Balance in life and balance in the vagina go hand in hand. Fluids in our body can be described by their pH balance — either acidic or basic. “The stomach fluids, for example, are acidic. The vagina fluids are also acidic, which keeps the vagina from overgrowing yeast or bacteria,” says Sheryl A. Ross, MD, known as “Dr. Sherry,” an award-winning OB-GYN, entrepreneur, women’s health expert, and author of the book She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period.
“[The acidic vagina secretions sound] pretty scary; however, it is the preferred pH balance and is perfect for the many protective organisms, which all live happily together in the vagina,” Dr. Ross says. When this delicate balance is disrupted, it could lead to vaginal misery such as an itching, dryness, infection, or burning. Dryness of the outer vagina and labia, in fact, leads to constant vaginal itching, which can be caused by any number of things, including something simple like the medication you’re on. “Medications including the birth control pill, Accutane, allergy and cold medications, and certain antidepressants are common contributors to vaginal dryness,” Dr. Ross says.
Why does a vagina itch?
A healthy vagina needs the same hygienic attention as any other part of the body, similar to the way we care for our face. “The skin of the vagina is susceptible to dryness and itching if not taken care of properly. When your body is properly hydrated, the outside skin of the vagina, including the labia majora and minora, is less prone to dryness and itching, plus the inside of the vagina will be moist and well-lubricated,” Dr. Ross says.
Itching involving any part of your body is uncomfortable and annoying, especially when it comes to the sensitive skin of the vagina. “Persistent vaginal itching could create emotional and physical disruptions in your daily life activities,” Dr. Ross says. There are many oils and creams that can be safely used on the vagina to prevent dryness and itching.
Everyday unsuspecting feminine rituals can disrupt the pH balance and irritate all areas of the vagina and cause vaginal itching. The list is long, and some of the common offenders may surprise you. “Common irritants you may or may not realize are problematic include fragrant soaps, bubble bath liquids, bath salts, talcum powder, detergents, fabric softeners and dryer sheets, sanitary wipes and pads, warming gels and scented lubricants, nylon underwear or bathing suits, rubber products such as diaphragms and condoms, latex allergy, saliva or semen, spermicides such as foams, creams, and jellies, feminine hygiene sprays, tampons or deodorant pads, and creams or ointments applied to the vulva,” Dr. Ross says.
Yeast infections are one of the most common causes of itching and irritation of the vagina and vulva. “The irritation is typically accompanied by white discharge and redness,” says Christine Sterling, MD, an OB-GYN. “The fungus candida albicans is the usual suspect in yeast infections. If you have these classic symptoms, you can treat yourself with an over-the-counter antifungal. However, if you have more than three yeast infections in a year, you should visit your OB-GYN,” Dr. Sterling says.
“I see so many complications from women striving for a perfectly coiffed bush, or lack thereof,” Dr. Sterling says. Pubic hair removal can cause micro abrasions in the skin, increasing the risk of skin infections and ingrown hairs. “Even if these abrasions don’t end up infected, they lead to histamine release in the skin that causes itching. I universally advise against shaving and depilatory creams. If you must remove your pubic hair, I recommend waxing with a highly experienced professional or laser hair removal,” Dr. Sterling says.
Allergens and Irritants
This is an extremely common cause of itching. “The skin of the vulva is more susceptible to irritants in soaps, lotions, and clothing than pretty much anywhere else on the body,” Dr. Sterling says. So the lotion that doesn’t cause you any problems on your hands can cause big problems down below. “Use mild fragrance-free soap and lotion on your vulva (the external portion of your sex organs). . . . If you are concerned about the smell of your vagina or discharge, please, please, please do not try to ‘clean’ your vagina or use a douche,” Dr. Sterling says. You might only make the problem worse.
You can also be allergic to semen. “The true prevalence of this allergy is unknown, but if you only have itching and irritation after intercourse, this may be the culprit. The symptoms of itching, irritation, and swelling typically begin within 30 minutes to an hour after intercourse and last for hours to days,” Dr. Sterling says, adding that using a condom should prevent this itching.
Nylon underwear or bathing suits, rubber products such as diaphragms and condoms, or a latex allergy can all cause itching and irritation as well if you are sensitive to that material or have an allergy, Dr. Ross says.
“The vulva can be affected by the same skin conditions found elsewhere on the body,” Dr. Sterling says. “So if you have dandruff and an itchy, irritated scalp, the same problem can plague you down below. Same thing goes for eczema and psoriasis. If you have vulvar itching accompanied by a rash or skin changes, go see your OB-GYN or a dermatologist that specializes in the vulva,” Dr. Sterling says.
Keeping the skin hydrated, clean, and cared for will help prevent dryness. “Other helpful daily hygiene rituals include using a gentle, nonfragranced soap and a natural skin moisturizer, especially ones made specifically for the vagina. Taking a 20-minute warm bath with a handful of extra virgin coconut oil three to four times a week will also rehydrate the skin of the vagina. Adding oral or vaginal probiotics to your daily regimen will also keep the vagina hydrated and in complete balance and harmony,” Dr. Ross says.
STDs and Pubic Lice
Trichomoniasis is the bane of an OB-GYN’s existence — not because it’s dangerous or particularly serious, but only because when looked at under a microscope, it appears as an organism with a tail spinning around on the slide. Yikes! “This parasite is sexually transmitted and reigns as the most common curable STD that nobody has ever heard of. While most women do not have symptoms with this infection, some experience itching, irritation, bad-smelling discharge, and frequent or painful urination,” Dr. Sterling says.
Then there’s public lice. There are three forms of this parasitic insect — the eggs, the nymph (like a pubic lice preteen), and the adult. “The eggs are small, white or yellow, and attached to the hair shaft. The nymph and the adult have six legs with two large front legs that look like the claws of a crab. To live, they must feed on blood. So, yeah, tiny crab-like vampires on your pubic hair — not pleasant,” Dr. Sterling says.