important question
August 29, 2012 8:30 PM   Subscribe

Hi, I have heard many opinions about this but need a final answer: vulva should be washed with soap or not?
posted by the young rope-rider to Human Relations (25 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
So, the advice from my GYN, which makes a lot of sense is this:
- parts that are normal skin (have hair, are similar to your general skin tone, etc) can/should be washed, though maybe with cetaphil, or similar, soap may be too drying.
- parts that are pink and basically mucus membrane/ non-keratinized skin should just get rinsed with plain water.
posted by mercredi at 8:38 PM on August 29, 2012 [13 favorites]

I have an autoimmune skin condition that affects only my vulva and my vulvar/vaginal pain specialist says absolutely no soap on vulvas and wishes all women would heed her advice.

Warm water only and then always moisturize the skin (she recommends Vaseline but unfortunately I am allergic - ask me how fun finding that out was! - I now use coconut oil).

So here's my source. No soap. But if you need to use soap use Dove Sensitive Skin, apparently.
posted by lydhre at 8:39 PM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I go over with a soapy towel where pubic hair would be, the rest I rinse really well with water.
posted by Sweetmag at 8:40 PM on August 29, 2012

Babies: No soap
Adult ladies: I'm going to go against the grain and say I'm a soap everywhere person. Not super chemically sensitive and no ladybit issues otherwise. Personally never had a problem, ymmv obviously.
posted by jessamyn at 8:46 PM on August 29, 2012 [6 favorites]

My gyn also says no soap. She said we don't wash the insides of our nostrils with soap, or our eyeballs, or the back of our throats, and our vulvas and vaginas are designed to be equally self-cleaning. I do wash the outside public hair part with soap, though.
posted by lollusc at 8:56 PM on August 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

Just to make sure we have the anatomy clear, you can use soap anywhere on your external body, but should not be using soap internally. Vulva means the external part of the female genitalia, so you can use soap on this as long as you are not putting the soap in the vagina. To use the more medical terminology approach, what mercredi said.

The general idea is that vaginas should be self-cleansing and not need outside agents put inside them which could be irritating or predispose to infection (especially those with added perfumes or other chemicals). Douching is definitely frowned upon.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:56 PM on August 29, 2012 [12 favorites]

Soap outside, no soap inside. And by inside I mean the tampon zone. I am super sensitive to irritants and washing normally does not give me the nast. Obviously as with all things ladyparts YMMV.
posted by elizardbits at 9:01 PM on August 29, 2012

Slightly against the grain: both my former midwife and current ob-gyn say unscented (but not antibacterial) soap for vulva. I've never known a medical professional to recommend anything for the vagina
posted by gaspode at 9:22 PM on August 29, 2012

The rule for me is just like mercredi said: if it looks like the inside of your cheeks, it doesn't need or want soap. Any of the skin with hair follicles and sweat glands should be treated kindly, but that can include soap.

My big risk is horrible breakouts of doom, not infections per se. But my skin is sensitive.
posted by SMPA at 9:37 PM on August 29, 2012

Exterior vulva, soap. No soap inside the labia, per my GYN.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:38 PM on August 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Warm water only and then always moisturize the skin (she recommends Vaseline but unfortunately I am allergic - ask me how fun finding that out was! - I now use coconut oil).

The idea of rubbing my vulva with vaseline (or coconut oil) is kinda ick. Wouldn't that interfere as well, same as removing hair does? Not to mention far stickier than I would like. And probably unpleasant for oral sex. I don't have any vulval pain or anything though, so I assume that has to be part of the recommendations.

In any case if it requires insertion of my fingers (vagina/clitoris/labia minora) then it's just water. Labia majora, mons, anus, perineum, buttcheeks, that stupid ditch/dimple at the top of my buttcrack and the cleft of my thighs all gets soaped up. The labia minora and clitoral region probably get some minimal soapage just by proximity and run off, but it isn't a deliberate act.

I'm not jamming soap up there, but I'm not just giving the whole region a rinse though.

BUT like everything, I do think it varies. My arms seem more sensitive to soap than my vulva, but my vulva is a whole lot hairier.

Brought to you by massive overshare.
posted by geek anachronism at 10:05 PM on August 29, 2012 [20 favorites]

On the vulva/labia: my gyn says it's up to the individual whether to use some soap or just hose it off with water, and says that water is effective and without side effects. Mild soap like Dr. Bronner's has never caused an issue for me.

One thing that is stressed every time I talk to the gyn: NO DOUCHING. And no soap (or oils, or lubes containing sugars) in the vagina.
posted by blnkfrnk at 10:26 PM on August 29, 2012

Soap on front and rear, but not underneath.
posted by desuetude at 11:02 PM on August 29, 2012

Potentially stinky/sweaty parts of the undercarriage should get a good soaping and rinse with a mild soap or detergent cleanser. From front to back, that would be: pubic thatch/mons, groin, the line of pubic hair that grows on the labia majora or the denuded labia majora, the perineum, the bunghole and environs.

Unless you have known sensitivities, I wouldn't worry about some of the soap from the external cleaning edging onto your vulva. However, as there are no sweat glands on mucus membranes, you don't need to clean the vulva directly as that source of stink is not relevant here. Your vaginal fluids/cervical discharge are going to smell more or less tangy depending where you are in your cycle, but even if you're at a phase where that smell seems strong to you, that's not something that can be adjusted with soap. The discharge is self replenishing and scrubbing your vulva with an alkaline cleanser will not make it better and could cause irritation. I think a nice, clean soapy smell from the freshly cleaned areas around your vulva will balance out any extra tang that could concern you.

Menstrual blood or semen that is smeared on your skin or tangled in your pubic hair can be cleaned off with soap; menstrual blood or semen on the slick mucus membrane of your vulva is easily rinsed off with water.
posted by rosebuddy at 2:46 AM on August 30, 2012

(That is, you don't need to soap the vulva directly. Plain water is fine for regular vulva cleaning or for cleanups on aisle 7 after sex or during a period. Use soap any time for the areas around it.)
posted by rosebuddy at 3:02 AM on August 30, 2012

I think this varies from person to person. I wash everywhere, with whatever soap is in the shower (currently the gold Dial antibacterial deodorant soap). I suspect many women have been doing this for generations. The head of a man's penis is a similarly positioned mucus membrane, and I appreciate when it is washed, to give you a comparison (also, inside the mouth). But -- are you having problems with whichever way you are washing? Then change. No problems? Then keep up what you are doing are doing.
posted by Houstonian at 4:26 AM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

In any case if it requires insertion of my fingers (vagina/clitoris/labia minora) then it's just water. Labia majora, mons, anus, perineum, buttcheeks, that stupid ditch/dimple at the top of my buttcrack and the cleft of my thighs all gets soaped up. The labia minora and clitoral region probably get some minimal soapage just by proximity and run off, but it isn't a deliberate act.

I was in the room when my partner asked her ob-gyn this question, and geek anachronism's answer is pretty much what was said. Gentle soap externally, only water inside.
posted by Forktine at 5:34 AM on August 30, 2012

Mod note: Folks if you could answer the question and not start a soap/vulva debate that would be terrific. Thank you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:55 AM on August 30, 2012

The final answer is really something for you to decide based on your personal allergies, sensitivities, infections, needs and preferences etc.

As someone who has suffered from severe UTIs from infancy and through childhood, given my severe skin allergies to a lot of man-made products (from vaseline to sun screens, and skin moisturizing creams), and my research work (on bacteria that colonize that very part of female anatomy), here are my two cents-

* Nothing (chemicals, man-made products) goes inside the vagina. Ever.

* You can use soap for vulva and this may actually be required depending on your allergies and infections. BUT, and this is a big but, the kind of soap you use is important.

A lot of people tend to use antibacterial soaps and this can wipe out all the *good* bacteria as well. Remember, we have an amazing community of the good bacteria colonizing different parts of our anatomy. Antibacterial soap can wipe them out because it can not differentiate between the good and the bad bacteria. For some people this happens sooner than for others. Stopping to use these soaps does not guarantee the growth of the network of different populations of good bacteria like you had naturally before you used it. Again, some people may not notice a difference after 60 years and some people may start getting infections (because you killed the good bacteria that was killing/keeping away the bad bacteria) in 6 months.

Antiseptic soaps, on the other hand, are perfectly fine. They keep the "visiting" bacteria (from external sources) at bay. Dettol antiseptic soap is an excellent choice. If drying out of the skin is a concern or if you are also allergic to soaps in general or have sensitive skin, something mild like the Dove (the white bar with deep moisture, can't vouch for other Dove
soaps) is a very good alternative. You may also want to try some baby soaps if your skin isn't overly sensitive like mine.

Other random facts that may help you with your decision- Strong, harsh soaps used regularly and consistently also have an effect on pH, which is enough reason to avoid anything harsh on a sensitive area. One reason why the vagina is remarkably 'clean' and doesn't need help from soaps is because the pH of the vagina is self-regulated: it varies during the menstrual cycle and keeps the bacteria away when you have your period. One would have thought that the menstrual cycle- where you have blood (great food for bacteria) flowing out of your body for days- would make you more prone to infections and its actually the opposite! And the change in pH is a big reason why that is the case. (And you certainly don't have to check the pH of your vulva or vagina with a pH paper to see whether a soap is good or bad!! This is just extra, interesting info to keep in mind.)

* Disregarding personal preferences regarding sex, coconut oil is an excellent alternative to moisturizing and possibly other purposes. I literally survived my childhood in a huge part because of coconut oil. Again, this is assuming its a brand you have tested on your skin elsewhere and a brand you therefore trust.

Finally, personally speaking, I don't use antibacterial soaps (I get eczema on my hands if I do). I always test soaps on my ultra-sensitive skin first before it gets anywhere near my private parts (also allergic to some soaps in particular, and also allergic to soaps in general on facial skin- phew!). If all else on the planet fails me, dettol and dove (white bar) are my go-to saviours.
posted by xm at 7:18 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I use soap. Always have. No problems. But no, not, like, *in* there, because why would you need to use soap on the inside? The vagina is indeed largely self-cleaning, under normal circumstances. The vulva is not. I am prone to UTI's and allergic to semen (and, as above, ask me how much fun finding that out was!), but soap has never been a problem. (For the semen allergy I do rinse internally with bottled water warmed to body temperature. But ohmygod no soap.)

Aren't strangers on the internet fun and informative?
posted by Because at 8:54 AM on August 30, 2012

The final answer is: whatever your vulva is fine with. Some people are sensitive to soap, some people are not. (And, for that matter, soaps differ, so uncontrolled anecdata really isn't going to help).
posted by jb at 9:06 AM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I think the bottom line is, it doesn't matter what the other ladies do. Your vulva is a unique snowflake. I soap everywhere, haven't had a single infection in many, many years.
posted by namesarehard at 12:48 PM on August 30, 2012

Let's talk about glands. Specifically, the difference between apocrine and eccrine glands.

Eccrine glands open directly to the surface of the skin, and are largely found where hair follicles are sparse. Sweat (composed largely of water, sodium chloride, and few trace electrolytes) leaves the body via eccrine glands, as a way to evaporatively cool the body. Because they open directly to the out-of-doors, there's no dank, dark space around them where bacteria can thrive, and no place for funk to develop. Normal sweat is also a poor medium for the growth of bacteria. Regular old soapless water is a fine way to clean any area of the body where eccrine glands exist--places like arms, knees, the back, etc.

Apocrine glands, on the other hand, are found where body hair is dense (think pits and bits) and open into the hair follicle (which is a perfect dank, dark space for bacterial growth). Apocrine glands are inactive until the hormonal changes of puberty, are not involved in body temperature regulation, and do not secrete sweat. Instead, they secrete a viscous fluid composed of fat, water, old bits of the gland itself, and some epithelial tissue that begins to develop an odor when exposed to the benign bacteria that live on the skin. Soap ought to be used to clean the areas where there is dense body hair, because apocrine gland secretion is hydrophobic due to its high lipid content and water alone won't take it off the body.

Women's vulvas are one area of the body that contains apocrine glands, and should be washed with soap to remove apocrine secretions. Women's vaginal canals do not contain apocrine glands and have no need for soap.
posted by jesourie at 2:05 PM on August 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

I use soap, and always have, everywhere except in, as someone up-thread put it, the "tampon zone." It's never been an issue.
posted by sarcasticah at 2:56 PM on August 30, 2012

Response by poster: I find myself more confused than when I started, but that is not the fault of the many thoughtful contributers here! Thank you.
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:45 PM on August 30, 2012

« Older Not getting any younger   |   Do I have to pay this debt? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.