Women's Health

4 min read

Meet Your Vaginal Microbiome

How The Bacteria In Your Vagina Fight Infections Like Thrush And BV

You’ve probably heard all about the bacteria in your gut and how it’s linked to overall health, but chances are you’re less acquainted with the bacteria living in your vagina, AKA your vaginal microbiome. 

So, why is your vaginal microbiome important? Your vaginal flora—sometimes referred to as vaginal microbiota—is crucial for overall health. It affects everything from your ability to fight off infections to your likelihood of getting pregnant, miscarrying, and even of developing certain cancers. So yeah, it’s a pretty big deal. 

What Does A Healthy Vaginal Microbiome Look Like? 

There are several different types of bacteria that make up your vaginal microbiome, but lactobacilli are the most important (Lactobacillus crispatus and Lactobacillus iners being the most common). You know how the vagina is self-cleaning? Well, that’s all thanks to lactobacilli. 

Lactobacilli are basically the MVPs of the vaginal microbiome. They produce lactic acid and hydrogen peroxide that lowers the vagina’s pH level to about 3.5, making it very acidic and preventing the growth of harmful pathogens like E. coli, Staph and candida. They’re the good bacteria responsible for fighting infections like thrush and BV, two of the most common ailments women experience. 

Higher levels of lactobacilli have been linked to a lower risk of STIs and pelvic inflammatory disease, while newly published research by The Eve Appeal and a team at UCL has even found that women with less lactobacilli in their vaginal microbiome may be at greater risk of developing ovarian cancer.

Every woman’s vaginal microbiome is completely unique and there's no one-size-fits-all, however research shows that having less than 90% lactobacilli puts you at risk of vaginal dysbiosis

Sex, Douching, And Other Microbiome Disruptors

Maintaining a healthy vaginal microbiome is essential for infection-fighting lactobacilli to thrive, so keeping your vagina happy is imperative. The general rule of thumb is that whatever you insert in your vagina* has the potential of disrupting your vaginal microbiome. Here are some of the biggest vaginal microbiome disruptors: 

Personal Hygiene Products

Vaginal washes, deodorants and douches tend to make the vaginal environment more alkaline, allowing bad bacteria to take over. Excessive washing also flushes away healthy bacteria, making it easier for harmful pathogens to colonise. One study found that women who used vaginal douching were more likely to report having BV.

“It's important to understand that a “clean” vagina just means well-populated with good bacteria,” says Dr. Harry Baxter, Daye’s resident female health expert. “Wiping out all the bacteria will makes things worse. Also, your vagina is self-cleaning by producing cervical fluid full of immune cells. Most gynaecologists don't advocate internal cleaning products.”

Your vagina also likes staying at body temperature (37ºC), and anything warmer creates the perfect breeding environment for bad bacteria and yeasts to take over. So, despite what you might have read on the internet, we (and our medical advisory board…) recommend you avoid vaginal steaming. 

Antibiotics

Although antibiotics are often prescribed as the first recourse to treat vaginal infections, they will change the make-up of your vaginal microbiome, eliminating lactobacilli and giving bad bacteria the opportunity to prosper. Overuse of antibiotics makes refractory infections more difficult to treat, and can also lead to antibiotic resistance. 

Intercourse

Having unprotected penetrative sex with a male partner not only puts you at risk of contracting STIs or unwanted pregnancies, but it can also impact your vaginal microbiome. Sex without a condom affects your vaginal flora because semen is slightly alkaline, which makes your vaginal environment less acidic. This can allow bad bacteria to thrive, at the expense of the healthy ones. Always use protection, people! 

Tampons

“Tampons can provide a breeding ground for bad bacteria, as they can be hidden away from your body's immune system and the resident good bacteria,” explains Dr. Baxter. “This is why you shouldn’t wear the same tampon for more than 8 hours, and why it's important that tampons are not made from materials that might promote growth or harbour bacteria.”

Daye conducted microbial analysis on several organic and mainstream tampon brands and found them contaminated with E. Coli, Staph and candida. That’s why we produce and sanitise our tampons in pharmaceutical-grade cleanrooms, testing them for chemical and pathogenic residue. 

What’s The Deal With Vaginal Probiotics? 

While the practice of consuming good bacteria for your gut is well established in the wellness world, very few of us are well-versed on how to look after our vaginal flora. No surprise here, given society’s cultural aversion to vaginas.

Although probiotics aren't currently part of UK guidelines for the management of gynaecological disorders like thrush and BV, research in this area is promising. If you're worried about having low levels of healthy bacteria in your vaginal microbiome, probiotic supplementation could replenish the lactobacilli in your vagina—especially when administered vaginally rather than orally

“Probiotics are an excellent method for giving your good bacteria a helping hand—by introducing some other good bacteria to stand in while they get back on their feet,” says Dr. Baxter. “However, there's unfortunately a lot of probiotics on the market that haven't been appropriately tested. Very few probiotics can cause harm, but some are more efficacious than others.” So the worst case scenario is that you waste your hard earned cash. 

TL;DR

  • The vaginal microbiome is the ecosystem of bacteria, yeasts and other microorganisms that live inside your vagina. 
  • Lactobacilli are the healthy bacteria that keep your vagina healthy. They produce lactic acid that inhibits the growth of pathogens. 
  • Lactobacilli also maintain an acidic vaginal pH, necessary to stave off infection. 
  • Your vagina is a self-cleaning organ and doesn’t need internal cleaning. Douching or using intimate hygiene products can strip your vaginal microbiome of lactobacilli. The best way to wash your vulva is to simply use warm water. 
  • Semen is alkaline and can weaken your vaginal microbiome, so always use a condom during intercourse! 

*Daye tested the impact of our CBD-infused tampons on the vaginal microbiome and found that the compound doesn’t negatively affect the vaginal microbiome. 

Illustrations by Erin Rommel. Erin is the founder of @second.marriage, a Brooklyn-based brand, illustration, and design studio.

Written by Liv Cassano. Liv is the Editor of Vitals, follow her at @liv_css.

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