Just like every other part of your body, your vagina undergoes changes as you pass through the decades. Your vulva might thin out and lose elasticity, for example, muscle tone can become reduced, and fluctuating hormone levels can alter levels of your natural lubrication.
But certain habits can cause some of these changes to set in sooner. And while there’s nothing wrong with that on the face of it, some will likely make a dent in your sexual health. Addressing any changes, however, can make sex feel better, lower discomfort caused by irritation, and help prevent urine leaks due to decreased muscle tone. Here are 5 factors that threaten to age your vagina prematurely, and what you can do about them.
Spending your day sedentary won’t do any favors for your vaginal tone, says Prudence Hall, MD, founder and medical director of The Hall Center in Santa Monica, California. A decrease in muscle tone anywhere in your body is a hallmark sign of aging. When it happens to your vagina, one outcome can be urinary incontinence—leaking a little pee when you sneeze or laugh. How to improve muscle tone? Get moving.
Any regular activity—walking, weights, yoga, Pilates—will work the muscles all over your body, including down below. Exercise also improves overall circulation, and healthy blood flow to your vagina can make you more responsive in bed and have an easier time getting aroused.
Not having sex
You already know a rocking sex life does a body good. But getting it on on the regular helps keep your vagina in top shape as well. Arousal powers up blood flow to your pelvic area; sex and orgasm gave your vaginal muscles a workout, too. Of course, an occasional dry spell is nothing to worry about. But long periods of time without any action at all can affect vaginal tone and lubrication.
Since every woman deserves a healthy sex life, do what you can to make that happen—such as talking to your partner about trying new positions and expanding your repertoire to oral sex and other varieties. Oh, and make sure you incorporate lots of masturbation time by your own hand or with a vibrator. “Give yourself permission to have orgasms—and to have great orgasms,” says Dr. Hall.
Delivering a baby
Nature designed your vagina so a tiny human could pass through it. That’s pretty amazing, but to allow this to happen safely, your vagina has to stretch several times over. The result: You might lose muscle tone. Again, this can lead to urinary incontinence, but it can also make sex feel different. The vaginal canal may feel a bit wider and looser, and your grip may not be as tight.
“Many women will need to rehab these muscles after pregnancy,” says Dr. Hall. Kegel exercises are one strategy; clenching the muscles that control the flow of urine can improve vaginal tone. Glute lifts and planks can also help. “When you do a plank you’re also squeezing your vagina,” she says. Or do sets of this specific vagina-toning exercise: Stand with one hand holding onto a desk and kick one leg back. As you squeeze your butt, you’ll also squeeze your vagina.
Taking certain medications
Some over-the-counter meds that address allergy symptoms and congestion work by drying out your sinuses. Yet they also dry out your vagina in the process, notes Dr. Hall. Vaginal dryness is something many women experience as they enter perimenopause and then menopause, as estrogen production naturally declines.
Long-term use of steroid medications will also thin the skin of your vagina, which naturally happens during menopause as well. Thinner vaginal skin, however, can make you more prone to irritation. If meds are drying or thinning your vagina, talk to your doctor to come up with a plan to best address your symptoms, from lifestyle tweaks to medication changes.
Using vagina wipes and sprays
There’s an entire aisle at the drugstore devoted to feminine hygiene products such as douches, vaginal wipes, anti-itch creams, and deodorant sprays. But the fact is, your vagina doesn’t need them. Using these can even cause harm—potentially thinning and drying out your vaginal lining the way menopause does naturally. That can set you up to be more susceptible to irritation and even infection.
So unless your doctor recommends a specific product, skip them and practice a few simple moves when it comes to taking care of your vagina. That includes using only mild soap and water to cleanse your vulva, getting tested for STDs regularly if you are not monogamous, and using condoms so new partners don’t bring bacteria and viruses into the vagina, says Dr. Hall.