I’m a beauty editor addicted to all things skin-care, which means that, generally speaking, I’m down to try anything in the name of improved skin (after all, it’s my job to be adventurous). But when vulva-centric skin-care products started arriving on my desk, I had to take a pause. Sure, I’ve used ingrown hair creams to help with the bumps around my bikini line before, but these products are a little different.
Recently I’ve been pitched a lip balm for your labia, a firming serum for your mons pubis (that’s the rounded area above the labia), and a bikini line luminizer. These beauty products are marketed as brightening, hydrating, and smoothing—the same code words you’d see on an anti-aging facial serum. Even though I've never once thought about treating the skin on my vulva any different from the rest of my body, the stream of vaginal-related skin-care products landing on my desk made me wonder: Do these products even work? And are they safe?
I talked to an ob/gyn and a dermatologist to get more information on what beauty products you should and should not use around your vulva.
First, let’s talk about cleansing.
The vulva (basically, all the exterior areas of the genitals, including the mons, the labia, and the clitoris) and vagina (the inner area) are very sensitive areas. While feminine washes and vaginal hygiene products have been around for years, professionals say there is no real reason to use them. “The vagina is a self-cleaning oven,” says ob/gyn Leah Millheiser, M.D., director of the female sexual medicine program at Stanford University. “You don’t need to put stuff in there to clean it. You shouldn’t be putting any kind of product in there—no vaginal douching, no steaming, no fragranced products. It’s not good for the vaginal microbiome, which are the healthy bacteria that live in the vagina and keep it healthy.”
Basic soap and water are good enough for cleansing external areas down below, and even that shouldn’t go past the labia. Plus, using anything too perfume-y can cover up odors that need to be addressed by an ob/gyn. “When there is a new odor, it’s the body telling you something is wrong and you need to get it checked out,” Millheiser says. So that means special washes, intimate deodorants, and bikini body mists aren’t necessary.
Even if a product is marketed just for your bikini line, remember that these products can easily spread to the vulva and into the vagina. That’s why Millheiser says it’s important to be wary of ingredients like fruit extracts and fragrance in anything you use in your genital area, because they can cause irritation to the sensitive skin of the vulva (like burning).
Anti-aging products aren’t really effective on the skin below the belt.
While the skin on your mons and labia does change with age, skin-care products that treat the skin down there like the skin on your face can’t do much to help. “Just as the skin on your face weakens as you get older, so does the skin in the genital area,” says dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. “The labia may become dry, dehydrated, and lose shape and structure. However, the environmental exposures that cause pigmentation and crepiness on the face usually are not major contributors to aging genital skin.”
As opposed to the sun or pollution, which can affect the appearance of your face, estrogen is the biggest factor in the way the skin in the genital area ages. “Collagen, hyaluronic acid—all of this exists in the skin on the vulva, but the quality of the skin is much more dependent on estrogen content,” says Millheiser. “When you have decreased estrogen exposure, then you’re going to have vulvar dryness.” According to Millheiser, a prescription vaginal estrogen cream is going to be much more effective at treating visible changes in the genital area than a serum packed with hyaluronic acid.
Which brings us to the one reason you might apply a moisturizer below the belt—vulvar dryness.
As the genital skin ages, vulvar dryness is one of the primary complaints. “Skin irritation and chafing is a major cause of dryness,” says Zeichner. “A decline in hormone levels as women approach menopause is another major issue in causing vaginal dryness.” If this is the case, stick to creams and ointments to moisturize the area. Millheiser recommends Vaseline or coconut oil applied over the outer lips. Anything with too many ingredients increases the chances of irritation or an allergic reaction. If these moisturizers still aren't helping with vaginal dryness and you think perimenopause or menopause is to blame, a vaginal estrogen cream might be a better solution to help with the itch and irritation.
So, what about ingrown hairs?
There are all types of DIY suggestions for taking care of ingrown hairs. But the truth is it’s better to leave them alone and use a warm compress on the affected area until the hair grows out on its own. “We often recommend sitting in warm water or applying warm compresses to the area to help soften the skin and see if it takes care of itself that way,” says Millheiser. “Don’t pick at these areas, because then you’re introducing bacteria.”
And use those exfoliating products that claim to help prevent ingrown hairs with caution. “Gentle exfoliation may help remove dead cells on the skin's surface, which can help reduce your risk of developing ingrown hairs to some degree,” says Zeichner. “I am cautious in recommending harsh products in the genital area because the skin is extremely sensitive and can become easily irritated.” And again, anything you put on the mons area can easily run down towards the labia and vagina.
One last note: All these products play on the insecurity that some women may have about the appearance of their genitals.
The reason why these unnecessary products keep popping up is clear: Marketers want to capitalize on insecurities to convince you there's something wrong down there. “We live in a world where there is this perfectionism, and it’s an unreasonable expectation," says Millheiser. “Products like these only magnify that problem." The truth is that vulvae come in many different shapes and sizes, and one is not more beautiful than another. And while aging genital skin can lead to certain skin conditions like irritation and itching, serums and products that claim to turn back time won't solve the problem. Instead, if you're experiencing an issue with your vulva skin, talk to your doctor to figure out the best solution for you.
This article was originally published on SELF