We're constantly bombarded with information on how to delay the signs of ageing. Whether that's how to cover greys or retain thick, glossy hair, or smooth out wrinkles on our foreheads. But what about looking after the parts of us that may not be on full display - but are extremely important to our overall health?
Still quite the taboo, vagina health, isn't spoken about enough - something very well displayed by the awful scandal that is vaginal mesh. While you might pore over the lines and wrinkles on your forehead in the mirror every morning, it's less likely that you are looking 'down there'. However, just like the rest of your body, it's going through the ageing process - and demands some care and attention. But what does a normal vagina look like throughout the decades and how does a normal vagina age? And how do you tell if something is wrong 'down there'?
Every woman and every vagina is different, and it's completely understandable to wonder, 'is my vagina normal?'. But a healthy vagina will continue to change as we go through life - this is totally normal. Key life transitions such as pregnancy and menopause will have an effect on your genitals, just as they do on the rest of your body.
Your vagina at 30
If you are on the pill, or have taken it previously, your vagina may become drier in your thirties - experts believe that because the pill stops ovulation, you might not produce as much natural lubrication at this time of the month.
Stephanie S Fabuion, author of Mayo Clinic: The Menopause Solution says, "We think some women may get more vulvar dryness with birth control pills because the pills are blocking male sex hormones called androgens, and the vulva has androgen receptors." However, she does add that this varies from woman to woman.
Pregnancy and childbirth can also have a massive impact on your vulva. The uterus swells to watermelon proportions during pregnancy - some women even get varicose veins on their genitals thanks to this increase in weight. Hormones produced when you are expecting can also change the colour of your vulva, making it darker.
During childbirth, your vagina will naturally stretch as well if you don't end up having a C-section. Thankfully though, the vagina is an extremely resilient part of your body and, thanks to its elasticity and blood supply, a healthy vagina tends to return to normal within six weeks of childbirth.
However, doctors recommend performing pelvic floor exercises to help things since the force applied to our pelvic muscles during labour can cause damage. Doing regular exercises when expecting will help to prevent bladder leakage and can help make sex feel more like before.
Your vagina at 40
Years of de-fuzzing may start to take their toll now - you might notice skin or pigment changes as a result of waxing or shaving down there. Just like the hair on your head, your pubic hair will also start to thin in your forties. This is thought to be down to declining oestrogen, which occurs as you approach your menopause.
Aside from pregnancy-related changes, a healthy vagina will remain largely unchanged until you reach your forties. However, during this decade, your hormone levels begin to decline as perimenopause beckons. At this point, you may start to notice reductions in elasticity, thinning vaginal walls and the beginnings of vaginal dryness, which can result in itching and redness.
Your vagina at 50
Most women go through the menopause between the ages of 50 and 52 - this will have an enormous impact on a normal vagina.
Depleted oestrogen levels result in thinner, less elastic and drier vulvar tissue due to loss of fat and collagen. This can cause irritation during sex - compared by some people to using sandpaper or feeling like you need to go to the toilet.
As hormone levels drop, your body stops making certain bacteria - this will changes the pH level of a normal vagina, making it more acidic. In the absence of this good bacteria, you will be more prone to infections like urinary tract infections and bacterial vaginosis, as well as STIs.
Your vagina at 60s and beyond
Whilst other symptoms of the menopause will gradually tail off at this stage, changes to your vagina will continue on into your 60s. By the age of 60, nearly 60 per cent of women experience problems with vaginal dryness.
This can cause problems for your sex life. Faubion explains, "When sex hurts for women after menopause, there's this involuntary reaction. You anticipate having painful sex, and then your pelvic floor muscles spasm to protect you. Your brain is saying, 'This is going to hurt'."
How to tell if something is wrong down there
You may be wondering how to decipher between normal vagina ageing and changes - and how to tell if something is wrong down there.
It might not always seem obvious when something is wrong with your vagina - but there are some things to look out for. If you experience any of the following symptoms, it might be time to visit a doctor:
- Heavier discharge than usual
- Pain during sex
- A change in odour
- New lumps and bumps
How can you look after your vagina, as it ages?
If you have concerns about your vagina or feel physically uncomfortable, it's important to seek medical attention, whatever your age. However, remember that a healthy vagina will likely always undergo changes. Try these self-help tips to keep yours feeling good...
- Always stay hydrated. Drinking water keeps your skin hydrated, and it can do the same for your vagina as well.
- Doing pelvic floor exercises can help to stem bladder leakage and help sex feel comfortable again
- Ditch your office chair - instead, sit on a Swiss ball for 15 minutes a day. This forcesthe muscles of your pelvic floor to contract - and you won't need to do a singlesqueeze.
- If your problems revolve around dryness during sex then a lubricant can make things easier - just remember not to use oil-based lubricants with condoms.
- We slather expensive creams on our face to help the ageing process, but we can do the same to our vaginas. Vaginal moisturisers such as Vagisan help to maintain a natural pH, as well as keeping the skin supple and hydrated.
- A GP can prescribe vaginal oestrogen which comes in a cream, tablet or ring.
- Don't smoke. Smoking can further lower estrogen levels, furthering the impact of age-related drops in the hormone.
- Continue having sex. The more you have sex, the easier it is to keep having sex. If you don't have - or indeed want - a partner, you could try sex apps for over 40s. Masturbation is also a way to keep your vagina happy.
What is the pelvic floor?
A group of muscles, ligaments and tissue stretching from your pubic bone at the front of your body to your tailbone. "We used to describe it as a supportive sling but we now know it is extremely dynamic and active, more like a trampoline," explains women's health physiotherapist Myra Robson. In fact, the pelvic floor is actually the lowermost part of a ‘cylinder of control' that extends up to your diaphragm (the dome-shaped tissue at the bottom of your ribs), which is essential for core stability. Both Pilates and yoga can help you tone this interconnected cylinder of muscles - as well as pelvic floor exercises.
As well as the ageing process, menopause and having children, sitting down for prolonged periods of time over the years can have an effect on your pelvic floor muscles. Research by Glasgow Caledonian Universityfound thatif you sit for around a fifth longer than an average of 18 minutes you are more likely to have an overactive bladder. So it's important to keep those pelvic floor muscles in check. Recent research byBootsStaydry found that 76% of women who experience incontinence due weaker pelvic floor muscles avoid activities such exercising to evade the risk of a leak - which isn't good for the body, or the mind.
Is it ever too late to shape up?
"No," says women's health physiotherapist Lisa Few emphatically. "Whatever your age, and even if you have long-standing problems, a prolapse, or have had pelvic floor surgery you can benefit. If at first you don't succeed, keep at it."
Pelvic floor exercises to try at home
To strengthen your pelvic floor, add in a few simple exercises every day - and that's it! Boots Staydry Careline Adviser Jane Smith explains that, “Incorporate these simple exercises into your daily activity. Choose a comfortable position with the muscles of your thighs, bottom and stomach relaxed. This can be lying down, sitting or standing. There are 2 ways to do pelvic floor muscle exercises. I recommend doing these exercises twice a day.”
Slow pelvic floor exercises
- Tighten the muscles of your back passage, as if you are trying to stop passing wind.
- Now tighten and lift the muscles at the front as it you are trying not to pass urine.
- Hold both squeezes for as long as you can - breathe normally while squeezing the muscle.
- Start with 5 second squeezes and then do it for longer as you feel stronger. Aim to eventually squeeze for 10 seconds.
- After each squeeze, relax for the same amount of time as the squeeze.
- Repeat the exercise several times until the muscle feels tired. Aim for 10 repetitions.
Quick pelvic floor exercises
- Quickly pull up the front and back passages in a strong and quick lift.
- Now relax the squeeze before you start again.
- Repeat the squeeze up to 20 times.
There is also some pretty impressive equipment out there for those who would like to tighten up their pelvic floor, while they get in shape. The Leg Master Total Body can supposedly help tighten and strengthen the pelvic floor muscles in just one minute, when used two to three times a week. It also promises a full body workout and helps to keep legs toned and trim - sounds ideal to us! You can find out more about the product here.
If you're worried about incontinence, Boots Staydry Discreet Pants (£5.99) offer peace of mind. These anti-leakage pants use premium, elasticated fabric which contours to your body and moves with you, giving a close, secure fit when you're at your most active.