Women’s well-being, feminine hygiene

Community News & Features Jul 1, 2005 at 3:52 pm

MANILA–A key aspect of female well- being is feminine hygiene. There are misconceptions, however, about proper feminine hygiene, which to a gynecologist is synonymous with appropriate care of the vulva.

Collectively, the vulva consists of the female external genitalia, namely, the urethra, clitoris, labia minora, labia majora and the vagina. The latter is an opening and cavity that leads to the cervix and other female reproductive organs.

The vagina has a delicate and dynamic ecosystem; while part of the external genitalia, it has a unique environment — different from other areas of the vulva.

The health of the vagina depends on its pH balance. The term “pH” refers to a numerical measure of acidity or alkalinity, ranging on a scale of values from 1 to 14, with 7 being neutral.

A higher pH value denotes higher alkalinity while a lower pH value means increasing acidity. The pH of the vagina changes over a woman’s lifetime, from childhood through menopause, and is dependent on hormonal changes.

Due to the hormone estrogen, the normal pH of the vagina during adolescence and adult, childbearing years ranges from 3.8 to 4.2 in value.

This acidic environment results from the growth of lactobacilli, the normally occurring “good” bacteria that keeps “bad” bacteria at bay. In essence, there is balance between good and bad bacteria in a normal vagina.

At the same time, lactobacilli in the vagina produce lactic acid, which provides a natural barrier against infection and irritation.

The normal vaginal pH balance can be disturbed, at worst resulting in irritations and infections, by factors including hormonal changes, use of certain antibiotics, intrauterine and other contraceptive devices, menstruation, overused sanitary napkins or tampons, synthetic panty liners, a diet high in sucrose and lactose, presence of male semen, douching, and the use of feminine washes with inappropriate pH values.

Feminine washing is an important concern. All females experience at least one episode of itching, irritation or discharge in their lifetimes, a common reason for many women to visit their gynecologists. Vaginal irritations and infections can have many causes, foremost of which are bacteria, protozoa, fungi, hormonal changes and true allergic reactions.

Bubble baths, soaps, body washes, douches, laundry detergents or fabric softener residues with pH values outside the vagina’s normal range can also cause irritations and infections.

Due to the structure of the female external genitalia, feminine wash finds its way into the vaginal cavity, no matter how carefully and gently it is used while lathering and rinsing.

Feminine washes with pH levels not consistent with those in the normal vagina can disrupt its delicate pH balance, and lead to irritations, infections and discharges. The normal vaginal pH range of 3.8 to 4.2 is different from that of the skin, which is 5.0 to 5.5.

Thus, there are two elements of proper feminine hygiene worth keeping in mind: the pH level of a feminine wash determines its usefulness in maintaining a healthy vaginal pH balance; the presence of lactic acid in appropriate levels in a feminine wash helps defend against harmful bacteria. — Annebelle D. Aherrera, obstetrics-gynecology consultant, Makati Medical Center and The Medical City