Intimate Grooming: What Women Need to Know

What to know about cleansing and hair removal in the bikini area.

Medically Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on September 28, 2012
6 min read

You shower, you wash your hair, and you put on deodorant. But what do you know about grooming for your more intimate area? For instance, how do you deal with vaginal odor? Should you douche? What about a bikini wax?

For many women, these things are all part of daily grooming. Here is what you need to know about your options.

The number of intimate grooming products -- from cleansers and fragrance mists to on-the-go freshening wipes -- is growing. But they’re not really necessary, gynecologists say.

“You don’t need these products for routine use,” says gynecologist Christine O’Connor, MD, director of adolescent gynecology and well woman care at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

Even products marketed specifically for the female genital area can sometimes irritate or upset the normal pH balance, leading to irritations and infections. O’Connor says regular bathing, changing out of wet or sweaty clothes, and avoiding repeated use of tight, restrictive clothing will prevent unpleasant odors and infections.

Harsh soaps and cleansers can also interfere with the body’s pH balance. And as much as you might enjoy those fragrant soaps and gels, it’s best just to use mild, unscented soaps and water for cleansing. Scented soaps and gels, O'Connor says, sometimes contain perfumes and other ingredients that can be irritating to delicate tissues.

There is no need to clean internally by either using intimate products (which usually come with the disclaimer “for external use only”) or douching, O'Connor says.

The word "douche" -- French for "shower" -- means to wash inside the vagina with water or a mixture of water and vinegar, water and baking soda, or water and iodine. The mixtures come prepackaged in a bottle, or you can make your own. They are then squirted into the vagina through a tube or nozzle.

But O'Connor says the vagina maintains itself by creating a mucous discharge that keeps pH balanced and supports the ‘‘healthy” bacteria that can keep infections at bay. If this balance is disrupted or washed away, you may end up with bacterial or yeast infections.

Medicated douches, vaginal suppositories, or vaginal creams can sometimes be prescribed or recommended by your doctor, if necessary, to treat certain types of infections. Otherwise, routine douching should be avoided.

Whether you’re getting ready for swimsuit season or just want to look your best in that sexy new thong, you’ve probably given some thought to removing the hair along your bikini line.

Many companies that sell shaving products -- such as Philips, Remington, and Hair Care Down There -- market bikini-area trimmers designed to be as precise as possible and friendly to sensitive skin.

If you opt to shave your bikini area, you can avoid irritation by following these tips from Julie Harper, MD, clinical associate professor of dermatology at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and a spokeswoman for Philips Healthcare:

  • Treat razor burn and ingrown hairs by gently exfoliating the affected area with a washcloth in the shower. You can also trim the hair short -- but avoid shaving -- until the redness and irritation has subsided.
  • Resist the urge to perform DIY surgery on razor bumps and ingrown hairs. The bump could get infected and you might be left with an ugly scar. You can try gently lifting ingrown hairs with a toothpick, but don’t use anything too sharp. If the hair doesn’t lift easily, stop, and if the area is tender or hot to the touch, see your doctor.
  • Don't take hot showers or baths for several hours after removing hair. Water that's too hot can irritate pores, causing unwanted bumps and discomfort.
  • To avoid irritation, don't work out or wear tight clothing immediately after grooming. Skin can be extra-sensitive to bacteria, moisture, and chafing from your workout clothes.

Many women prefer longer-lasting results and choose to get a bikini wax. Hair removal is one of the top three services requested in spas, according to Spa Trade, a spa industry business resource.

A Brazilian wax removes more hair than a bikini wax, says Susmta Patel, founder and creative director of Studio Sush, in Saddle Brook, N.J. A traditional bikini wax focuses on the front and sides (what would be visible in a swimsuit). The Brazilian removes the front, sides, back and everything in between, often leaving only a strip of hair in the front, or none at all. Most of the time, you can leave your underwear on during a standard bikini wax, but for a Brazilian, you won't wearpanties.

Some reasons for having a Brazilian wax include cleanliness, convenience, and sexiness, Patel says. For many women, this does not come without some pain. "Yes, bikini waxes do hurt,” Patel says. But he adds that everyone’s pain tolerance is different. The good news is that it hurts less the more you do it.

To minimize the pain, Patel recommends wearing soft panties that won’t rub your bikini area the wrong way. Although the pain does subside as soon as the wax is over, the area can remain sensitive. Patel also suggests not using any scrubs for the next two days and not exposing the area to direct sun for at least 24 hours. To treat redness or swelling, apply a small amount of cortisone cream from the drugstore.

After the tenderness eases, Patel advises exfoliating in the shower to remove dead skin so the pores don't become clogged, causing ingrown hairs and bumps.

If you do see any evidence of irritation or infection, see your doctor right away, advises Kenneth Beer, MD, board-certified dermatologist in Palm Beach, Fla. Beer says that when professional waxing is performed in a well-managed, clean spa by an experienced aesthetician using quality products, there is no reason not to get waxed if you choose to do so.

Make sure the spa technician is licensed and does not “double-dip” during the waxing session, Patel says. Double-dipping means that the technician used the same stick each time they dip into the vat of hot wax. This practice contaminates the wax and allows bacteria to spread from one client to another.

If you don’t want to make the time commitment necessary for regular waxing or shaving, you might want to consider laser hair removal for a longer-lasting fix. Lasers remove hair with a laser beam that destroys the root

Laser hair removal is best for people who have dark, thick, wiry hair, says dermatologist Kenneth Beer. It does not work for people with blond or gray hair. This permanent treatment requires 4 to 6 sessions spaced 1 month apart, followed by yearly touch-ups. Avoid any type of tanning (real or fake) during the process, or you might end up with a burn, Beer says.

It is important to shave before going for your laser hair removal session. Do not wax or pluck the hair because the laser won’t work. If you do wax or pluck, wait 4 weeks before doing a laser treatment.

Earlier laser treatment worked best on lighter skin, but new technology has made the treatment more viable for people with darker skin as well. The new lasers also offer longer-lasting results than older ones did, Beer says. If you have dark skin, make sure to see a dermatologist with the appropriate laser for your skin. Otherwise, skin complications may ensue.

Laser hair removal is not cheap, with costs ranging from $100 to $250 per session; and this is not covered by medical insurance.

Once it’s done, there’s a significant time savings in not having to shave.

Beer cautions that the rate of complications from laser hair removal goes up dramatically when the procedure is done by aestheticians without a medical background in dermatology or plastic surgery.

For best results, look for a dermatologist or plastic surgeon who uses lasers specifically designed for hair removal. “One-size-fits-all is not a good strategy for laser hair removal,” Beer says.