerin, scents, and dyes should be on your no-go list.
- Going to the bathroom. Always wipe your vulva and anus separately. Plus, when wiping your vulva, make sure to do it front to back to avoid transferring bacteria to your urethra and potentially causing a urinary tract infection.
Monitor Your Vulvovaginal Area Regularly
A major part of proper vulvar and vaginal care is monitoring the area for any changes that might indicate a health issue. Through your regular routine, you’ll get to know your vulvovaginal area well, so it should be easy to tell the difference in how your genitals look, smell, or feel. Use a mirror so that you know what YOUR vulva and vagina look like; what is normal for you! Use your hands to feel and know the contours and anatomy of your vulva and vagina; you look at your face in the mirror so you are alerted to any changes quickly; the same should be true of your genital anatomy! It could literally save your life!!
If you notice any changes, don’t hesitate to consult a healthcare provider. With several forms of vulvar cancer affecting women (e.g., squamous cell carcinoma), it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Products and Trends for Vulva Hygiene: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
So, we've covered the best practices for vulva hygiene in general. Now, it’s time to get down to the specifics. Let’s talk about the specific products you should use, use cautiously, or throw straight into the trash!
Though the section's name is “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” let’s start in reverse to end on a positive note.
The Ugly and the Bad
Let’s cut straight to the point. Here are the products that shouldn’t be a part of your vulva hygiene routine in any way, shape, or form:
- Scented soaps
- Scented pads, tampons, and liners
- Talcum powder
- Products with added dyes
These products can do your vulva (and vagina) more harm than good, throwing off your natural pH balance and inviting infections.
Also, stay away from douching, steaming, and similar “trends.” By employing these, you can actually strip your vulvovaginal area of its natural defenses, leaving it unprotected against infections. Steaming can also burn your vulvar skin and vaginal tissue, which can lead to severe damage and complications.
Having covered the “ugly,” let's see which products have the potential to go “bad.”
Though not all over-the-counter products are harmful by default, some might contain irritants that can aggravate your delicate vulvovaginal skin. So, before using any new product in the vulvovaginal area, make sure to consult your healthcare provider.
While warm water is a perfectly reasonable option for washing, you can still use certain cleansing products, provided they’re formulated and tested specifically for the sensitive vulva skin. Plus, some products with natural plant extracts may also help reduce symptoms of existing conditions and even improve the quality of sexual activity (Carefully inspect ingredients before using.).
Here are some products you can use in various steps of your vulva hygiene routine:
- VMAGIC Vulva Wash. This gentle, fragrance-free cleanser is ideal for washing and moisturizing your vulva without irritating it in any way. A small amount of this product, a soft sponge or your clean hands, and warm water are all you need to maintain good vulva hygiene daily.
- VMAGIC Grooming Trio. This grooming kit has all the products you need to ensure safe shaving or waxing, prevent ingrown hair, and get silky smooth skin as a result. Use the VMAGIC Grooming Polish two to three times per week to keep skin soft and smooth and always prepped for your next grooming. The Feminine Shaving Soap is perfect for shaving and will calm your skin, and, to finish, the VMAGIC Vulva Balm afterward to prevent dryness.
- VMAGIC Vulva Balm. Vulvar dryness can be a direct consequence of inattention to your beautiful vulvar skin, or can be a consequence of medical conditions, treatments, medications, pregnancy, breast feeding, or menopause. Always consult your physician if you notice a change in your vulva! Daily use of VMagic Vulva Balm will quickly help hydrate and soothe your dry vulvar skin, making you feel comfortable and ready for your day.
The Power of Knowledge: Make the Right Choices for Your Vulvar Health
When all is said and done, properly caring for your vulva is a relatively simple task. There’s a short but sweet list of your “do’s” and a bit lengthier list of your “don’ts.” Keep these in mind, and you’ll always make the right choice for your vulvar (and overall) health.