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Do athletes need an intimate cleanser?

Here’s what gynecologists have to say.

The feminine hygiene industry is a slow-moving one. For decades, the options on shelves were limited to medicinal douches and chemical-heavy washes in “Island Splash”-like scents. Both, we know today, do much more harm than good. The vagina is self-cleaning; absent disease and infection, chances are that if you’re bathing regularly with gentle soap and water, you are doing just fine.

But in the last few years, the whole-body wellness movement has paved the way for strides to be made in women’s personal care products. Now, marketing isn’t targeted around our insecurities, but toward self-care and sexual empowerment. The latest launches in the category skew more natural skincare than “health” (read: pseudoscience) and focus on keeping the vulva free of irritation. Still, is it really necessary to treat the area any differently than you do, say, your legs and arms?

The short answer: No. If you never touch an essential oil-scented, pH-balanced cleanser in a millennial-pink tube to your bikini region, you’ll be just fine. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider it. “These pH-balanced cleansers are giving women more choices over regular soaps,” says New York City-based dermatologist Ellen Marmur, M.D. “We see increased rashes and itching, which can lead to yeast and bacterial infections, just from the wrong cleanser.” According to Marmur, the vulva has a pH range between 4 and 4.5 and is more acidic, which prevents the growth of bacteria. Traditional body washes and bar soaps can range between a pH of 6 to 10 and are more alkaline, so it’s possible they can disrupt the vulva’s pH balance. They can also use harsh sulfates, are heavily fragranced, and use glycerin, which can potentially upset a woman’s natural chemistry.

Marmur believes that any woman can benefit from these types of cleansers (so long as the one you’re choosing is free of glycerin, parabens, sulfates, and phthalates), but says that they’re especially helpful for those who work out often and need to keep the groin area clean from sweat, bacteria, and excess moisture. Of course, she reminds, changing out of your workout clothes and showering right away is best, but if you’re on the run, a pH-balanced wipe will do the job in a pinch.

However, Suzanne Gilberg-Lenz, M.D., an OB-GYN based in Beverly Hills, California, isn’t so quick to support intimate cleansers. She says the science around them is “scanty” and they could actually cause further irritation to women who are having the kinds of symptoms, like change in discharge, odor, itching, or burning, that lead them to shop for these products in the first place. “You may be stripping natural protective oils and bacteria from the vulva and promoting overgrowth of the bad guys,” she says. But she does see one exception: “These products may actually benefit those of us who wax or shave all of our hair, since keeping the vulva moisturized and protecting from ingrowns and folliculitis is a must.”

If adding a natural, pH-balanced cleanser to your routine feels like yet another form of self-care, there are more options than ever to choose from. But if you’re concerned about your vaginal health, it’s always best to consult your gynecologist first as these products are not intended to treat infection. (And whatever you do, avoid douching at all costs.)

Below, four gentle cleansers to try.

love wellness ph balancing cleanser

This non-irritating cleanser is formulated with all-natural ingredients, including anti-inflammatory aloe vera, exfoliating lactic acid, and antioxidant-rich calendula. Vanilla extract is behind the sweet (but not artificial) scent.
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the perfect v vv cream gentle wash

Ideal for those prone to ingrowns and bumps, this hydrating, pH-balanced cream cleanser sloughs off dead skin cells with gentle acids, tones with caffeine, and soothes redness with plant extracts.
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lola cleansing wipes

Throw these refreshing wipes in your gym bag for use post-workout. They’re made of biodegradable bamboo and free of alcohol, parabens, sulfates, dyes, and fragrance.
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löwengrip intimate care cleansing oil

Since it doesn’t contain water—only mineral oil, an emulsifier, and meadowfoam seed oil—this ultra-softening cleansing oil doesn’t have a measurable pH level, but it won’t strip skin or disrupt the delicate microbiome of your vulva.
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