Series, resources, tools

DefinitionsFor ParentsSeed 101SeedLabs

Coming Soon

Skin Microbiome

Oral Microbiome


7 (Low-Key Sexist) Myths About the Vagina

Your vulva should not smell like flowers, discharge is not “gross,” and vaginal steaming is not a detox. These myths about vaginal care are pervasive and dangerous—it’s time to dispel them once and for all.

8 minutes

17 Citations

From vaginal washes and wipes to sprays and steams, there’s no shortage of products claiming to “cleanse” the female anatomy. And no matter how well-intentioned, many of them perpetuate a pervasive, deep-seated lie about the vagina: that it’s a dirty, shameful organ except in the context of reproduction.

“For much of recorded time, a woman has been judged by her ability to have children. By conflating cleanliness with good reproductive health, feminine hygiene also taps into this aspect of patriarchy,” Jen Gunter, M.D., OB/GYN and author of The Vagina Bible, writes on her Substack.

This cleanliness myth doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny—and in reality, a lot of popular advice about vaginal health is entirely off-base. To cut through this confusion and put misinformation to bed, we’ve rounded up the most common myths about the vagina. 

“Vaginas Are Dirty and Need to Be Cleaned”

Possibly the most common myth about vaginal care is that you need to clean your vagina in the first place. 

Your vagina—the self-sufficient powerhouse that it is—has its own internal cleaning mechanism to shed unwanted bacteria and cells (a built-in janitorial service, if you will). “The vaginal epithelium, composed of various cell layers like basal and superficial squamous cells, continuously regenerates,” explains Ava Mainieri, Ph.D., a geneticist and evolutionary biologist specializing in female reproductive health. Old cells, along with bacteria debris from the vaginal microbiome (VMB), are escorted out of the vagina via discharge. This is an automatic process that doesn’t require any help from vaginal cleansers, let alone douches.  

“Douching disrupts the healthy vaginal bacteria and protective mucus layer, increasing susceptibility to bacterial vaginosis (BV) and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) upon exposure,” says Dr. Mainieri.1 

Your vulva (the outer genitalia and vaginal opening) does benefit from regular washing, but warm water does the trick just fine.2 If you do want to use a soap or cleanser on the vulva, make sure it’s gentle and fragrance-free to prevent irritation. 

In truth

You should never, ever put a cleanser or water wash into your vagina unless instructed by a doctor. It’s a self-cleaning organ.

“Discharge Isn’t Normal”

Vaginal discharge, or leukorrhea, isn’t just normal—it’s an unsung hero of vaginal health. 

“[Discharge] moves out bacteria, fungi, and dead cells, and maintains a slightly acidic environment, creating unfavorable conditions for disease-causing bacteria,” Dr. Mainieri explains. “Additionally, discharge lubricates the vaginal mucosa, preventing dryness and potential tears that could lead to infections and discomfort during sex.” 

Its volume and texture can vary based on hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle, but discharge generally ranges from clear to pale yellow to milky white and has the consistency of raw egg whites or lotion.3,4 Its smell can vary quite a bit, but scents that are metallic, earthy, tangy, and sour are all par for the course.

Dr. Mainieri recommends paying attention to what a typical day of discharge looks like for you to get a sense of your baseline. Any drastic changes in discharge smell, color, and consistency could signify infections or imbalances and should be flagged to a healthcare provider.

In truth

Vaginal discharge is a wonder of the female body, serving as an indicator of reproductive health, fertility, microbial balance, and overall well-being.

“Vaginas Shouldn’t Smell”

Many of us grow up feeling self-conscious of how we smell “down there,” but the truth is that your vagina is an organ… It’s bound to smell like one!

“A healthy vagina can smell like many different things. It might be earthy, a bit musty, tangy, sweet, or even metallic, especially during your period. Sometimes, it may even have an ammonia-like scent if there’s a mix of a little urine,” says Dr. Mainieri. Your period, sex, or a sweaty workout can also temporarily make your vagina smell a bit more pungent, but this isn’t cause for concern. 

Again, it’s a good rule of thumb to get acquainted with how your vagina usually smells and understand your “normal” (which is different for everyone). That makes it a lot easier to spot when there’s something funky going on. 

The research on vaginal odor is woefully lacking (there’s been a grand total of one study published on it this year—up from zero last year), but certain infections like BV and trichomoniasis are known to cause a strong fishy or “rotten” smell, so stay on the lookout for those.5,6

In truth

Just like discharge, vaginal odor isn’t shameful. In fact, it can tell you a lot about your health, since shifts in vaginal microbiota can cause sudden changes in smell.

“You Don’t Need to Use Lube Unless You’re in Menopause”

Mainstream sex culture suggests that vaginas should have an endless flow of natural lubrication, but arousal isn’t always so straightforward. Yes, getting “wet” is often a natural response to sexual attraction, but not always. Sometimes, you’re super turned on but your vagina just doesn’t get the memo. Luckily, that’s what lube is for. 

Don’t believe anything you’ve heard about how needing lube during sex means you’re damaged or menopausal—that’s simply not true. Regardless of your age or hormonal status, lubrication can help make penetration feel better.7 

However, Dr. Mainieri caveats that not all lubes are created equal. Research shows that some ingredients commonly used in lube can impact your microbiome and potentially inhibit the growth of beneficial bacteria.8 She recommends looking for options that are VMB-friendly, which typically means lower osmolality (a fancy way of saying that it draws less moisture out of tissues and cells). The WHO recommends ones that have a pH of 4.5 and an osmolality that falls below 1200 mOsm/kg.9 

“Lubricants with osmolality higher than that of body cells can dehydrate vaginal tissue, causing shrinkage, thinning, and potential tissue loss. Instead of moisturizing, these hyper-osmotic lubricants can dry out the vagina, increasing the risk of abrasions, cell damage, and infections like BV,” she explains.10

In truth

Lube can make sex more satisfying, no matter your age or hormonal status. Just be sure to look for a microbiome-friendly one.

“You Can Treat Yeast Infections With Yogurt or Garlic”

Regardless of what you may have read online (or been told by your friend) there’s little evidence that alternative, homeopathic solutions can effectively treat vaginal discomfort. 

As convenient as it would be to have the solution sitting in your kitchen pantry, the reality is that there’s little good quality clinical research to show that placing yogurt, kefir, garlic, tea tree oil, or anything of the sort into your vagina will clear up an infection.11

In truth

You’re much better off visiting a doctor if you think you have a yeast imbalance. Once you receive treatment, you can take steps to foster the protective bacteria in your vaginal microbiome—namely, Lactobacillus species—in order to fend off future infections, in a similar way you might take a probiotic for your gut following a round of antibiotics.

“Removing Pubic Hair Is More Hygienic”

Women are socialized to believe that their body hair is not only undesirable but also gross, and that removing it can enhance feelings of cleanliness and femininity.12,13 In fact, pubic hair, like everything else on your body, has evolved to be there for a reason: It keeps your vulva warm and moisturized, protects your skin from friction during sex, and traps germs.13 

Besides not making you “cleaner,” removing pubic hair is known to cause genital itching, pain, rash, or burning.13 Sometimes, these side effects are harmless and go away on their own. But in some cases, grooming can cause microtears on the skin that may increase one’s susceptibility to infection.13 Some studies have also found that regular grooming may lead to changes in the vaginal microbiome and a higher risk of recurrent UTIs.14,15

In truth

Whether or not you want to remove your pubic hair is entirely your choice—but if you’re doing it because you think it’s more hygienic, you may want to reconsider.

“Vaginal Steaming Helps ‘Detox’ and Clean the Vagina”

Last but not least, one of the most insidious myths about vaginal health is that vaginal steaming can detoxify or clean the vagina. 

“Vaginal steaming involves sitting over a pot of hot herbs with the idea that the steam is supposed to cleanse the uterus,” explains Dr. Mainieri. “However, this isn’t really possible since steam can’t get through the cervix to the uterus unless it’s under intense pressure or can move on its own, like sperm. If any steam does get into the vagina, it could end up causing irritation. Plus, there’s always the risk of steam burns! Most likely, the steam ends up mostly reaching the vulva.”16

The vaginal microbiome plays a crucial role in maintaining the proper pH levels and killing pathogens. Disturbing this equilibrium with practices like vaginal steaming or douching can alter pH and increase the chances of infection.17

In truth

Remember: your vagina is a self-cleaning organ. Vaginal steaming won’t do anything to help it, and will do more harm than good.

The Truth Is: Your Vagina Is Pretty Amazing

Most of us grew up with inadequate (or non-existent) sex ed, and if you pair that with the lack of research into vaginal health, plus the taboo surrounding female genitals, it’s no wonder there are so many myths out there about vaginal care. 

Here’s to calling B.S. on misinformation that makes anyone feel like they need to subject themselves to dangerous steaming, use dubious home remedies, or scrub until they smell like flowers. Once you understand what an incredible organ the vagina truly is, the easier it becomes to cut through the noise and take control of your reproductive health. 


  1. Cottrell, B. H. (2003). Vaginal douching. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, and Neonatal Nursing/JOGN Nursing, 32(1), 12–18.
  2. Graziottin, A. (2024). Maintaining vulvar, vaginal and perineal health: Clinical considerations. Women’s Health, 20.
  3. Eschenbach, D. A., Thwin, S. S., Patton, D. L., Hooton, T. M., Stapleton, A. E., Agnew, K., Winter, C., Meier, A., & Stamm, W. E. (2000). Influence of the normal menstrual cycle on vaginal tissue, discharge, and microflora. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 30(6), 901–907.
  4. Singh, K. (Ed.). (2016). Integrated approach to obstetrics and gynecology. World Scientific Publishing Company.
  5. Kairys, N., & Garg, M. (2023, July 4). Bacterial vaginosis. StatPearls – NCBI Bookshelf.
  6. STD Facts – Trichomoniasis. (n.d.).
  7. Herbenick, D., Reece, M., Hensel, D. J., Sanders, S. A., Jozkowski, K. N., & Fortenberry, J. D. (2011). Association of lubricant use with women’s sexual pleasure, sexual satisfaction, and genital symptoms: A prospective daily diary study. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 8(1), 202–212.
  8. Łaniewski, P., Owen, K. A., Khnanisho, M., Brotman, R. M., & Herbst-Kralovetz, M. M. (2021). Clinical and personal lubricants impact the growth of vaginal lactobacillus species and colonization of vaginal epithelial cells: An in vitro study. Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 48(1), 63–70.
  9. Women’s Voices for the Earth. (2020, January 10). Osmolality and pH properties of some commercial lubricants.
  10. Ayehunie, S., Wang, Y. Y., Landry, T., Bogojevic, S., & Cone, R. A. (2017). Hyperosmolal vaginal lubricants markedly reduce epithelial barrier properties in a three-dimensional vaginal epithelium model. Toxicology Reports, 5, 134–140.
  11. Van Kessel, K., Assefi, N., Marrazzo, J., & Eckert, L. (2003). Common complementary and alternative therapies for yeast vaginitis and bacterial vaginosis: A systematic review. Obstetrical & Gynecological Survey, 58(5), 351–358.
  12. Enzlin, P., Bollen, K., Prekatsounaki, S., Hidalgo, L., Aerts, L., & Deprest, J. (2019). “To shave or not to shave”: Pubic hair removal and its association with relational and sexual satisfaction in women and men. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 16(7), 954–962.
  13. Eltobgy, A., Aljabali, A., Farag, A., Elshorbgy, M., Hamed, M., Hamouda, E., Hamouda, H., Refaey, N., Kabeel, M., Amro, S., Abouheseba, T., & Tarek, M. (2024). Effects of pubic hair grooming on women’s sexual health: A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Women’s Health, 24(1).
  14. Geynisman-Tan, J., Kenton, K., Tavathia, M., Yee, A., Gilbert, J. A., Collins, S., Lewicky-Gaupp, C., & Mueller, M. (2020). Bare versus hair: Do pubic hair grooming preferences dictate the urogenital microbiome? Female Pelvic Medicine & Reconstructive Surgery, 27(9), 532–537.
  15. Galbarczyk, A., Marcinkowska, U. M., Klimek, M., & Jasienska, G. (2023). Extreme pubic hair removal as a potential risk factor for recurrent urinary tract infections in women. Scientific Reports, 13(1).
  16. Robert M. (2019). Second-degree burn sustained after vaginal steaming. Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada: JOGC, 41(6), 838–839.
  17. Lin, Y. P., Chen, W. C., Cheng, C. M., & Shen, C. J. (2021). Vaginal pH value for clinical diagnosis and treatment of common vaginitis. Diagnostics (Basel, Switzerland), 11(11), 1996.