The first step to a healthy vulva and happy body? Getting to know all of it!
vulva vs. vagina
First thing’s first. Although you may hear them used interchangeably, the vagina and vulva are two distinct body parts. Here’s the difference:
The vulva and outer and inner labia (aka “lips”) form the entrance of the vagina. Along the vulva are the clitoris, clitoral hood, urethral opening, and vaginal opening. The vagina, also called “the birth canal,” connects the uterus to the outside world.
In short — the parts you can see from the outside are the vulva, while the vagina is on the inside.
Your Natural Fortress
A queen’s got to protect her castle. Luckily, your vulva skin and pubic hair have your back — and your bits below. This dynamic duo is an important part of the female reproductive system and immunity, acting as the first line of defense against bacteria-causing infections.
Yet, for having such a big job, vulva skin is the thinnest, most sensitive skin on the body.
Why So Sensitive?
Vulva skin is hormone-responsive, meaning it can become more sensitive during periods, pregnancy, and menopause.
During menopause, vulva skin becomes weaker from a drop in skin lipids (the natural fats that help maintain the skin’s protective barrier), as well as a decrease in probiotics (the good bacteria that help keep skin healthy).
But that’s not all. The natural moisture down below can send anyone into a sensitivity frenzy.
The same mucous membrane that protects the labia minora (inner lips) from “intruders” also makes it more susceptible to friction from everyday activities, like sex and exercise. Not to mention its close proximity to anal bacteria, increasing the risk of infection.
The bottom line? Vulva sensitivity is normal — but that doesn’t mean you have to live with it.
Good Bacteria vs. Bad Bacteria
Estrogen promotes the growth of good probiotic bacteria, called lactobacilli. This bacteria secretes lactic acid and hydrogen peroxide to maintain the acidic environment of the vulva and vagina.
Good bacteria live in the acid mantle, which acts as an invisible shield to maintain a healthy pH. It helps keep the good stuff in (like moisture), and the bad stuff out (like unwanted bacteria).
Life Shows Up On All of Our body Parts
Over time, daily factors like stress, hormone changes, lifestyle habits, or even normal aging can weaken vulva skin and compromise the acid mantle.
When vulva skin is weak and dry, it can’t protect itself as well against irritation or infection. For example, when vaginal pH is disturbed, it can lead to issues like yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis — along with itching, burning, foul odor, unusual discharge, and painful sex.
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The Vulva Villains
Let’s take a deeper dive into common vulvar and vaginal pH disruptors.
Stress and anxiety can throw off pH balance by increasing adrenaline and cortisol — two chemicals that cause inflammation and dryness. A dry, weakened skin barrier makes your lady bits more prone to unwanted bacteria. Not only that, women suffering from generalized anxiety can experience stronger PMS symptoms, lower libido, and painful sex. (hellogiggles)
Daily shaving, scrubbing, or over-exfoliation can create micro-tears in the skin that compromise pH and weaken the skin barrier. Over time, the skin loses its ability to maintain essential lipids and ceramides that help lock in moisture and prevent dryness and irritation. The dryer the skin, the more prone it is to ingrown hairs (razor bumps), itchiness, and redness. Less pubic hair also leaves the vulva and vagina exposed to pathogenic bacteria and irritants.
Harsh ingredients — like surfactants, synthetic fragrances, and parabens — can disrupt the delicate pH balance down below. Even ingredients like glycerin can break down into sugar and increase the potential for yeast infections. What's worse? These ingredients are commonly found in conventional personal care products — like old-school douches, feminine washes, sex lubes, and period products. (Side Note: Even soaps without these harsh ingredients can disturb your pH if they’re too alkaline.)
An unhealthy diet high in sugar (especially artificial sugars and fats) can create a breeding ground for disease-causing bacteria, which ultimately throws off your pH balance. Excess sugar can also lead to glycation, a process in which sugar molecules attach themselves to other molecules, like collagen. This decreases skin elasticity and leads to oxidative stress — weakening the skin and innate immunity. (pubmed)
The wrong underwear can trap moisture, disturb pH levels, and increase the risk of yeast infections. When shopping for underwear, choose cotton over synthetic materials (like nylon, polyester, or rayon) to allow the vulva and vagina to breathe. According to Dr. Jessica Black, “Wearing tight workout pants for many hours daily while shaving all pubic hair will increase a woman’s chance of getting a yeast infection. If a woman shaves 100% of her public hair, it is my opinion that she should not wear underwear (most of the time).”
Normal aging, giving birth, menopause, and diseases like cancer can lead to thinning of the vaginal wall. This can affect the delicate pH balance of your lady bits as they reduce production of good bacteria. The labia may also loosen, weakening its protective properties. Thankfully, there are solutions available — such as hormone and rejuvenation therapies, Kegels (pelvic floor exercises), vulva moisturizers, and vaginal lubricants — to help strengthen and regenerate tissue, while providing relief from discomfort.
Hormonal changes, menstrual cycles, and even sex can trigger elevated pH levels in women.
1. Period — The pH level of blood is 7.4, which is much more alkaline than normal vulvar and vaginal pH. This can lead to an elevated pH during that time of the month.
2. Sex — Semen has a pH of 7.1 - 8 and can increase vaginal pH.
3. Hormones — Pregnancy, menopause, and your normal monthly cycle can cause hormone fluctuations that alter pH levels down below.
vulva anatomy 101
The proper name for a women's outer genitals is the vulva, which is often mistakenly referred to as the vagina. Just like any other part of the body, vulvas are unique and come in all shapes, textures and sizes.
Full of nerve endings — 8,000 of them — the tip of the clitoris (glans clitoris) is usually the most sensitive area on the vulva. Known as the pleasure spot it's the only organ in the entire body that's sole purpose is sexual arousal. PS: the clitoris is actually a large internal structure. The external, pea-sized part that can be visible to the eye is only the tip of the iceberg.
Known as the "inner labia" or two small folds of skin tissue inside the labia majora. They protect the vagina and provide sensation and lubrication during sex. The inner labia are rarely symmetrical; one side can be longer than the other or can stick out of the labia majora. Color can vary as well. These variations are beautiful, normal and healthy!
Known as the "outer labia" or outer folds of skin surrounding the vagina orifice. These outer lips also protect the vagina, and also vary in color, size and texture.
The passage between the uterus and the external genitals. The only part of the vagina that's visible from the outside is the opening. Most of the vagina is actually on the inside and it leads all the way up to the cervix.
VESTIBULE + URETHRAL OPENING
The vestibule is the vagina opening.
The urethral opening is how we pee.