How to prevent the 8 most common women's intimate health mistakes

Female hygiene mistakes. (Getty Images)
Women can look after their intimate health with these simple do's and don'ts. (Getty Images)

It was revealed last week that nearly 600,000 women in England are awaiting gynaecological treatment, with the government accused of "deprioritising women's health".

But while everyone should be able to access women's health services as and when they need them, there are some everyday mistakes we can avoid when it comes to our intimate health, to help prevent less serious but unwelcome issues like irritation, thrush and bacterial vaginosis (BV).

Currently contributing to this, 60% of British women admit to sleeping in their underwear, according to a survey by Freemans. Meanwhile, more than half (51%) are confused about the do's and don'ts of maintaining good vaginal and vulval hygiene, and more than a quarter (27%) feel like they are doing something wrong with their intimate health.

To help set the record straight, here women's health doctor Dr Susanna Unsworth in partnership with Freemans and founder of virtual women's health clinic Daye Valentina Milanova, share their top women's intimate health mistakes and how to prevent them.

Top view of young woman sleeping on side in her bed at night. Beautiful girl sleeping profoundly and dreaming at home with blue blanket. High angle view of woman asleep with closed eyes.
Do you ever sleep in your pants? What material are they made of? (Getty Images)

Despite six in 10 doing so, according to the Survey, Unsworth days it's best not to sleep in underwear to prevent a build-up of sweat forming, which can promote the growth of bacteria and yeast. "If you can avoid wearing underwear to sleep, this is generally most beneficial as it allows air to circulate around the vulva and prevents the sweat build-up that can occur," she explains.

"If you do prefer to sleep wearing underwear, I would choose natural fabrics, such as cotton or bamboo, and put on clean underwear before getting into bed."

woman after shower
Don't sit in your post-work out sweat for too long. (Getty Images)

Only a third (37%) of women say they always shower after exercise, while half (52%) only do sometimes.

"After exercising, your sports clothes are likely to be sweaty. Wearing sweaty underwear for long periods of time can increase irritation of the external skin in the groin and around the vulva. It can also lead to a disruption of the pH balance, which could potentially increase the chance of developing infections such as thrush and bacterial vaginosis (BV)," says Unsworth.

"If you can shower after exercising, this would be recommended. However, if this is not possible, I would recommend changing into some clean underwear before leaving the gym."

More than a quarter (26%) of survey respondents admit to sleeping in a thong, while nearly a third (31%) wear them to exercise.

"I would not recommend sleeping in thongs or wearing them to do long periods of exercise and I would also avoid them if you are prone to infections, such as thrush or BV, or if you have pre-existing skin conditions that can affect the vulva, such as lichen sclerosis," says Unsworth.

"Otherwise I would say as long as they are clean, fit well and the main gusset is made of natural material like cotton they can be healthy day to day. If a thong does not fit well it can move about and cause irritation."

Woman panties on the pastel pink background. Flat-lay, top view.
The material of your underwear can make a big difference to your intimate health. (Getty Images)

The right material helps to keep the area nice and cool in daily use. "For daily use, I would suggest cotton, ideally at least 95%, or bamboo, as these help keep sweat away from the skin. For satin or more man-made fabrics aim to wear them for shorter periods of time and avoid wearing them when you expect more sweat, such as when exercising," says Unsworth.

Many Brits are unaware of the impact perfumed products can have on the skin, with the majority (58%) of those surveyed washing their underwear with fragranced or biological laundry products.

"Products that are highly fragranced or contain dyes or other chemicals could potentially be more irritant. I would advise using non-biological and minimally fragranced products for underwear, and consider washing them separately from your other clothes," says Unsworth.

"The vagina has a carefully balanced system, containing lots of healthy bacteria. Overwashing, and using perfumed products, can irritate and cause problems," says Unsworth.

"Do not wash or douche the internal area as this area is self-cleaning. Avoid products marketed for ‘vaginal hygiene’ and any perfumed products. Also, avoid things containing SLS (sodium lauryl sulphate) as this is what makes lots of products lather and foam, but it can be irritant on the skin.

"Standard soap is also not the best option as it is less acidic than the vagina and can upset the pH balance. For women pre-menopause, I would recommend a fragrance-free, pH-balanced product to lightly wash external areas, as sweat can build up and that can be irritant."

Milanova adds, "If there are concerning changes in odour along with other symptoms, see your gynaecologist rather than trying to cover it up with products."

Detail of a woman taking a menstrual pad out of her purse
Check what the products you're using are made from. (Getty Images)

"Wearing the same pad or tampon for too long allows bacteria to multiply. Aim to change them every four-eight hours, or more often if your flow is heavy. Be sure to change your pad before going to bed and use a fresh one in the morning," says Milanova.

Also check the quality of the products you're using to minimise any toxins, opting for things like sustainable organic tampons where possible.

"The most important things are to let the vulva and vagina breathe, avoid harsh cleansers and fragrances, and maintain the area's natural moisture balance," says Milanova.

"If any unusual symptoms develop, like burning, itching, pain, sores, or changes in discharge, see your doctor for an evaluation rather than trying to self-treat."

Watch: Women experience interrupted night’s sleep when they’re on their period, a study has found