There is a lot of advice available for women when it comes to maintaining a healthy vagina. Women are told to douche, to eat certain foods (or avoid others), to place precious stones inside for "cleansing," or use exercisers to keep pelvic muscles taut. So, what is a woman to think?
"There is a lot of negative marketing to make women think they are 'unclean,' which is simply untrue," said Melani Harker, MD, a gynecologist with University of Utah Health Care. "I feel that this is the main issue with all of the products out there that are directed at women and a negative self-image."
The vagina is, in fact, largely self-cleaning and regulating. Discharge flushes out the vagina and maintains the balance of healthy bacteria that lives there. The discharge may change in consistency or amount depending on where a woman is in her menstrual cycle. Using products to supplement or remove this discharge could actually end up causing more problems.
"Douching is unnecessary and can increase one's risk of infection," Harker said. "I have seen many women who have used interesting remedies that have caused severe allergic reactions in the vagina and vulva."
Women should also be wary when looking for ways to strengthen the muscles in their vagina and along the pelvic floor. There are many devices that promise to "train" muscles to be tighter - some of them even turn it into a video game. However, the messages that the vaginal muscles need to be tight may be putting women at risk.
"Women having tight, toned vaginal muscles doesn't translate to good function," said Ashley Sacks, DPT, a physical therapist with University of Utah Health Care. "Those muscles are supposed to squeeze and contract, but they also need to relax."
Sacks said women may also be incorrectly training their muscles so that both sides of the pelvic floor are firing. This could actually lead to a worsening of the problems women are trying to correct like urinary incontinence, pain during intercourse, and constipation.
"If you have concerns, the best course of action is to see a physical therapist first to make sure you are activating the muscles correctly," she said. "We're like personal trainers for your pelvic floor."
Of course, there are times when the vagina needs help. Yeast infections, bacterial infections, sexually transmitted diseases and other problems can occur.
"A woman should seek medical help when there is a change in the vaginal discharge to suggest an infection such as abnormal odor, burning or itching," Harker said.