In the 1980s and 90s it was the deodorant salesman's catch phrase, "pH balanced!" Brands like Secret taught us that "a woman's perspiration is different from a man's," and that she needs a special deodorant that's "strong enough for a man, but made for a woman." Marketers for Secret deodorant took it upon themselves to create awareness around the concept of pH balance. Remember the pH test in high school biology? You took those little litmus papers and dipped them in various solvents to see what color they changed, matched them to a color on the pH scale and determined each solution's pH value in a range of 1 to 14. Well that's essentially what they did in this 1985 Secret commercial to demonstrate the difference in pH levels between male and female perspiration.
In fact, the body has many different pH levels, depending what organs and systems you're talking about. For example, the gastric acid in your stomach has a low pH (acidic) between 1 and 2, which aids digestion of food, whereas the pH of blood is slightly basic at around 7.4. Your body's organs and systems are constantly maintaining these levels of acidity or alkaline.
A woman's normal vaginal pH is acidic and ranges from a pH of 3.5 to 4.5. However, during menses, blood present in the menstrual fluid paired with hormonal changes in the vaginal tissues raise the vagina's pH.
The normal environment of the vagina contains "good" bacteria and "bad" bacteria. When the levels of good and bad bacteria are balanced, you have a normal, healthy vagina. However, when an imbalance results in more bad bacteria than good, you can develop irritation, odor, and infections such as Bacterial Vaginosis, the most common vaginal infection for menstruating women. The vagina's normal pH range of 3.5 to 4.5 helps to maintain the balance of these good and bad bacteria. Therefore, pH-balance is an important factor in vaginal health.
Blood has a pH of 7.4, so during your period your vaginal pH becomes elevated by the presence menstrual fluids. Tampons can contribute to an elevated pH since they absorb and retain the fluids that cause pH to increase. Furthermore, chemicals present in some tampons may also affect pH levels in the vaginal environment. The fluctuation in pH during menstruation is part of the reason why many women who suffer from recurrent vaginal infections find that their period is often the trigger.
Common pH triggers that make the vagina more susceptible to infection include:
- Tampons that absorb menstrual fluids for an extended period of time
- Douching without balancing pH afterwards, douching with fragrances, scented soap and hot tubs
- Feminine products that contain deodorants
- Hormone fluctuations such as during menopause or pregnancy
Knowledge about the role tampons play in elevating vaginal pH during menses is leading many women to seek alternatives to conventional menstrual management. Many women are also choosing to switch to menstrual cups, such as Softcup. Softcup does not alter the natural environment of the vagina. If in fact ingredients in tampons are contributing to pH changes in the vagina, the Softcup may be a favorable alternative because testing has shown that Softcup is made of inert materials that do not to affect vaginal flora.
Doctors have found a clear link between vaginal pH and infection; now it is up to consumers to use that knowledge in making informed decisions about their feminine hygiene.