Any woman who has ever watched a celebrity flip her shiny hair in a TV commercial knows how vitally important it is to use a pH-balanced shampoo. No one knows why, (I certainly don’t) and I would refer you to your hairdresser for more information. When it comes to the importance of vaginal pH, however, I’m an expert.
PH refers to the vagina’s acidity level. A vaginal pH of 3.5 - 4.5 indicates that there is a perfect amount of good bacteria (lactobacilli), and no overgrowth of the bad bacteria that can cause odor, irritation and sometimes infection.
At its extreme, the result of too much bad bacteria is bacterial vaginosis (BV). BV, not yeast, is the most common cause of abnormal vaginal discharge, accounting for 40 to 50% of cases. But it’s not just about an irritating discharge. Women with BV are at risk for many more serious medical conditions including preterm delivery, post-hysterectomy infection, and an increased tendency to acquire STD’s such as gonorrhea and chlamydia. They also have an increased risk of pelvic inflammatory disease and subsequent infertility.
In addition to being uncomfortable and dangerous, BV can be really expensive. Ask any woman who has gone to the drugstore and invested $50 in anti-yeast medication only to find that the irritation, odor and discharge are still there. By the time she sees her doctor, gets a test for BV, and pays for her prescription, one episode of BV can cost hundreds of dollars. As if that weren’t enough, it comes back 30% of the time.
So, what makes pH rise higher than 4.5? There are a surprising number of triggers that can upset the vaginal ecosystem:
- Menstruation: Blood has a pH of 7.4, so during your period, vaginal pH becomes elevated.
- Tampons: Since they retain the fluids that cause pH to increase, tampons can contribute to the problem, especially if you “forget” a tampon and leave it in too long.
- Intercourse: The pH of semen is 7.1 to 8.
- Douching and cleansers: Any vaginal infusion of water or other fluids can affect vaginal pH. The pH of water is 7, and fragrances and perfumes can also irritate the vagina.
- Menopause or pregnancy: These are times where hormones fluctuate, which is associated with elevated pH.
Many women who suffer from recurrent BV infections find that their period or intercourse is the event that sets them in motion time after time. Some women ask how something as natural and normal as menstruation or intercourse can cause a problem since women are intended to have periods and sex? The answer is, while most women’s bodies can tolerate this period of pH elevation, in some women, even a slight imbalance can tip the scales, causing a funny odor or a much more serious problem.
How can you keep things in balance? I am not going to suggest that you stop having sex or using tampons! I consider tampons to be one of the top 10 inventions of the 20th century, right up there with sliced bread. Luckily, for those that agree, there are products that can restore and/or maintain normal pH:
- RePhresh™ is an over-the-counter vaginal gel that will restore normal pH. In Europe, it is actually approved to treat BV.
- Pro-B™ is a daily oral probiotic lactobacillus that has been clinically shown to help maintain the normal amount of vaginal lactobacilli.
Next time you are shopping for a new shampoo, don’t forget that your hair is not the only thing that needs to be pH-balanced, especially if you visit your gynecologist more often than your hairdresser.