My first job out of college was as a live-in counselor in a group home for teen girls and one of my roles in the home was to teach proper hygiene. One evening, we were in a panic as a crisis fell upon us. We let our White coworker grab a few items we needed and she brought home Ivory soap for us to use on our vaginas. You can imagine the uproar from eight girls and two adult counselors when she opened the bag. What woman wants to wash down there with Ivory? She said, “well you asked me to get soap so I just grabbed what I use. I don’t wash my vagina with anything but water so I was kind of surprised by the request”. The collective yelling was like a gospel chorus of hell naw’s. None of us would accept any type of excuse for only using water. Ironically, this situation highlights where the trouble slips in. We often do not follow the same hygiene advice that White experts share because it doesn’t align with our lived experience. Somewhere at the edge of reason and distrust, we dismiss the science in favor of our Black wisdom. So, we just chopped it up to the fact that clearly, she doesn’t have discharge and sweat, or that she was fine with just not smelling good.
The actual problem isn’t the unscented Dove soap we asked her to get, nor is the problem using that to wash off the vulva and labia (aka the lips). That is perfectly fine and a gentle unscented soap is not going to disturb the ph levels of your vagina internally. The problem is that we think it’s supposed to smell like pussy potpourri or Badussy. Your vagina is supposed to smell like whatever your vagina smells like when your PH is balanced and you’re in good health. That can be a mild smell or nothing at all. Eating pineapples until you taste like a colada may actually mean you have too much sugar down there, which can be quickly followed by a yeast infection. For all my vagina holders that want some guidance about cleaning that is for us and by us, look no further.
The things you’ve seen about the vagina being self-cleaning continue to remain absolutely true. Any product that claims to clean it and balance your ph is likely altering it too far in one direction or the other. The balance of yeast and bacteria has to stay even or you’re inviting the yeast to overtake the bacteria (yeast infection), or the bacteria to overtake the yeast (bacterial vaginosis). The worst part about it is that once it happens it can become a yeast against bacteria Verzuz [sic] that goes on forever like Jill Scott versuz Erykah Badu. The problem has never been us smelling good, the problem is the chronic infections and susceptibility to STIs that douching, feminine wash, or soaking in vinegar and bleach causes. When your PH is off, your vagina is very sensitive to disturbances. This creates an environment that is weaker at battling any STIs present during sex or any bacteria present from your partner. Often we don’t realize that male partners are often sharing semen during the entirety of intercourse without a condom (how?). They can disturb your PH with semen, or by being sweaty/dirty from the day. If you’re having chronic infections or odors, the first thing you can do before seeing your doctor is to ditch the feminine washes and concoctions. If you are trying everything to stay fresh and find those products are the only thing that work, you may have medical reasons that your PH is chronically off or your partners (or toys) may need a good wash.
I know, I know… you have a booty call and just got off your period. What on earth are you going to do? Masturbate! Masturbate is often my answer, come to think of it. It works because your discharge is abundant but may only come under certain circumstances. While vaginas are self-cleaning, the rate at which it does so may not line up with your date night calendar. Or heck, you just want to feel like yourself again after 5 days of sweatpants and binging P-Valley. Any time you need a boost of “freshness” your own discharge is your best bet. If you think that’s gross, try it out in the shower after your last period day and thank me later.
Byline – Crystal Saiyge is a Black woman, sex-positive interfaith minister, wife, and mom of three. Her virtual chapel, #Churchofthebando is a liberated space for global spirituality, thoughtful inspiration, grief counseling, sex-positive education and trap karaoke. Visit crystalsaiyge.com for more info.