pH. It sounds so scientific. When I consider pH, I have nasty flashbacks from high school chemistry class, or rather, failing high school chemistry class. Beakers and flasks, right? pH is scientific, for sure, but it’s also applicable to your vaginal health. A little chemistry goes a long way when you’re dealing with chronic vaginitis- yeast and bacterial vaginosis to name a couple. A simple understanding of how body pH works can help you avoid those nasty infections before they begin.
The Science Part
The first thing we need to address is what exactly pH is. I’m about to get all science-y on you for a moment, but stay with me. The “p” stands for potential and the “H” stands for hydrogen. pH is a measure of acidity or basicity in an aqueous solution on a scale from 0 to 14. The low end, between 0-6, describes a more acidic substance (lots of hydrogen ions!), with 0 being the most acidic. A substance with a pH between 8-14 will be more basic (not so many hydrogen ions!), with 14 being a substance with very high basicity. For reference, lemon juice and vinegar have a pH of 2, making them very acidic, whereas bleach has a pH of 13, making it very basic. Just like foods and household cleaners, the human body has its own pH, with varying levels on the pH scale depending on what part of the body we’re talking about. For instance, the lining of the stomach has a pH of 2 since it secretes all sorts of digestive acids for us. Our urine and saliva has a pH of 7, making those substance neither acidic or basic. So, let’s review- some parts of the body are more acidic than others. Still with me?
An adult woman of reproductive age will have vaginal secretions with a pH of about 3.8-4.5 on a good day. This is fairly acidic on the pH scale, about the same as a tomato. Just as with stomach acid and saliva, there’s a very good reason for the vagina to have the pH level it does. The normal, healthy microorganisms that live in the vulvo-vaginal tract, Lactobacilli, produce lactic acid, which is acidic. They are part of the natural flora of the vagina and defend the vulvovaginal area from infection. In order to keep the vagina healthy and protect us from harmful microorganisms, they need to be able to thrive in an acidic environment. Unfortunately, we unknowingly do all sorts of things to destroy the acidic vaginal ecosystem our Lactobacilli love so much, killing them off and allowing unhealthy microorganisms to take up shop in our vaginas, instead. Granted, some of us are far more prone to vaginal infections than others. However, you may be creating an ideal environment for vaginal infections by imbalancing pH in a few of the following ways:
One of the less obvious ways we create imbalances in the vaginal ecosystem is pretty simple: soap. It’s so ingrained in our collective consciousness that the vagina is dirty and needs to be cleansed with bar or liquid soaps every day, that most of us never stop to consider if it’s really necessary. What isn’t common knowledge is that the vagina is a self-cleaning oven- It doesn’t need soap, douche, or powder to smell good and stay balanced and healthy. Once upon a time douche was popular, and although it’s still sold over the counter, it’s pretty common knowledge today that it’s bad for you. However, if you’re still using douche, stop now! Similar to soap, it does nothing to improve the hygiene of your vagina. If nothing else, it will make your vagina smell worse, since it kills all the good bacteria.
Don’t get me wrong- your vagina will not smell like floral rain if you forego soap and douche, but it’s not supposed to smell like floral rain. It’s supposed to smell like your vagina. The problem with soap and douche is that it’s more basic than acidic. Some major brand bar soaps can have a pH of up to 9-10, making them much closer to bleach than a tomato. So, you rub this basic substance all over your vulva and it literally murders all the Lactobacilli, leaving your vulvovaginal tract open to opportunistic, infection causing microbes, such as candida (which is responsible for yeast infections) and ultimately making your vagina smell not so fabulous.
Instead of soap- try washing your vulva with hot water and a wash cloth. It may feel counterintuitive at first, but give it a try. You can also try pH-balanced soaps if the whole “just hot water” idea is too foreign. I personally recommend Nature’s Plus Natural Beauty Cleansing bar. It has a pH of 4.5 and it’s perfect for cleansing the vulva.
Yet another way we leave our vulvovaginal tract open to infections is though sex with men, specifically sex without a barrier method. Basically, having semen in your vagina. Semen has a pH of around 7-8, depending on the fella. You may recall being told to “void after sex,” as in, pee after sex to avoid infections. When I still struggled with chronic vaginitis, that advice fell on deaf ears- it seemed so silly, plus I tend to get lazy and pass out after sex. I didn’t want to be bothered with getting up and peeing. However, taking the time to pee after sex and/or wash the area with hot water significantly reduced infections for me, personally. I believe this to especially true for that honeymoon period in new relationships- if you’re having Sex Fest 2011 you may just end up with bacterial vaginosis or a yeast infection if you’re not careful.
Instead of semen– If you’re experiencing aggressive vaginitis, it may be prudent to use condoms for a while until it clears up. However, maybe you don’t have aggressive vaginitis, you’re in a healthy, consenting relationship, and you have that whole pregnancy thing covered with birth control. You may not really want to fuss with condoms. In that case, you can make sure you pee and/or wash with hot water after sex. You can also use either capsulized boric acid or lactobacillus suppositories inserted in into the vagina after sex to restore the pH and re-populate the healthy bacteria.
The issue of having too much sugar in your diet is especially important if you struggle with chronic yeast infections. Candida, the adorable little fungus that causes yeast infections, loves sugar and carbohydrates. If you’re riding high on a diet full of candy, sweetened drinks and simple carbohydrates like bread, you may be creating the ideal environment for yeast to grow. If you’re already destroying your vaginal pH with soap and semen, you’re even more likely to be leaving your vagina open to yeast overgrowth by adding a high sugar diet into the mix.
Instead of sugar- I’m sorry to say it, ladies, but if you deal with chronic yeast infections you simply have to cut back on the sugar and simple carbs. By reducing these yeast loving foods from your diet, you can literally starve Candida of the fuel it needs to populate your vagina. While you’re at it, you can go ahead and add unsweetened, organic yogurt, garlic, and pure cranberry juice to your diet to make sure that the Candida has even less opportunity to survive. Yogurt containing active Lactobacillus cultures can help repopulate the good bacteria, while garlic is known to posses antimicrobial properties and drinking cranberry will acidify your urine, encouraging a more acidic vaginal environment.
Hopefully you now have a basic understanding of how vaginal pH works and can use that understanding to your benefit. While I believe this list is a good start, I’d love to hear about your experiences with vaginitis, how you keep your vagina healthy, or if you have further questions about pH and/or dealing with chronic vaginitis, please submit your queries to: firstname.lastname@example.org