What Is the Vulva? 7 Things To Help You Understand This Body Part

For starters, the vulva is not the vagina.

There's a lot more to your vulva than you might think. As the gatekeeper of your vagina, it is a significant part of your anatomy—but we constantly overlook (and mislabel) the vulva. Because what the vulva is and where it is on the body confuses many people, Health spoke to Amanda Kallen, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at Yale School of Medicine, to get the facts straight on everything vulva.

The Vulva Is Not the Same As the Vagina

For starters, your vulva is not the same as the vagina. Instead, the vulva includes all the external female genital parts: the labia (majora and minora—these are the skin folds outside the vaginal opening), the opening to the vagina and urethra, the clitoris, the mons pubis (the area over your pubic bone where pubic hair grows), and anus.

"The vagina is actually part of the internal female reproductive tract," Dr. Kallen told Health. "It's the muscular canal or tube connecting the cervix, at the top of the vagina, with the vulva." So basically, anything outside your body but inside your "lips" (labia majora) is your vulva—so considering how much of your genitalia is your vulva, it's important.

Vulvas Come in Different Shapes, Sizes, and Colors

No two vulvas are the same. "There's no standard! Vulvas can be all kinds of shapes and sizes, but the basic parts (such as the labia and clitoris) are the same," Dr. Kallen said. "I think it's really important to reassure young women that there is no ideal or perfect size, shape, or color."

Even the two sides of one vulva can look different. "One labia may be larger or smaller than the other, or lighter or darker than the other, or shaped differently," Dr. Kallen said. "This is all totally normal." In other words, vulvas can all be different, and the idea of uniform vulvas is a misconception.

Your Vulva Can Change After Pregnancy

After giving birth, things likely won't be the same as before—and your vulva happens to be one of those things. "Pregnancy hormones can change the size and shape of the vulva," Dr. Kallen said. "The labia can darken and become swollen."

A vaginal delivery will also stretch the labia minora, the smaller inner folds that lie inside the labia majora. "All this usually resolves after childbirth, but sometimes minor changes might persist," Dr. Kallen said, "and this is totally normal."

Thongs Aren't Always Healthy

If you're prone to genital irritation, thongs may be a culprit. As sexy as that tiny lace thong may look, your best bet for minimal chafing is most likely a comfy pair of panties that provide ample coverage. Underwear with a cotton lining or crotch will allow the area to breathe more," Dr. Kallen said. "Tight-fitting underwear and thongs can be more irritating."

There's No Best Way To Remove Hair There

To shave or not to shave? There is no better answer. When it comes to your pubic hair, it's totally a matter of preference, Dr. Kallen said. "Shaving works quickly, but the area can be a bit itchy or prickly afterward," Dr. Kallen said. Dr. Kallen added that shaving could also cause razor burn, cuts, and occasionally infection, so women who get irritation at the hair follicle may want to consider other methods.

While other options may be less irritating, they also come with their own set of risks. Over-the-counter hair-removal creams can work well if used correctly, Dr. Kallen said—if they're not left on too long and are only used in areas they're meant for. Then there's waxing, which Dr. Kallen said: "can be painful!" But it does remove hair at the root; Dr. Kallen said, "so you don't have to do it as frequently as shaving or depilatories."

Laser hair removal and electrolysis work at the hair follicle, and results can be long-term or even permanent, but they're also more expensive. "Each method has its pros and cons," Dr. Kallen said.

And, of course, leaving your pubic hair as it is, is completely fine, too. After all, pubic hair is the body's natural defense for keeping bacteria and unwanted pathogens away from your vagina, so it's totally natural to let it grow.

Your Vulva Can Tell You a Lot About Your Health

While the occasional ingrown hair or razor bump is nothing to worry about, lumps on the vulva could be a cause for concern. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as genital herpes and human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause sores on vulvar tissue.

Symptoms of vulvar cancer, a rare type of cancer, can include a lump in the vulva, vulvar itching, and changes in the vulvar skin. If you notice new growths or sores anywhere on your vulva, it is essential to call your healthcare provider for advice.

You Can Change the Shape of Your Vulva—But It's Not Recommended

While it's perfectly natural to be a little unsure about the shape of your vulva, getting surgery purely for cosmetic reasons isn't recommended. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) cautions against procedures advertised as "vaginal rejuvenation," "designer vaginoplasty," and other surgeries done to change the appearance of the vagina or labia.

"Surgery is almost always unnecessary and should be reserved for correction of medical issues such as congenital defects, infection, certain diseases or conditions, or persistent symptoms caused by labial anatomy," Dr. Kallen said. "There is such pressure in our society to look a certain way, and often women feel like their vulvar anatomy is abnormal or flawed and might be interested in surgery to 'correct' a perceived abnormality." But it's important to keep in mind that those surgeries—even if they seem minor—can have serious complications, Dr. Kallen added.

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