There’s a lot more to your vulva than you might think. As the gatekeeper of your vagina, those fleshy folds are one of the major parts of your female anatomy—but we constantly overlook (and mislabel) them. Because it's probably been a few years since your last sex ed class, Health spoke to Amanda Kallen, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at Yale School of Medicine, to get the facts straight on everything vulva.
The vulva is not the same as the vagina
For starters, your vulva does not equal your vagina. The vulva includes all the external female genital parts: the labia (majora and minora), the opening to the vagina and urethra, and the clitoris, mons pubis and anus.
“The vagina is actually part of the internal female reproductive tract,” Dr. Kallen tells Health. “It’s the muscular canal or tube connecting the cervix, at the top of the vagina, with the vulva.” Basically, anything outside your body but inside your "lips" (labia majora) is your vulva—so you know, it's kinda important.
Vulvas come in different shapes, sizes, and colors
No two vulvas are the same. “There’s no standard! Vulvas can be all kinds of shapes and sizes, but the basic parts (labia, clitoris) are the same,” says Dr. Kallen. “I think it’s really important to reassure young women that there is no ideal or perfect size, shape, or color.”
Even the two sides of one vulva can look different. “One labia may be larger or smaller than the other, or lighter or darker than the other, or shaped differently,” she says. “This is all totally normal.” In other words, stop comparing yourself to what you see on the internet, m'kay?
Your vulva can change after pregnancy
After pushing a living human out of your body, things likely won’t be the same as they were before—and your vulva happens to be one of those things. “Pregnancy hormones can change the size and shape of the vulva,” says Dr. Kallen. “The labia can darken and become swollen."
A vaginal delivery will also stretch the labia minora, the smaller inner folds that lie inside the labia majora. “All this usually resolves after childbirth, but sometimes minor changes might persist,” says Dr. Kallen, “and this is totally normal.”
Thongs aren’t always healthy for your vulva
If you’re prone to irritation down there, thongs are not your friend. As sexy as that tiny lace thong may look, your best bet for minimal chafing is most likely a comfy pair of panties that provide ample coverage. Underwear with a cotton lining or crotch will allow the area to breathe more,” says Dr. Kallen. “Tight fitting underwear and thongs can be more irritating.”
There's no best way to remove hair there
To shave or not to shave? There really is no better answer. When it comes to your pubic hair, it’s totally a matter of preference, says Dr. Kallen. “Shaving works quickly but the area can be a bit itchy or prickly afterward,” she says. Shaving can also cause razor burn, cuts, and occasionally infection, she adds, so women who tend to get irritation at the hair follicle may want to consider other methods.
While other options may be less irritating, they also come with their own set of risks. Over-the-counter hair-removal creams can work well if used correctly, says Dr. Kallen—if they’re not left on too long and are only used in areas they’re meant for. Then there’s waxing, which she admits “can be painful!” But it does remove hair at the root, she adds, “so you don’t have to do it as frequently as shaving or depilatories.”
Laser hair removal and electrolysis work at the hair follicle, and results can be long-term or even permanent, but they’re also more expensive. “Each method has its pros and cons,” says Dr. Kallen.
And of course, leaving your pubes as they are is completely fine, too. After all, pubic hair is the body's natural defense for keeping bacteria and unwanted pathogens away from your vagina, so it's totally natural to let it grow.
Your vulva can tell you a lot about your health
While the occasional ingrown hair or razor bump is nothing to worry about, a lumpy vulva could be a cause for concern. Sexually transmitted infections such as genital herpes and human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause sores on vulvar tissue.
Symptoms of vulvar cancer, a rare type of cancer, can include a lump in the vulva, vulvar itching, and changes in the vulvar skin. If you notice new growths or sores anywhere on your vulva, see your doctor.
You actually can change the shape of your vulva—but it's not recommended
While it's perfectly natural to be a little unsure about the shape of your vulva, getting surgery purely for cosmetic reasons isn't recommended. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists cautions against procedures advertised as “vaginal rejuvenation,” “designer vaginoplasty,” and other surgeries done to change the appearance of the vagina or labia.
"Surgery is almost always unnecessary, and should be reserved for correction of medical issues such as congenital defects, infection, certain diseases or conditions, or persistent symptoms caused by labial anatomy,” says Dr. Kallen. "There is such pressure in our society to look a certain way, and often women feel like their vulvar anatomy is abnormal or flawed and might be interested in surgery to ‘correct’ a perceived abnormality.” But it’s important to keep in mind that those surgeries—even if they seem minor—can have serious complications, she adds.
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