Do You Really Need to Use a 'Feminine Wash?'

A bottle of blue shower gel surrounded by small white flowers on a pale blue background.

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Key Takeaways

  • “Feminine” or “intimate” washes are marketed as natural, moisturizing, gentle, and safe for sensitive skin, but gynecologists do not recommend using these products.
  • Many washes contain chemicals and fragrances that can disrupt the natural bacteria in the vagina and cause irritation, infections, or even allergic reactions.
  • Experts say that the best way to clean and maintain the health of your vagina and vulva is to use clean water to gently cleanse the area when you’re bathing.

“Feminine” or “intimate” washes advertise that if you have a vulva and vagina, you need to keep these areas clean the same way you’d use a cleanser for your face and shampoo for your hair.

However, experts say that these products can actually do more harm than good—even if the labels claim they’re natural, gentle, moisturizing, and safe for sensitive skin.

Here’s what gynecologists want you to know about personal hygiene for your vulva and the risks of using feminine washes.

What Are Feminine Washes? 

Staci Tanouye, MD, FACOG, a board-certified gynecologist based in Florida, told Verywell that so-called “feminine washes” or “intimate washes” are cleaning solutions that are marketed for cleansing the “intimate area”—more specifically, the vulva, external genital areas (like the clitoris), and the vaginal opening.

The vagina is essentially self-cleaning. You don’t need to, and should not, put water or any products inside it (that’s why douching is not recommended).

While these products are also called vaginal washes, Tanouye said they should never be used internally to clean the vagina. Healthcare providers do not recommend washing the inside of the vagina because studies have shown it can increase the risk of bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections.

According to Tanouye, what makes feminine washes different from products like body soap is that they are specifically marketed for cleaning the vulva and advertised as having a pH level similar to the skin of the vulva.

Staci Tanouye, MD, FACOG

A vulva does not need to smell like a bouquet of roses.

— Staci Tanouye, MD, FACOG

While soap has a higher pH and may contain chemicals or fragrances that can be very drying or even irritating to the sensitive vulva skin, Tanouye said that does not mean that feminine washes are a safer and healthier alternative.

“Various vulvar washes may advertise other advantages over soap such as moisturizing or having more sensitive ingredients,” said Tanouye. “Vulvar washes are generally a marketing tool and are unnecessary, as there are plenty of sensitive skin washes on the market that are vulva-friendly and cheaper.”

Is It Safe to Use Feminine Washes?

Denise Willers, MD, an associate professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, told Verywell that even though most feminine washes are labeled and marketed as being safe for sensitive skin, pH balancing, natural, or moisturizing, these products can often do more harm than good.

Disrupting the Helpful Bacteria

Willers explained that there are millions of healthy bacteria called lactobacilli that help maintain and restore balance in the vagina, including after intercourse or your period. These bacteria also help maintain a healthy pH balance, and a light scent, as well as defend against and fight off problematic organisms.

According to Willers, anything that disrupts the lactobacilli balance in your vaginal area can increase your chances of getting yeast infections, bacterial infections, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) if you are exposed to them.

“This healthy environment can be disputed in several ways, including applying products into and near the vagina that have fragrances or have a high pH,” said Willers, pointing out that any soap that foams has a high pH.

Tanouye added that since many feminine washes are heavily fragranced and contain additives and other chemicals, they can strip away and disrupt natural bacteria from the area. This can lead to irritation, inflammation, and even allergic reactions.

“[These products] also send a terrible message that vulvas somehow need to smell like a fruit cocktail,” Tanouye said. “This is incorrect and can lead to internalized body shame. We need to be conscious of how we can normalize this. A vulva does not need to smell like a bouquet of roses.”

Irritation and Other Side Effects

Feminine washes can cause side effects like allergic reactions or infections.

“People should keep in mind that sensitivities can develop over time even when using the same product,” Tanouye said. “When patients come to me with vulvar skin issues, getting rid of soaps and washes on the vulva is the first thing I tell them to eliminate.”

For people who don’t have sensitive skin, Monte Swarup, MD, FACOG, a board-certified OB/GYN in Chandler, AZ, and the founder of Vaginal Health Hub, told Verywell that feminine washes might be fine to use, but that there are better and easier options.

“I do not recommend vaginal washes as soap and water will work just as well—or better—externally,” Swarup said. “Fragrance-free, gentle soap, a washcloth, and warm running water work well for cleaning the vulva and this is what I recommend for maintaining patient’s hygiene.”

What If You Already Use Feminine Wash?

While feminine washes can cause side effects, some experts say that as long as the products do not contain essential oils, chemicals, and fragrances and you use them according to the directions, they can be safe to use.

Look for a product that contains no chemicals, no perfumes/fragrances, no essential oils, and is unscented.

If you’ve already been using a product and it’s working for you, Tanouye said there is no urgent need to stop or change your routine—unless you develop any vulvar skin issues or irritation.

What Should You Use to Clean Your Vulva?

To clean your vulva, Tanouye said to use your hands to wash the outer portion of the labia minora with water and sweep out any white “smegma”—which is just a normal buildup of sloughing skin cells and oils.

You can also gently lift or shift the clitoral hood to wash in the folds with your fingers and water—just remember not to clean internally or inside the vagina. 

In terms of how often you need to cleanse the area, daily washing with water is fine. However, since your skin has natural oils and normal bacteria on it that are protective, Tanouye cautioned that “over-washing can break down the protective skin barrier and leave it vulnerable to irritation and infection.”

Monte Swarup, MD, FACOG

Fragrance-free, gentle soap, a washcloth, and warm running water work well for cleaning the vulva and this is what I recommend for maintaining a patient’s hygiene.

— Monte Swarup, MD, FACOG

If you really want to use something other than water, your hands, or a washcloth, Tanouye recommends trying CeraVe, Cetaphil, Vanicream, or even baby Dove products for sensitive skin.

Adi Katz, MD, the director of gynecology at Lenox Hill Hospital, told Verywell that other things you can do to maintain the health of your vagina and vulva include wearing cotton underwear and avoiding tight clothing.

The takeaway? “Less is more when it comes to your vaginal/vulvar area,” Katz said. “There is no need for expensive products.”

What This Means For You

While many so-called “feminine washes” claim to clean and maintain the health of your vagina and vulva, gynecologists do not recommend using these products. Instead, experts say that using water and your hands is the safest way to clean the area.

If you’ve been using the products and start noticing side effects like irritation or odor, reach out to your healthcare provider to get treated and talk about alternatives for your personal care routine.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ohio State University. The care and keeping of your vagina.

  2. Sabo MC, Balkus JE, Richardson BA, et al. Association between vaginal washing and vaginal bacterial concentrationsPLoS One. 2019;14(1):e0210825. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0210825

  3. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health. Douching.

By Alyssa Hui
Alyssa Hui is a St. Louis-based health and science news writer. She was the 2020 recipient of the Midwest Broadcast Journalists Association Jack Shelley Award.