The SMSNA periodically receives and publishes ‘guest editorials.’ The current article was submitted by Mia Barnes, a freelance writer and researcher who specializes in women's health, wellness, and healthy living. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Body+Mind Magazine.
Your vagina is a pretty powerful organ. It is a pathway for menstrual blood and babies. It also is a main player in sexual intercourse. You might hear about your vagina’s pH and worry that yours is at risk. Here’s what to know about vaginal pH, including the impacts sex could have.
Can Sex Throw off Your pH?
Unprotected sex can impact your vagina’s pH level, slightly increasing your risk of infections. Semen is more basic than your vaginal environment, with a pH between 7.2 and 7.8.1 Thanks to this difference, the semen increases your alkalinity.
Though it technically increases your risk, having sex in a clean environment and urinating after can help reduce your risk of infection. Consensual sex has many health benefits, so don’t let a temporarily imbalanced vagina stop you if it’s something you and your partner want to engage in. A well-fitting condom can remove the risk of semen entering your vagina, practically eliminating the risk.
Intercourse with a penis is not the only way sex can impact your pH. Using toys or fingering can introduce bacteria which could also throw it off. Proper hand washing and cleaning your toys can help prevent it.
A changing vaginal pH due to sex isn’t something to fear, but it’s important to take the right precautions.
Why Vaginal pH Matters
Your vagina’s pH indicates how acidic or alkaline it is, caused by hydrogen ion activity in your internal and external environment. A healthy vaginal pH is slightly acidic — between 3.8 and 5.02 — with most landing between 4.0 and 4.5 for women of reproductive age. The acidity protects your vaginal mucosa from harmful pathogens that can cause irritation and infection. It also keeps a healthy microbiome.
The vagina is a self-cleaning organ, often compensating for potential imbalances. However, the actions you take can impact your pH. Knowing the impacts of a changing pH can help you stay healthy and reduce your risk of problems now or down the line.
Other Things That Impact Vaginal pH
Sex isn’t the only thing that can mess with your vagina’s pH level. Many things you might not think about could impact it, including the following:
- Douching: Excessive douching or cleaning can lead to vaginal flora imbalances3 which play a key role in maintaining your pH.
- Antibiotics: Can kill off good bacteria with the bad and create a more acidic environment.
- Menstrual cycle: Menstrual blood is slightly alkaline which can make your vagina more basic as it passes through.
If you have concerns about your vaginal pH, you can test it with a kit. Place a clean piece of pH paper against your vaginal wall. Keep in mind that your vulva will have a different pH than your vagina, so inserting the paper into your vagina is necessary for an accurate result. You do not need to go too far and should not have it there for more than a few seconds.
You can compare the color that appears on the paper to the chart on the kit to determine the results. You’re more likely to feel the results of an imbalance before testing it. Since the vagina is self-cleaning, most people only experience a few lingering effects from a thrown-off pH level.
Health Risks of an Imbalanced pH
When your vaginal pH is off, it can disturb the flora in your microbiome causing an over or undergrowth. When this happens, your body is more susceptible to other health problems like cervical cancer,4 pregnancy complications, bacterial vaginosis (BV) and pelvic inflammatory disease (PIV).
If you experience burning, irritation or irregular or foul-smelling discharge, you should contact your OBGYN for guidance. While some complications from an imbalanced pH5 can resolve on their own, treatment can often help manage your symptoms and prevent rare complications.
Balancing Your Vaginal pH
The good news is you can keep a balanced vaginal pH with simple hygiene. Regularly changing pads and tampons, avoiding harsh materials or fragrances, cleaning sexual items and knowing the risks of unprotected sex, washing only with water and letting the self-sustaining organ clean itself are all ways to stay healthy.
- National Library of Medicine. Dhumal SS, Naik P, Dakshinamurthy S, Sullia K. Semen pH and its correlation with motility and count - A study in subfertile men. JBRA Assist Reprod. 2021 Apr 27;25(2):172-175. doi: 10.5935/1518-0557.20200080. PMID: 33507718; PMCID: PMC8083857. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8083857/#:~:text=Semen%20pH%20has%20a%20very,7.8%20(WHO%2C%202010).
- Healthline. Everything You Need to Know About Your Vaginal pH Balance. Medically reviewed by Stacy A. Henigsman, DO and Tess Catlett. Updated on August 10, 2023. https://www.healthline.com/health/womens-health/vaginal-ph-balance#treatment
- National Library of Medicine. Lin YP, Chen WC, Cheng CM, Shen CJ. Vaginal pH Value for Clinical Diagnosis and Treatment of Common Vaginitis. Diagnostics (Basel). 2021 Oct 27;11(11):1996. doi: 10.3390/diagnostics11111996. PMID: 34829343; PMCID: PMC8618584. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8618584/#:~:text=The%20acidic%20and%2For%20alkaline,is%20moderately%20acidic%20%5B2%5D.
- Biocare Medical Blog. Cancer Awareness. Cervical Cancer Facts. https://biocare.net/blog/cancer-awareness-cervical-cancer-facts/
- Medical News Today. Vaginal pH balance: Symptoms, remedies, and tests. Medically reviewed by Valinda Riggins Nwadike, MD, MPH and Rachel Nall, MSN, CRNA. Updated on January 5, 2023. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322537#how-to-maintain-vaginal-p-h-balance