Keeping Your Vaginal pH Balanced Is Key to a Healthy, Happy Vagina
Keeping your body healthy typically involves a balanced diet, regular exercise and minimizing stress. If you have a vagina, however, you also want to ensure your vaginal microbiome remains happy and healthy, and that starts by understanding your vaginal pH.
If you took high school chemistry, you might remember pH measures the acidic or alkaline (basic) levels of water or solutions with water. The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral. A pH of less than 7 indicates acidity, while a pH of greater than 7 indicates a base.
A healthy vagina is slightly acidic, with a pH level of less than 5 (generally, a healthy range is 3.8 to 5.0), according to a 2021 article published in the journal Diagnostics. Disrupting your vaginal pH can cause it to become either more acidic or more alkaline, which can lead to other health issues and infections.
Issues including vaginitis, bacterial vaginosis (BV) and yeast infections occur often in women, and many stem from pH disruptions. BV alone impacts over 20 million people annually—and most of the time, women don't even know they have these conditions.
We'll walk you through what you need to know about your vaginal pH level, how it protects your body, what causes it to fluctuate and what you can do if your pH becomes unbalanced.
Why your vaginal microbiome matters
Your vagina contains a large number of good bacteria that help keep your pH level balanced and protect your vagina from bad bacteria. Lactobacilli is the name of the bacteria specifically tasked with balancing your pH level. When the ratio of good to bad bacteria in your vagina changes, your level of lactobacilli can decrease, allowing more bad bacteria to thrive and multiply.
"This balance is sensitive to changes from within and outside your body, and it doesn't always take much to change the dynamic ecosystem of bacteria," explained Lynae Brayboy, M.D., chief medical officer at Clue, an online menstrual health resource and period tracking app headquartered in Berlin.
"The naturally acidic environment acts as a natural defense against overgrowth of certain populations of bacteria," Brayboy continued. "When the vaginal pH scale shifts to an alkaline position, the risk of bacterial overgrowth increases."
When your pH is thrown off balance, you might be at higher risk for certain diseases and disorders. Too much bad bacteria can cause vaginitis, BV and yeast infections—painful and irritating infections—and, in some cases, more severe issues.
"The balance of the community of bacteria where Lactobacilli predominates in the vagina is important in keeping you and your reproductive tract healthy, as there is evidence that depletion of Lactobacilli causes vulnerability to STIs, HIV, and increased risk of pregnancy complications," Brayboy explained.
Ways to avoid disrupting your vaginal pH
Your pH level can be disrupted by a variety of factors. Here are five tips that can help your vagina stay healthy and balanced:
1. Be careful how you clean your vulva and vagina
Many times, when trying to keep your vagina clean, you may actually cause your pH levels to become unbalanced. That's because many scented products can irritate your vulva and vagina, and the ingredients can disrupt your body's natural balance.
Instead, you should opt to rinse your vulva (the outside area) with water and nonscented soap. The vagina itself (the inside area) is self-cleaning and does not need help with the process.
"When you insert anything into the vagina, not only can it kill the Lactobacilli but also the vaginal mucosa, which has lots of blood vessels that can absorb anything it is exposed to, and therefore, any chemicals in feminine washes, powders, sprays may have direct access to your bloodstream," Brayboy added.
A trend Brayboy recommends avoiding is yoni steaming. It has been reported to cause severe burns and there is no evidence that it 'cleans' or tightens the vagina, she said.
"Although it has been popularized by many influencers, they don't highlight its possible deleterious side effects," Brayboy added.
2. What you eat matters
"Vaginal pH is affected by the bacteria in your vagina, your gut and the hormone levels in your body. Believe it or not, your diet affects the balance of the bacteria in your gut, which in turn can affect the balance in your vagina," said Tara Scott, M.D., medical director at Integrative Medicine at Summa Health System in Akron, Ohio.
When it comes to keeping your pH levels healthy, an anti-inflammatory diet that's low in fat and sugar is often recommended.
"Maintain a healthy and mostly plant-based diet, which discourages inflammation. This should include fruits, whole grains and vegetables with every meal. Avoid high-fat and high-sugar diets and processed foods, those that come already prepared, as overall health can impact your vaginal health," Brayboy said.
3. Your family history may play a role
Unfortunately, you can have a predisposition to vaginal infections and other disorders based on hereditary conditions. Brayboy recommended talking to your doctor to find out if there are any predispositions for any symptoms you're experiencing as a result of unbalanced pH levels. Conditions such as diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease (IBS) may put you at increased risk, she said.
Be sure to check with your family to find out what disorders and diseases are common, so you can give your doctor a thorough history.
4. Consider your clothing
Working out may keep your body in great shape, but sitting in those sweaty, tight workout clothes all day is an invitation to bacteria to throw off your vaginal pH.
"What you wear matters," Brayboy confirmed. "Wear loose-fitting underwear and pants made from natural plant fibers. Avoid synthetic materials that can trap moisture and irritate your vulva."
5. Limit antibiotics
Taking antibiotics too often can also wreak havoc on your vaginal pH levels by wiping out the good bacteria along with the bad bacteria.
"Taking antibiotics frequently can negatively affect that balance," Scott said.
While you may need antibiotics from time to time, talk to your doctor if you experience pain or irritation down there—it may help to ease off antibiotics instead.
Pause before turning to probiotics
Probiotics get plugged constantly as a way to maintain a healthy vaginal pH. They're also often touted as the solution to recurrent BV, vaginitis and yeast infections. But not so fast.
"There is almost no evidence that [probiotics] have benefit for vaginal health. The studies are mostly poorly done and don't adhere to rigorous reporting standards, even if they are randomized trials," said Caroline Mitchell, M.D., assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School, in a 2019 article on the Harvard Health website.
Another issue with probiotics is that what's in the bottle might not be what's advertised.
"There is literally no requirement for a probiotic to contain what it claims on the label, and most studies using over-the-counter products don't do analysis on what they are studying, so they are trusting the manufacturer," explained Jen Gunter, M.D., an OB-GYN in San Francisco and best-selling author of "The Vagina Bible," in a 2022 article on her website about probiotics.
"Right now in mainstream medicine, a daily probiotic is not really recommended," Scott concluded.
If you're prone to chronic vaginal conditions, there is more at play than a simple probiotic can fix, and it's important to consult your physician about the right course of action. They can help find a solution that works to restore your pH balance.