WHAT IS THE VULVA?
The vulva is the part of your genitals that you can see. The vulva includes the mons pubis (the mound above the rest of the vulva), the inner and outer labia (lips), the clitoris, the opening of tube leading to the bladder (the urethra), and the opening to the vagina.
The vagina is the tube that leads from the outside (the vulva) to the uterus (womb). The vagina is not part of the vulva.
TAKING CARE OF THE SKIN OF YOUR VULVA
The skin of the vulva is delicate and taking care of it is an important part of your health care. There are a few key factors to consider with vulva skin care:
- Correct washing and care
- Avoiding irritants
- Reducing excess moisture
- voiding scratching and/or rubbing
WASHING YOUR VULVA
- The skin of the vulva is sensitive and only needs gentle washing with warm water.
- Washing once a day is plenty. More frequent washing may cause dryness and irritation.
- Avoid the use of any soaps, body wash, wipe, sprays etc. even hypoallergenic, sensitive, and so-called ‘natural’ products can cause irritation.
- If your skin is particularly dry you can try using an unscented unperfumed wash such as aqueous cream, QV ® or Dermeze®.
- If you enjoy baths, avoid having your bath too hot and avoid bubble baths, perfumed oils, medicated oils, or antiseptics. If you do use these make sure you rinse the vulva with warm water afterwards.
- Gently pat your vulva dry, don’t rub the skin.
AVOIDING VULVAL SKIN IRRITANTS
These are some of the most common things that can irritate your vulva and should be avoided:
- Soaps or anything that will lather and remove healthy oils from the skin.
- Tea tree oil and scented oils.
- Medicated creams, antiseptics, and peroxide.
- Bubble bath, bath salts, and other perfumed products.
- ‘Feminine hygiene’ products such as washes, sprays, and wipes.
- Some brands of toilet paper, particularly highly scented or coloured ones.
- Some pads and panty liners (especially if scented).
- Some laundry detergents.
- Waxing, shaving, or depilatory creams.
- Tight synthetic clothing and dyes in some underwear.
HOW TO KEEP YOUR VULVA HEALTHY AND AVOID IRRITATION
- Wash your vulva as outlined above.
- Avoid ‘feminine hygiene’ products e.g., sprays, wipes, powders etc.
- Use unscented, undyed, unbleached toilet paper.
- Use hypoallergenic laundry detergents to wash underwear
- Consider giving underwear an extra rinse after washing to remove laundry detergent residue.
- Use tampons, a menstrual cup, or period undies during your menstrual period rather than pads.
- Avoid using panty liners. If discharge is heavy, use ‘period undies’ or try changing your underpants during the day. If you really feel you need\ panty liners use unscented and unbleached products.
- Avoid very tight clothing.
- Wear cotton underwear rather than synthetic.
- Avoid wearing any underwear at night.
- Avoid removing pubic hair, particularly shaving, as it can cause significant irritation to the skin.
If you find that vulval skin irritation occurs and persists despite trying
these preventative suggestions, see a medical professional. Avoid trying to self-treat with over-the-counter products and creams. Only use products prescribed or advised by a health professional.
Excess moisture can worsen the effects of irritation of your vulva.
To reduce this:
- Take off wet swim wear as soon as possible (especially if swimming in a chlorinated pool).
- Wear underwear that will absorb moisture – some synthetic underwear will hold moisture at the surface whereas cotton will absorb it.
- Carry clean underwear to change into if needed.
HOW TO AVOID DAMAGING VULVAL SKIN
Skin damaged or irritated by friction and rubbing is more easily infected. To avoid damage and irritation from scratching and rubbing:
To avoid damage and irritation from scratching and rubbing:
- Avoid rubbing your vulva with a washcloth, just gently wash with your hands or a handheld shower.
- Gently pat dry with a towel, don’t rub.
- Avoid hair removal in the area. Laser hair removal is a better option then shaving or waxing.
- Avoid tight clothing.
- Use plenty of water-based non- perfumed, hypoallergenic lubricant during sexual activity.
WHAT TO DO IF YOUR VULVA IS ITCHY
- Keep your nails short if scratching is happening at night when asleep.
- Wear loose cotton underwear and avoid underwear at night.
- Avoid overheating the skin — avoid electric blankets, showers / baths that are too hot, or synthetic clothing pressed up again skin.
- Keep skin cool – use a covered ice pack or a damp cloth to soothe, if using any creams on your vulva store them in the fridge.
- Try distraction, mindfulness, or relaxation techniques when the urge to scratch strikes.
- Avoid scratching as much as possible. Scratching can create what is known as an ‘itch-scratch cycle’ where skin and nerve fibres thicken, which in turn increases itching.
- Consult with a health professional if this is the first occurrence, or if an existing condition is persistent.
GET TO KNOW YOURSELF-VULVAL SELF-EXAMINATION
One way to notice changes in your vulva before they become an issue is to perform vulval self- examinations. Getting to know the normal appearance of your vulva will allow you to know if things have changed.
The sooner you detect any changes the less likely symptoms will persist and potentially the need for extended treatment may be reduced. It’s also just great to get to know your own body.
You can do this on a regular basis, once a month, or whenever you think of it.
HOW TO DO A VULVAL SELF-EXAMINATION
- Find a private place and time when you can relax.
- Use a hand mirror so you can see what you are looking at.
- Starting at the top (known as the mons pubs — the place where pubic hair grows) gently touch and feel as well as look at the skin. Work your way down, checking the clitoris, the outer lips, the inner lips, the vaginal opening, and the perineum (area between the vaginal opening and the anus).
- Look for any changes in the colour of the skin, any thickening of the skin, any new lumps, or bumps (such as warts or skin tags), any ulcers or sores, and any symptoms of persistent itching or soreness.
- If anything is different or you are concerned, consult a health professional who you are comfortable with or see one of the doctors at SHFPACT.
Vaginal discharge is the fluid like substance that is secreted from the vagina. It is produced by the cervix, the uterus, and the vagina itself.
It generally appears on underwear but may also be seen during a vulval examination. Discharge is a normal and healthy ‘housekeeping’ function of the vagina.
A change in your discharge can also be an indication that something is wrong so it’s important to know what your normal discharge looks like (usually clear or creamy white which can look pale yellow when it dries on your undies). If there are unusual changes to the colour, smell, or amount of your vaginal discharge then a visit to a health professional is recommended.
A NOTE ABOUT THE APPEARANCE OF VULVAS
As with many parts of our bodies, vulvas look different from person to person, as well as at different stages on our lives. Vulvas are as individual as our faces! Many things can influence the way we feel about our bodies (e.g., what media we watch, what social media we engage in, what we read, watch, or listen to, attitudes from our family of origin, messages from the society we live in, and our own attitudes and feelings).
It’s good to take a moment to consider the reality versus the fantasy of what we see and hear. It can also help to understand more about the vulva and see the different types of real vulvas out there.
It should be noted that pornography and other sexual imagery are not good places to learn more about our bodies — the vulva included. Reputable, evidence-based sites like the Labia Library: labialibrary.org.au aim to help women understand more about their vulva and become more comfortable with the way it looks. Anyone with concerns with the way their vulva looks should talk with a health professional or make an appointment at the SHFPACT clinic to talk with a doctor or nurse.
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