What is pH balance?
Remember the pH balance test in high school chemistry? You know, the one where you dipped litmus papers into various solvents to see what color they changed, matched them to a color on the pH scale and determined each solution's pH value in a range of 1 to 14. Bet you didn’t know pH had anything to do with your vagina!
How pH balance works:
The body has many different pH levels, depending what organs and systems you're talking about.
For example, the gastric acid in your stomach has a low pH (acidic) between 1 and 2, which aids digestion of food, whereas the pH of blood is slightly basic at around 7.4. Your body's organs and systems are constantly maintaining an acid-alkaline balance. The vagina is perhaps one of the trickier organs in the human body to maintain this equilibrium. High maintenance, much?
The vagina is defined as a muscular canal that extends from the vulva to the cervix, and the walls are lined with a mucous membrane that create vaginal secretions. The vagina also has its own microbiome containing “good” bacteria and “bad” bacteria. If you’ve ever suffered from a yeast infection, you’re probably familiar with the word “lactobacilli” - that’s the good stuff. We like them.
So, how does pH come into play?
What is a healthy vaginal pH balance?
A healthy vaginal pH is acidic and ranges from a pH of 3.5 to 4.5. This means that there is a healthy balance between good and bad bacteria. Good bacteria thrives in the vaginas acidic environment.
However, when an imbalance in pH occurs, bad bacteria can grow and you can develop irritation, odor, and infections such as bacterial vaginosis, the most common vaginal infection for menstruating women. Therefore, pH-balance is an important factor in maintaining vaginal health.
Consequences of a poor vaginal pH balance:
If you aren’t already thinking “BV sounds awful” here are some reasons why you don’t want to make yourself susceptible to this infection:
- It’s uncomfortable, especially if you’re sexually active
- It’s difficult to self-diagnose
- It increases your chances of contracting STI’s
- Women who are prone to BV may be at risk for preterm births, post-hysterectomy infection, and pelvic inflammatory disease, which can lead to infertility
But don’t let that scare you! Let’s dig into some of the factors that can affect your vagina’s delicate pH balance and learn how to keep everything down there peachy keen.
Blood has a neutral pH of 7.4, so during your period your vaginal pH becomes elevated by the presence of menstrual fluids. Our bodies are able to handle a certain level of fluctuation, but the period products we use to manage our flow may be counterintuitive to the menstruation process. For example, tampons (both organic and regular) can contribute to an elevated pH since they absorb and retain the fluids that cause pH to increase.
Think about it: cotton is an organic material, meaning it can absorb it’s fluid surroundings and grow bacteria. The vagina is the perfect host for bacteria to grow on cotton because it's a dark, moist environment. (That’s why you must change your tampons every 4 hours.) And furthermore, chemicals present in some tampons may also affect pH levels in the vaginal environment.
The fluctuation in pH during menstruation is part of the reason why many women who suffer from recurrent vaginal infections find that their period is often the trigger.
What causes vaginal pH imbalance?Common pH triggers that make the vagina more susceptible to infection include :
- Menstrual blood (pH 7.4)
- Tampons that absorb menstrual fluids for an extended period of time
- Semen (pH 7.1 - 8)
- Douching without balancing pH afterwards or douching with fragrances
- Using scented soap on your hoo-ha
- Chillin’ in hot tubs (sorry to ruin that one)
- Feminine products that contain deodorants, such as scented tampons and wipes
- Hormone fluctuations such as during menopause or pregnancy or when using hormonal birth control such as a hormonal IUD or the pill.
How your period solution affects pH balance:
Knowledge about the role tampons play in elevating vaginal pH during menses is leading many women to seek alternatives to conventional menstrual management. Many women are also choosing to switch to menstrual cups or discs, such as FLEX.
Menstrual discs and cups do not alter the natural environment of the vagina because they are made of inert materials that do not absorb menses. If in fact ingredients in tampons are contributing to pH changes in the vagina, FLEX may be a favorable alternative because testing has shown that FLEX is made of inert materials that do not to affect vaginal flora.
Doctors have found a clear link between vaginal pH and infection; now it is up to consumers to use that knowledge in making informed decisions about their feminine hygiene.