It might be ‘natural’ but should you use cooking oils to soothe your dry vagina? Women’s Health GP, Dr Shahzadi Harper finds out.
These days there is a plethora of internet sites targeting menopausal women offering a variety of ‘natural’ solutions for the symptoms of menopause – and one of the most prevalent of those although it’s rarely spoken about is vaginal dryness.
A dry vagina is an uncomfortable menopause symptom but something that can be hard to pin point as it can present in many ways.
It can cause an itching and burning sensation that can make it uncomfortable to sit, walk and cycle. This is often confused with thrush.
It can cause an increase in urinary tract infections and cases of thrush or bacterial vaginosis.
It can also make sex a painful rather than pleasurable experience, which in turn has an affect on relationships and self-confidence.
And if you think you are the only one who is having this problem, think again, as one study showed that 62-67% of women said they had vaginal dryness – but no one talks about it.
Given that it’s not the usual dinner table conversation, it’s not surprising that women turn to the internet and social media for help.
Some sites tell women vaginal lubricants are full of nasty chemicals and instead, they should turn to the kitchen cupboard for some ‘natural’ solutions: after all, if it’s good enough to eat, it must be good enough to put in your most intimate areas.
If it’s good enough to eat…
Some site recommend using cooking and salad oils such as Ghee (clarified butter), coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil or the water strained from boiled flaxseeds as lubricants during sex.
But is it really such a great idea to raid the kitchen cupboards in search of vaginal relief?
“Absolutely not”, says Dr Shahzadi Harper, a Harley Street GP with a special interest in women’s health and menopause. “This is a sensitive area with a delicately balanced pH. Anything that interferes with that can upset the intimate flora – the balance between the good and bad bacteria in our vaginas – and could cause infections.”
“I understand why women end up using these kinds of things, as they don’t know what to do and may be too embarrassed to ask,” says Dr Harper, who is a member of the British Menopause Society. “It’s made all the more difficult as ‘lubes’ are often associated with the sex industry so some women may find it embarrassing to buy them.”
But as she explains, even prior to menopause, our levels of natural lubrication change during out cycle.
“Midway though the cycle, when we ovulate, our vaginal discharge is thinner and runnier as this helps the sperm reach the egg for fertilisation to occur. Closer to our period it thickens up and may help keep a fertilised egg in place. But women don’t always connect this it with their hormonal cycle.”
And as we approach menopause and after it, the oestrogen levels drop and the mucosa in the vagina produces less of its own lubricant, leading to atrophy [thinning of the vaginal wall], dryness, itching, burning and an increased rate of urinary infections, thrush and bacterial vaginosis (BV).
“But women don’t always associate these things as being connected to the menopause transition and hormonal changes and don’t understand they may need help. I’ve seen some women who’ve described sex like being rubbed with shards of broken glass,” she says.
Often have to plan ahead when it comes to sex, she adds, which can take the romance out of the moment as they dash to the bathroom to apply some lubricant.
When looking for a lubricant Dr Harper recommends a water-based product such as YES as water-based products better mimic our natural secretions than oil based ones.
She also says it’s important to check that any lubricant you choose doesn’t interfere with the effectiveness of condoms. The pH should be between 3.8-4.5 so it matches the environment inside the vagina.
The same applies to intimate washes. Dr Harper says that they should be soap-free, paraben free and preferably perfume free as fragrances can irritate the skin.
This is especially important for menopausal women as the external genitalia can also fall victim to ageing and declining oestrogen levels. It can become dry, thinner and crepe-like and feel itchy and burning as well.
Here Dr Harper says you can use moisturisers or certain oils – just don’t put them inside – and follow the same guide as for the soap-free intimate washes: no perfumes or parabens. She suggests products that are suitable for sensitive skin may be best. Baby oil and coconut oil may also be helpful on these external regions.
The best things though for vaginal dryness and atrophy, she says, are HRT, oestrogen creams or pessaries. These can help plump up the vaginal mucosa so it produces more lubricant on its own.
Other treatment options
The other treatment she recommends is Femilift. This is a fractional laser treatment that uses the heat generated from the laser light to create micro-trauma in the vaginal walls. It causes a tightening on the tissue (which is helpful for stress incontinence and vaginal laxity) and boosts collagen and new cell production. The result is a better production of lubrication.
There’s also a new treatment called Ospemiphene which can be taken orally for those not keen to take oestrogen or use lubes. It is what is known as a SERM of Selective Estrogen Receptor Modulator. These are either antagonists which block estrogens or agonists which boost their activity – and it this case it’s the latter. It is a new drug but studies show it is getting good results when it comes to relieving these kinds of menopausal symptoms.
When should you starting thinking about your vaginal health?
“After child birth really,” says Dr Harper. “And there’s a myth that you don’t have to worry about this if you’ve had a caesarian, because just the weight of carrying a baby can affect your pelvic floor.”
And even if you haven’t had children Dr Harper says from our 30’s onwards we should start thinking about our vaginal health in the same way as we do any other part of our body or our face: it ages and needs attention in just the same way.
If you would like to discuss vaginal dryness, Femilift, HRT or your menopause symptoms you can find and book directly with Dr Harper by clicking here.