Vaginas and Vulvas 101

Ladies, here’s how to take care of yourself down there, from studying the vulva to forgoing the douche.

Ladies, here’s how to take care of yourself down there, from studying the vulva to forgoing the douche.

Say no to douche. Those prepackaged douches intended to clean the vagina contain water, along with vinegar, baking soda or iodine, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health. They're also completely unnecessary. "Vaginas are self-cleaning body parts, and douching can offset the natural balance of them," Herbenick says. She points out that if you're using douche in an attempt to alleviate an existing problem, doing so can possibly cause further irritation and make finding the original issue harder for a health care provider to identify. Instead of douche, simply rinse your vulva with a handful of water.

Groom your own way (but be careful). To each her own when it comes to grooming or not grooming pubic hair, Herbenick says. Though, of course, be careful with that razor blade so close to your genitals. And if you're prone to ingrown hairs, consider waxing, she adds, although Conry says waxing has its own risks: "If someone waxes and everything goes fine, then they're really happy," Conry says. "It's when they start getting the folliculitis [inflammation of hair follicles], and those poor little hair follicles are not really happy with them. Then they're in for a lot of pain."

Be a well woman. Under the Affordable Care Act, annual well-woman exams is a covered benefit. Depending on your risk factors, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends cervical and breast cancer screenings, evaluation and counseling, immunizations and a breast exam. If you show symptoms or risk factors for trouble below the belt, then the health care provider will provide a pelvic exam and internal examination, too. If not, it's up to you if they look under the paper dress. Read more about the well-woman exam here.

If you're over age 21, Pap tests are also recommended to screen for cervical cancer. Make sure to talk to your physician about when you should be tested and how frequently.

Forget about "normal" vulvas. "We have women coming in, asking, 'Are my labia too big? Are my labia too small?'" Conry says, referring to the two folds of skin at the entrance of the vagina. Perhaps the most common questions patients ask her are about the appearance of their vulvas – if they're normal. The fact is there is no "normal" vulva, and while you may only be familiar with your own genitals, Conry sees about 30 a day and can attest that they come in all shapes, sizes and colors.

Not convinced? Conry suggests looking up the art installation named "The Great Wall of Vagina." (If you choose to Google it, consider your surroundings before clicking on the official website's photos tab.) The installation includes plaster casts of 400 different vulvas and aims to show just how unique our genitals are.

"Just as we are very, very diverse in our facial features and in so many other features," Cornry says, "there are a lot of different vulvas out there."