Are Baths Bad for Women?
Harsh soaps and strong perfumes can mess up your natural defenses “down there”
Soaking in a hot bath filled with scented suds is a stress buster right out of a magazine ad or TV commercial. But take too many bubble baths and you could find yourself running to the drugstore for a yeast infection cream or battling an odor you didn’t expect.
Bubble baths, scented bath salts and strong soaps can be bad for women. Fragrances and harsh detergents can strip protective oils from a woman’s vulva, irritate delicate tissues and alter the natural pH balance of the skin around and within the vagina. This can increase your odds for uncomfortable dryness, vaginal infections and even bladder infections.
“Bubble bath and perfumes can be irritating to skin, so we don't recommend heavily fragranced bath products,” says San Francisco-area obstetrician and gynecologist Jen Gunter, MD, a spokesperson for the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “While the vulva, like all skin, ages, over-cleaning can make it ‘age’ faster. You’re washing away natural oils that act like humectants to keep moisture in. Removing them makes you feel dry.”
If you’re bathing in order to try and solve an odor problem, that strategy could backfire. “Over washing often paradoxically gives an odor due to the vulva increasing oil production and the change in bacteria,” says Gunter.
A tubful of bubbles can also worsen symptoms of vulvodynia and vulvar vestibulitis, two syndromes that cause stinging, burning and irritation throughout a woman’s pelvic region, according to experts at Drexel University’s Vaginitis Center in Philadelphia.
What’s a bath lover to do? Gunter says that you can still soak, provided you take a few smart steps to protect the delicate skin and natural defense systems that keep your vulva, vagina and bladder healthy.
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#1. Skip perfumed bath goodies. “Women don't need to avoid long soaks in a hot bath,” Gunter says. Just avoid heavily perfumed products, she adds. (You may want to avoid long soaks if you’re prone to eczema.)
Your vagina’s optimal pH is an acidic 3.5 to 4.5. This “acid mantle” keeps levels of “bad” bacteria in check. The scented ingredients in liquid and powdered bubble baths, bath salts, scented oils and bath balls can all raise the pH of your vulva and vagina, which can increase your risk for the bacterial infections that affect more than 20 million American women each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
#2. Use gentle soap — or none at all. Your vulva, which is the skin surrounding your vagina, as well as the nearby folds called the labia, are among the most sensitive tissues on your body. Natural oils and emollients normally create an invisible barrier that keeps skin moist and repels invading bacteria. Soap can wash it away, leaving skin dry, irritated and itchy.You may be especially vulnerable if you’re already experiencing vaginal and vulva dryness, which affects half of all women over age 50 due to menopausal hormone shifts. You may also mistake the irritation and itching for a vaginal infection.
“The vulva needs very little soap. Less is always more. I recommend against shower gels and perfumed soaps as they tend to have a lot of additives that can be irritating to many women. The mildest soaps are a Castille soap or a pure glycerin soap,” Gunter says.
Don’t rub soap directly on your vulva or scrub the area with a washcloth. You can even skip soap completely, cleaning your vulva with a gentle rub of your hand and a rinse.
#3. Dry thoroughly and gently. Drying after bathing is important to help discourage yeast, which grow in warm, humid environments. Use a soft towel to pat skin dry after your bath rather than rubbing. If the skin of your vulva is inflamed or feels extremely dry or itchy, you can also use a hair dryer on a cool setting.