For decades, the stigma surrounding periods has been convincing women that they need to take extra measures to stay fresh and clean during their monthly cycle. In this report by SADE OGUNTOLA, experts say that there is no proof of these claims, even after sex, and that doing so could be dangerous.
PERIOD stigma is real and has, for decades, been convincing women wrongly that they are “unclean” during this time of the month. So, worldwide, women use a variety of intimate hygiene products as part of their daily cleansing routine.
These practices are impacted by many factors, including personal preference, cultural norms, religious practices, and guidance from health care professionals.
Studies have found that Afro-Caribbean immigrants are more likely to wash the vulva (exterior genitalia or surrounds of the vaginal opening) with bubble bath or antiseptic than Caucasian women, and this is consistent with the belief that rigorous body cleansing is necessary for health and well-being.
Some Orthodox Jewish women perform ritual baths (mikveh) following their menstrual periods or after childbirth to become ritually pure, while the Muslim faith teaches a bathing ritual called full ablution (ghusl) for men and women as an act of purification after sexual intercourse or menstruation.
In Mozambique and South Africa, some women internally cleanse their vaginas with lemon juice, saltwater, or vinegar to eliminate vaginal discharge and “treat” sexually transmitted diseases.
Caring for the vagina, one of the most sensitive areas of the body should be a simple task. However, years of misinformation on its cleanliness and sexiness has let unsafe ideas take hold among women.
An industry playing on women’s fears about being dirty or smelly has grown up to sell products from talcum powder to vaginal douches and scented tampons and pads, some of which are harmful.
No doubt, ‹You smell› is one of the most powerful playground taunts. This accusation is feared the most and it is the hardest to protest- the fear of smelling period blood or are leaking, the fear of being rejected or mocked by the sexual partner because of how the vagina or vulvas look or smell like.
Howbeit, it is a myth that the vagina needs extensive cleaning with perfumed soaps or feminine hygiene product. It certainly doesn’t require a scented tampon or pad to hide the period odour.
“The vagina has a particular odour; it is mild and not offensive in most cases. So the use of perfumed soaps, scented pads and tampons and feminine hygiene product will not necessarily make a woman ‘cleaner’,” said Dr Hannah Adegbola-Dada, a consultant medical microbiologist at the University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan, Oyo State.
Dr Adegbola-Dada stated that the vagina is self-cleaning and as such if it smells wrong or bad, it could be suggestive of infections including candida and sexually transmitted infections, as well as a red flag for cervical cancer.
According to her, “this requires to see a doctor to find out its cause and treat appropriately rather than try to cover up the smell with perfume, use scented pads or taking incorrect over-the-counter medication for it.”
Dr Adegbola-Dada declared that good vaginal bacteria exist in the female genitals to protect against infection and disease-causing organisms, such as bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections.
An overgrowth of bad bacteria, which could be because by a disruptive foreign source, like a scented tampon, she declared, could cause irritation, itching, infection or an allergic reaction.
“So that you do not cause a problem for yourself, so we only recommend water for cleaning, we do not recommend that people should use antiseptic soap and lotions or douche to clean. Douching is a dangerous practice that predisposes to infections,” she added.
Professor Adewale Sule-Odu, an obstetrician and gynaecologist at the Olabisi Onabanjo University Teaching Hospital (OOUTH), Sagamu, Ogun State also warned that perfumes in many feminine hygiene products could irritate the vulva and vagina skin, making them more liable to infections.
He added that it is not necessary and not advisable to use perfumed feminine hygiene product because chemicals in perfumed sanitary pads can cause swellings and rashes on the vulva skin just as a perfumed tampoon can cause vagina stenosis.
“You do not put anything into the vagina; do not clean it with soap even during menstruation because it is a self-cleaning organ.
“Even after sex, you do not need to clean with soap, perfume or any chemical to make it ‘clean’, it is not necessary. Everything will come down. Gravitational force will remove it.
“The vaginal skin is alive, every day the cells that line the vagina wall and microorganisms are changed. So it doesn’t need a special product to keep it fresh and clean because it’s already taking care of that.
“Anything put anything into the vagina is foreign and it will disrupt this protective mechanism. The lactobacilli, the lactic acid and all other protective secretions in the vagina will be removed.”
Lactobacilli produce lactic acid to make the vagina slightly acidic and prevent other bacteria and other disease-causing germs such as bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections from growing there.
He, however, warned that an imbalance of naturally occurring bacteria found in a woman’s vagina can also predispose a woman to have a stillbirth.
Professor Sule-Odu said activities such as frequent douching and the use of cotton wool or tissue paper to clean up after sex can predispose women to bacterial vaginosis, adding that in some cases, it comes with abnormal vaginal discharge, itching or odour.
Moreover, clean up their private parts by inserting their finger or soap, Dr Imran Morhason-Bello, consultant obstetrics and gynaecologist at the UCH, Ibadan, said could cause infections which can overtime kill sexual pleasure.
Dr Morhason-Bello explained that women need to avoid inserting non-prescribed medication, perfumes, and deodorants in their vagina as this can lead to infection.
“The reason is that there are some products that women are using for cleaning up, some of them have corrosive materials that will elicit corrosion at the clitoris and labia side which is very thin and heavily vascularised.
He advised that women wash the vagina with water and “not mind the odour from the private parts because the odour is characteristic of the vagina”.
“The surest material for a lady to use to clean up is clean water because when you use anything that has antiseptic materials, it would destroy the normal organisms that nature or God has created for that place.
”When you disrupt it, then this area will heal by secondary intention and when it heals by secondary intention there is scaring in the nerve invasion that makes them to be sensitive and therefore their sexual drive will be lost,” he said.
Nevertheless, experts say looking after everyday health can help keep vagina in good shape. This includes a healthy diet and exercise. Normal exercise helps maintain good vaginal function, as walking and running helps the pelvic floor to tone up and ensure good general health.