Vaginas are pretty amazing when you think about it. They shuttle new life into the world and bring us pleasure during sex. And unlike those dirty dishes sitting in your sink, they can even clean themselves. But because vaginas are so hard to see, they’re often shrouded in mystery—and while that might be a great quality in a sexy stranger you meet on vacation, that’s not necessarily something to shoot for with a body part.
Being in the dark about your vagina makes it easier to fall pray to marketing that says it should smell a certain way, like a fragrant country garden. It can also mean you may not be taking care of this precious part the way you should.
So we asked Leah Millheiser, M.D., an ob/gyn and director of the Female Sexual Medicine Center at Stanford Health Care, to clear up some of the most pervasive myths surrounding vaginas and drop some knowledge.
Myth #1: You can lose a tampon in there.
Many women still don’t realize it’s like a cul-de-sac, with your cervix stopping anything from free-falling into your uterus. “The vagina is a closed space,” says Millheiser . “A tampon isn’t going to get lost in a black hole. The reason people may think it can get lost is because there are hills and valleys of tissue in the vagina,” she says. “So a tampon may be hidden in the folds of tissue.” If you’ve inserted a tampon and can’t grasp the string or the tampon itself to get it out, head to your gyno right away. He or she can insert a speculum to make it easier to see—and quickly retrieve—the wayward tampon.
Myth #2: Your vagina shouldn’t have a smell.
If you believe advertisers and women who like to run through fields in slow motion, all females should smell fresh as a daisy down below. But being completely odorless isn’t the norm for most women. “Every woman has her own personal scent,” notes Millheiser. “Some women say, ‘I never notice an odor,’ but others say they constantly have some odor, such as a musty smell. That’s your body type, just as some have more body odor than others. Also, if you’re sweating, it’s going to smell more.” That said, if there’s been a significant change in your vaginal scent, consider that a red flag. Vaginal odor that has a fishy smell, especially if it gets worse right after your period or after sex, can be a sign of bacterial vaginosis, which is the most common vaginal infection in women ages 15 to 44, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Your gyno can diagnose you and prescribe antibiotics to clear up the infection.
Myth #3: Having discharge means there’s a problem down south.
“I wish I had a dollar for every time a patient said, ‘I have discharge. There must be something wrong,’” says Millheiser. Discharge is perfectly normal and is your vagina’s way of staying clean. “Discharge is the shedding of the cells of the vagina,” she says. “All woman have it. Some have a tiny bit and don’t even notice it on their underwear, while others have a lot and need to change their underwear during the day. Some can have a tablespoon per day and it’s normal.” What isn’t? Discharge that’s green, milky grey, frothy, or cottage cheese-like in consistency—all signs that point to a vaginal infection that needs to be evaluated by your doctor.
Myth #4: Douching is a great way to freshen up.
About one in four women ages 15 to 44 years old douche, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. If you’re one of them, step away from the douche. “The vagina is like a self-cleaning oven,” explains Millheiser. “It will take care of itself—no cleaning on your part required.” In fact, douching is more harmful than helpful. “If a woman is douching because she wants to get that fresh smell or to gain more confidence before intercourse, she needs to be aware she’s setting herself up for infection,” she says. Douching throws off the delicate bacteria balance in the vagina and ups the risk of multiple health issues from bacterial vaginosis to pelvic inflammatory disease to ectopic pregnancy. If you’re douching because you’re trying to get rid of a fishy odor or cottage cheese-like discharge, then you’re potentially covering up an existing infection that needs your gyno’s attention.
Myth #5: You should wash it with soap.
We hope you already know not to use soap inside your vagina (ouch). But even normal lathering up can be like an assault on your vulva, which is the outer part of your vagina, especially if your soap contains perfume and dyes. “It’s a really sensitive place and harsh soaps can cause irritation down there,” says Millheiser. Instead, stick with a fragrance-free soap, such as Dove Sensitive Skin bar soap, or else it’s perfectly fine and effective to just use plain water to keep things clean.
Myth #6: It can get stretched out like an old accordion.
Yes, there are some cases, such as after multiple vaginal births or after suffering a childbirth injury, in which the vaginal opening can become stretched. But for the most part, childbirth and certainly having sex won’t make you “loose.” Vaginas are not only designed to open up to accommodate surprisingly large objects, from well-endowed penises to a baby’s head, but they’re also highly elastic. In other words, they’re pros at snapping back into shape.
Myth #7: Your vagina should lubricate on cue.
Not everyone gets wet right before having sex and that’s perfectly normal—even if you’re in your 20s. Certain medications, such as oral contraceptives, can cause a lack of lubrication, along with hormonal changes that happen during breastfeeding and approaching or going through menopause. But that’s not all: A lack of foreplay can also bring on vaginal dryness, along with a lack of novelty that can come with having a long-term partner or just plain being exhausted because you have kids or a demanding job (or both). Being dry as a desert down there is problematic because it makes sex painful instead of pleasurable. The good news is that there’s an easy solution: Lubricant. Millheiser recommends using a water-based lube if you only need a small amount to supplement your body’s natural lubrication. If you need the works, use a silicon-based lube. “They’re amazing, last longer, reduce friction better and are just as safe as water-based lubes,” she says. Or you can try natural oils, such as coconut oil. Just note that you can’t use latex condoms with natural oils, which may break down the latex.
Myth #8: You can’t get skin conditions down there like you do on the rest of your body.
Sadly, private parents aren’t protected from some common skin issues. “You can have eczema or psoriasis down there,” notes Millheiser. “So if you have chronic irritation and redness on the vulva and you happen to have eczema or psoriasis somewhere else on your body, there’s a good chance you’ll have it down there, too.” See your gyno to rule out other causes like yeast infections first, and if it is genital eczema or psoriasis, your doc can recommend treatment, such as topical steroids, to reduce the itching and irritation.