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When it comes to taking care of your health, asking questions never hurts. But is it always worth a visit to your doctor? We’re asking experts to weigh in on your burning questions—from feminine to general health and everything in between—so you can get advice from a pro before you go. The doctor will see you now.

You’ve seen ads and product slogans for them: soaps, lotions, gels, sprays, wipes, and douches that claim to freshen things up down there, eliminating odors so that you feel—and smell—clean.

Douching, “the practice of rinsing out your vagina with water or a cleansing agent,” is used by nearly one in five women of reproductive age, reports the U.S. Department’s Office on Women’s Health. But the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists doesn’t recommend using douches, sprays, or deodorants at all. And some ecologists have found that these products contain “unregulated and potentially harmful chemicals, including preservatives, pesticides, fragrances, and dyes”—the last things you want in one of the most absorbent and delicate parts of your body.

But doesn’t keeping clean seem like a good thing? We asked our resident expert Dr. A. Nicky Hjort, M.D., OB-GYN, to help us negotiate the space between the hype around douching and our health.

Q. Why doesn’t the ACOG recommend douching?

“Douching is almost always more harmful than helpful,” Dr. Hjort says. Why? The vagina is normally inhabited by bacteria and yeast, and introducing one of these products can upset this balance for the worse. "It kills as many of the good bacteria as the bad bacteria.”

Dr. Hjort says feminine washing products are “more hype than value.” Douches and the like are “overused, over-marketed, and for the majority of women, honestly, not critical purchases.” She says the industry is “an avenue for companies to make money off a problem that maybe doesn’t really exist.” Dr. Hjort says these marketers play on a cultural fear of the vagina, even in its natural state. She warns, “Often such products can find you in a pattern where they [seem to] become necessary the more you use them.”

Q. What if there really is an odor?

A true odor is a likely sign of an infection, which needs to be treated under the guidance of your medical provider. “In the case of an abnormal bacterial imbalance, the appropriate treatment is an antibiotic regimen,” Dr. Hjort says. The treatment could be a topical gel, but the purpose is to reharmonize the flora of the vagina rather than cleanse it.

A sexually transmitted infection could produce an odor or discharge as well, but feminine washing won't solve that problem. The best course of action is visiting your doctor for a workup, diagnosis, and treatment plan.

Q. So, how do I cleanse things down there?

Dr. Hjort says, “All that’s really necessary is water.” Powerful antibacterial soaps are unnecessary. “With proper cleaning and hygiene, most of us don’t need those products.” If you do use soap, it should be minimal and mild (she recommends Dove, Ivory, or Caress). She also recommends bathing in lukewarm water, rather than showering, so that the area has a chance to soak, which can help maintain a healthy balance. Dr. Hjort also recommends taking gastrointestinal probiotics or yogurt with live cultures several times a week for vaginal health and infection prevention.

Q. My doctor says I have an infection. What do I do?

For a yeast infection, Dr. Hjort recommends Monistat 7, which involves using cream as a treatment, not a cleanser. If the infection is bacterial, thus causing an odor, she recommends using RepHresh, a system that rebalances the pH levels. Dr. Hjort explains, “The vagina is meant to be an acidic environment,” and when it stays that way, “it takes care of itself.”

If you notice a “constant odor and/or discharge without using any kind of feminine washing,” Dr. Hjort says you should see your gynecologist to ensure you don’t need an antibiotic to rebalance your body. Simple care and good hygiene should eliminate any need for a feminine washing product. In Dr. Hjort’s words, “Less is more.”

Photo Credit: Zitona