The importance of having a normal vaginal pH isn't exactly happy hour talk — but it's something every woman needs to keep in mind if she wants a healthy and happy "downstairs" region. Many women can have their pH thrown off without even realizing it, which could possibly lead to vaginal infections, according to Lauren Streicher, MD, an associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University.
Here's the deal: Vaginal pH refers to how acidic or basic your vagina is. The lower the pH, the more acidic. (You may remember from science class that the pH of pure water is 7 — the neutral number.) As Dr. Streicher tells FirstForWomen.com, a normal vaginal pH is relatively low, between 3.5 to 4.5, which allows the healthy bacteria in your body to thrive. But if something elevates the pH, it could potentially put you at risk for "bad" bacteria overgrowth and infections such as bacterial vaginosis — and we know you don't want that.
According to Streicher, there are a few key pH triggers that can throw off your balance that you should keep in mind. Luckily, there are easy ways to address all of them.
1. Sexual Intercourse
Sex can mess with your pH because semen has a higher pH — often between 7 and 8 — than the pH in the vagina. Streicher says this is why some women notice a funky odor down there after they have sex. "It's not because he has smelly sperm," Streicher explains. "It's because the pH in the vagina was elevated and it allowed the bad bacteria to move in."
Now, this does not — we repeat, not — mean that you have to stop having sex to keep a normal vaginal pH. But if you notice something like this happening to you after sex, you may want to consider trying RepHresh Vaginal Gel (Amazon, $13.58). Streicher says this product can help "buffer" the vaginal pH, allowing the vagina to be repopulated with the good bacteria again.
2. Your Period
Like semen, blood has a relatively higher pH — 7.4 — which doesn't always jive with the pH in the vagina. Just as some women notice a bad odor down there after sex, other women notice an unpleasant scent right after they finish their period, and perhaps even some vaginal irritiation or unusual discharge. Unfortunately, some ladies out there observe this nearly every time their cycle comes to an end.
While you obviously can't stop having your period (until it's time for "the change" of menopause), you can try the rePhresh gel as a possible aid for this situation as well.
3. Vaginal and Vulvar Products
Douching — or "washing" and "cleaning out" the vagina with water or other mixtures of fluids — is very popular among women in the United States. Almost one out of five women aged 15 to 44 practice douching in our country. If you're one of them, Streicher recommends that you stop immediately. "There's absolutely no medical reason to douche," says Streicher. "In fact, it's harmful."
Not only does douching not help you in any way, it actually increases the risk of infection, inflammation, and even pelvic inflammatory disease. It even makes the vagina more vulnerable to very serious health issues like gonorrhea or chlamydia.
External vulvar products, such as vulvar washes, also have no benefits and can be very irritating to the sensitive tissue.
4. Low Estrogen Levels
When estrogen levels are low, that's when vaginal pH tends to be elevated. The two times in a woman's life when that happens is the postpartum period, when she is nursing after giving birth, and menopause, when her ovaries stop producing estrogen. Since you have a higher chance of having an alteration in pH during those times, you can sometimes also have a higher tendency for the vagina to be populated by bad bacteria.
But unlike vaginal pH being thrown off by sex or a period, these situations aren't times when Streicher would recommend the use of RePhresh. Instead, there's another product called Replens Vaginal Moisturizer ($16.99, Amazon), which works to normalize the pH and also restore moisture to the area. Some doctors may recommend additional treatments for low estrogen if needed.
If you try RePhresh or Replens and they don't work, definitely pay a visit to your gynecologist to make sure something more serious isn't going on. It's better to be safe than sorry — especially when it comes to your "downstairs" health!