Got a vagina? Here's a simple 7-step guide to getting to know and loving your own vaginal fluids, and why you should.
If you’ve ever gone inside a large supermarket or pharmacy in the U.S., no doubt you’ve seen products labeled “feminine hygiene.” But have you stopped to ask what is supposedly unhygienic about women’s reproductive parts?
It turns out, there are a lot of misunderstandings about vaginas and vulvas. Even the terms can be confusing: vagina refers to the internal tube connecting the vulva to the cervix to the uterus, while the vulva is the collection of external parts: labia minor and majora, clitoris, and mons. Numerous memes have compared labia to floppy bologna sandwiches, or stretched-out vaginas to fish filets (yes, really), all of them misunderstanding basic anatomy. But there seems to be a whole special level of misunderstanding around vaginal fluids.
If you have a vagina, it’s important for you to know your own ecosystem and advocate for yourself. Knowing what’s normal for your body can go a long way toward helping you figure out if you need to seek medical treatment for any number of issues. Plus, most sex ed curricula won’t do much to educate you on your own body, so it’s up to you to know how your body works.
And if you don’t have a vagina? It’s probably still a good idea to dispel stigmas and stereotypes around the anatomy of roughly half the population.
Here’s what you need to know about vaginal fluids
1. Vaginal fluids are not inherently unhygienic. Like other bodily fluids, they can transmit diseases, which is why barrier use is important if there’s any doubt about someone’s STI status during sexual activities. But period blood or vaginal discharge is not any grosser than any other bodily fluid one might imagine, so we should collectively toss the notion of “feminine hygiene” out of the window.
2. Vaginal fluids are highly unique to each individual. Everything from how much you bleed during your period to what kinds of discharge you see on your underwear on a daily basis can vary from person to person. How much your vagina automatically lubricates during sex vs. needs an assist from a lube also varies, and can vary over the course of an individual’s lifetime too. Oh, and in case you didn’t know, not every lubricant is body-safe, and certain lubes can interact negatively with condoms, other barriers, and sex toys, so it’s a good idea to know your lubes.
3. Vaginas are self-cleaning organs. In other words, DO NOT DOUCHE. Heck, you don’t even need to do much to clean your vulva; mild soap on the labia majora will do the trick, and you should be aware that from the labia minora on inward, the skin cells are very porous hence very easy to irritate.
4. Having some amount of vagina discharge is completely normal. According to The Vagina Bible by Dr. Jen Gunter: “The vagina typically produces 1-3 ml of discharge in twenty-four hours” (19). This discharge is made up of secretions and fluids from the cervix, from glands at the vaginal opening, and other random little cell sheddings and bacterial substances.
And to add: vaginas and vulvas are tough. We don’t usually need to care for them as though they are delicate, wilting flowers. As Dr. Jen Gunter writes:
Almost every woman has been told at least once (and often more than once) to wear white cotton underwear as a medical recommendation to prevent yeast infections and other vaginal mayhem. This makes it sound as if vaginas and vulvas are accidents waiting to happen. The vulva can handle urine, feces, and blood, and vaginas can handle blood, ejaculate, and a baby, so this idea that a black lace thong is the harbinger of a vaginal or vulvar apocalypse is absurd. (72)
The kind of underwear you choose won’t affect your vaginal chemistry. The only exception is staying in waterproof stuff too long, since moisture plus friction can lead to microtears, or wearing ill-fitting underwear, which can lead to itching and scratching without consciously being aware of it.
5. Vaginas are acidic. The pH level of most vaginas is between 3.8 and 5.0, which is more acidic than other bodily fluids (which could help explain why sometimes underwear starts looking kinda bleached in the crotch area; it’s because of the acidity of vaginal fluids!). For reference, this pH level is around that of black coffee. And it’s totally normal.
6. The jury is still out on what’s generally called female ejaculation or squirting. Yes, it exists, but we still don’t know its exact composition. One 2011 study claims that true female ejaculation comes from the “female prostate” (also known as Skene’s glands), while squirting is just urine. A 2021 study argues that female ejaculate is distinct from urine chemically, and may in fact have protective antibacterial properties.
In the current hellscape of American health care, I’ve found it incredibly useful to know my own vaginal fluids, so that I can more accurately predict whether I’m coming down with a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis. In my body, at least, they present with different odors and different levels of itching and irritation. And since I can’t really do a home culture with the same accuracy as a lab, it still usually means a trip to the doctor, but I can make more informed requests when asking to be seen and helped (yes, one can also order some antibiotics online these days, but with my body at least, sometimes infection can present in different ways, so it’s tough for me to self-diagnose). Knowing what looks/feels/smells normal on your body is also helpful if you’re sexually active, because if a sudden change presents, that might be a good indication that you should go get tested for STIs, which can lead to changes in the vaginal and vulvar ecosystems.
But perhaps most importantly, I’m all about combatting the stigma around genitals that don’t conform to the idealized norm. I gather that I probably have a bit more daily vaginal discharge than the average vagina-having human, but you know what? That’s okay, because it’s what’s normal for my body. If I let someone else’s vaginal propaganda influence me, I might think there was something wrong with me, undergo unneeded medical testing, and pursue expensive commercial options that can cause more harm than good. Most vaginal interventions are unnecessary unless you have a health condition, but to get to the point where you recognize that it’s time to see a doctor, you need to know what’s normal for you, hence the importance of being familiar with your daily vaginal ecosystem.
Vaginas and vulvas are not inherently unhygienic. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and they’re all well-functioning body parts on their own without needing cleaning or special care. If you want to have great vaginal health and hygiene? Start with getting up close and personal with yours. Firsthand knowledge is the best way of combatting centuries of bizarre mystification around vaginas and vulvas.
Gunter, Jen. The Vagina Bible: The Vulva and the Vagina—Separating the Myth from the Medicine. Citadel Press, 2019.