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Dr. Sharon Sung, St. Luke's Hospital

Take care everywhere: don't forget vulvar health

Nowadays, it is difficult for a woman to escape all the skin care advertisements. Whether it's your face, chest, back, elbows or feet, it seems there are products for every inch of your body.

But what about the most sensitive skin of all, the vulva? The vulva is a woman's external genital area. Not taking care "down there" can lead to infections, pain with intercourse and even problems with pregnancy. It's too important of an area to be so often overlooked.

The first rule of vulvar skin care: less is more. Soaps, lotions, douching - all of these usually do more harm than good. The vagina maintains a very delicate balance to protect itself from infections like yeast, and putting soap or douches on the vulva and inside the vagina can destroy those natural protections. Many products that are safe for the rest of the body can, when on the vulva, lead to irritation, inflammation, dryness and pain. Women are pressured to "stay clean" and "fight odor," but the best thing for vulvar and vaginal health is plain warm water, pure and simple.

What else can women do to care for themselves? First, let the skin breathe. Plain cotton underwear is best. Using thigh-high stockings rather than pantyhose and avoiding tight clothing when possible also help.

Second, minimize irritants. Avoid perfumed soaps or lotions, deodorized or scented pads and tampons, detergents with dyes or perfumes, fabric softeners on delicates, bubble baths, bath salts and scented oils. Use white, unscented toilet paper. Whether drying after a shower or bath or after urinating, pat the vulvar and vaginal areas dry rather than wiping or scrubbing.

Lastly, stay natural. The best products for moisturizing or lubricating the vulvar and vaginal areas are actually plain olive oil or solid shortening.

Proper care for the vulva and vagina is the first step to good overall pelvic health. Don't be afraid to talk with your gynecologist about these important issues.

Dr. Sharon Sung is an OB/GYN at St. Luke's Hospital. Call 314-878-7333.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on June 27, 2013.