PERSPECTIVE: Many women don't believe they look normal 'down there'.Picture: Pexels

We all know that vaginal health is important and your vagina or vulva can be indicators of your overall health and well-being, not just sexually. But can women put their vaginas at risk of infections in the name of "loving and cleansing" the vaginal environment?

Experts believe that this is the case, with many women cleansing their vaginas through douching, steaming and "scrubbing" in soapy water in an effort to keep odours away.

They warn that if there are no concerning issues such as itching, smelly discharge and vaginal dryness, the vaginal environment should be left as is and and "smell like a vagina", with no floral scents or foreign cleansers that could disturb its natural pH balance.

With August being observed as Women's Month, women's health awareness is receiving attention.

Midwife and health educator Sister Burgie Ireland says many women believe in douching, which was technically the washing of the vagina with a chemical mixture from a plastic bag and nozzle.

She warns, however, that by doing this you can interfere with the normal bacteria of the vagina that keeps it slightly acidic and healthy.

She says the best way to clean your vagina is to simply wash the outer lips, also known as labia, with water or a mild soap.

Ireland explains that the vagina is naturally wet, acidic and is "self-cleaning".

It has a variety of bacteria, yeasts and other micro-organisms, which occur naturally.

“Lactobacilli is a good bacterium that keeps other bacteria in check and normally keeps the vagina slightly acidic.

"But sometimes, external factors can cause an imbalance of the natural bacteria in your vagina that can lead to problems, such as yeast or bacterial infections. Some girls are more prone to these vaginal problems than others."

Vaginal problems can be caused by hormones, other health issues, pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

Typical signs of vaginal infections to look out for include itching, irritation or soreness around the vaginal opening, experiencing a burning sensation when you urinate, and discharge with a bad smell.

Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, who is popularly known as Dr T, a consultant at Nalane Associates for Reproductive Justice, says it is important for every woman to know their vagina and know what it does and doesn't do. Take a mirror and examine it.

By knowing it well, you be able to know what things are prone to make you sick, says Mofokeng.

“Also, women should understand that the vagina has a natural odour. Just like our sweat smells differently, from person to person, it's the same with the vagina.

"Vaginas smell differently, and a different smell may not mean a bad smell or a problem.”

However, Mofokeng says that when there is a smell out of the ordinary, it's important to consult a medical professional to get to know what is happening.

Some gynaecologists are warning women to get a real understanding of what is normal as far as their vulva and vagina is concerned before considering surgical or cosmetics options, which have become fashionable.

“There has been an increase in the number of referrals and requests for treatments of this nature and the main reason is that women don't believe they look normal ‘down there’,” says Dr Katrien Dehaeck, a gynaecologist at Vincent Pallotti Hospital in Cape Town, who specialises in vulvovaginal health.

“It is very important that women put the look of their genitals into perspective and understand that it's not a 'one look fits all' scenario. I would suggest that surgery is only considered if it interferes with your quality of life. If the condition causes pain or is consistently uncomfortable.”