If you’re a sexually active human, you should know that STD rates are higher than ever, and certain infections (like chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis) are reaching superbug proportions. This isn’t to scare you away from having sex, but when it comes to getting intimate, you need to be smart. Translation: Use a freaking condom.
But, surprise! There’s another great reason to wrap it before you tap it. Condoms aren’t just great for protecting against STIs; they might actually be healthy for your vagina too.
Vaginal and vulvar health is all about maintaining the proper pH, according to Michael Krychman, M.D., sexual medicine gynecologist and executive director of the Southern California Center for Sexual Health and Survivorship Medicine. Semen has a super-high pH, and when it enters the vagina, it can mess with the delicate balance of bacteria. (P.S. An imbalance of this bacteria might be to blame for your vaginal dryness. It’s also why you should never douche like, ever.)
“When you have a foreign body like semen, it changes your vaginal pH, and there are some women that can’t counteract it,” he says. “Then the good and bad bacteria are basically fighting, and you can get predisposed to an infection.”
Since condoms are like bouncers that don’t let semen into the healthy vagina club, they can be key in keeping this balance of good bacteria—also known as vaginal lactobacilli. In a study of 164 healthy adult women using nonhormonal birth control methods, researchers found that consistent condom use showed greater colonization of a particular bacteria species called Lactobacillus crispatus, which plays a major role in fighting bad bacteria and fostering that really cool self-cleaning thing that your vagina does, according to a 2013 study published in PLOS ONE. Researchers found that condom use was not only associated with decreased HIV risk but also with decreased risk for bacterial vaginosis, a mild bacterial infection of the vagina.
The thing is, there’s no magical ingredient in condoms that turns your vagina into a healthy garden of bacteria—condoms themselves are typically inert, meaning they won’t affect the vaginal pH, says Krychman. The real value of them lies in keeping other intruders (like sperm) out.
So besides keeping semen out of your vag by using condoms, what else can you do to keep your hoo-ha happy? First of all, get to know yourself, says Kyrchman: “Be familiar with your body and how it changes throughout your menstrual cycle so you can be aware of subtle changes in your normal discharge.” Semen isn’t the only thing that can mess with your vagina’s healthy bacteria; immune status, hormone levels, and antibiotics can all have an effect too. Second, keep the club exclusive; don’t even think about letting these 10 things anywhere near your lady bits.
Important note: while semen has the potential to disrupt the healthy bacteria in your vagina, having it present during sex is, obviously, a very natural thing. (Do we need to have the birds and the bees talk again?) So if you’re not using condoms because you’re in an STD-free monogamous relationship or because you’re trying to have kids, go right ahead—you aren’t going to have perpetual bacterial issues from forgoing a rubber. But if you’re single and should be using a condom anyway? Consider this a cherry-on-top reason to roll one on.