The main points
- Avoid irritants such as perfumed products, soaps, cleansing (or baby) wipes and “hygiene” products.
- Keep the area dry.
- It is important to see a doctor if you have genital skin irritation and/or symptoms.
- Do not attempt to treat genital skin irritation and/or symptoms yourself as sometimes this can worsen the genital skin.
What is genital skin?
Genital skin is the skin on or around the external genital area. This includes the vulva, penis, scrotum, perineum, buttocks, anus and upper thighs.
You may use different words to describe your own body. It is important to use the language and terms that feel safest and most appropriate for you.
What does genital skin look like?
Like any body part, the external genital area varies in shape, size, colourings and symmetry (both the vulva and scrotum are usually different on each side).
You may wish look at your own external genital area, by using a mirror and a light. Being familiar with your own genital area and what is normal for you, will help with experiencing sexual pleasure, contribute to genital health and alert you to any changes or symptoms.
The vulva and surrounding genital skin includes the:
- Mons pubis (upper area of vulva commonly covered with pubic hair)
- Labia minora (hairless thin skin folds around the vagina hole)
- Labia majora (commonly hairy skin around the labia minora)
- Clitoris or glans clitoris (external visible part of the erogenous or sexual pleasure tissue)
- Clitoral hood (skin fold above the clitoris)
- Urethral (urinary) opening (hole to pass urine/pee from)
- Vaginal opening or introitus (hole for insertive sexual activity, menstrual blood to pass out of and giving birth through)
- Perineum (erogenous area of skin between the vaginal opening and the anus)
- Anus (hole attached the rectum (hole to pass poo) and for insertive sexual activity).
The vulva is different to the vagina. The vulva is the external (outside) part of the genitals in people with a vagina. The vagina is the passage that starts as an opening (hole) in the vulva and extends inside the body to the uterus (womb).
To learn more about the vulva and different types of labia, visit the Labia Library.
The penis and surrounding genital skin includes the:
- Mons pubis (base of the penis commonly covered in pubic hair)
- Penis shaft (length or body of the penis)
- Penis glans (head of the penis)
- Foreskin (loose layer of skin covering the glans)
- Urethral (urinary) opening (hole to pass urine (pee) and semen)
- Scrotum (loose pouch-like sac of skin that hangs behind the penis and contains the testes or testicles)
- Perineum (erogenous area of skin between the scrotum and the anus)
- Anus (hole attached the rectum (hole to pass poo) and for insertive sexual activity).
Sometimes the foreskin of the penis is removed for cultural, religious, medical or aesthetic reasons. This is called circumcision.
How can I care for my genital skin?
Like the skin on the rest of our body, genital skin needs to be kept clean and cared for. Genital skin is delicate and sensitive to products, moisture and friction.
To care for genital skin, you can try the following:
- Avoid perfumed products on the genitals – such as laundry detergent, fabric softener, soaps, shower gel, bubble bath, bath salts, cleaning or baby wipes and toilet paper.
- Avoid talcum powder, “hygiene” products, tea tree products or any product that has not been recommended by your doctor or nurse.
- Avoid too much or very vigorous washing/scrubbing and drying of the genital skin. Washing once a day is enough.
- Pat (rather than rub) your genitals dry after washing.
- Minimise shaving and waxing the genital area. Pubic hair protects genital skin by reducing friction during sex and other activities and helping to prevent the transmission of bacteria and other infections.
- If you wax or shave your pubic hair ensure good hygiene before and after (use a clean razor, shave the way hair grows, exfoliate regularly (with unperfumed products)).
- Wear 100% cotton, silk or fine merino underwear. Avoid synthetic materials.
- Avoid tight fitting underwear and pants/jeans and if you wear tights or pantyhose try those with a cotton gusset.
- Go without underwear overnight.
- Shower and change clothing soon after exercise or swimming.
- Wipe from front to back after you use the toilet (to poo).
- Use lubricants (also called lube) during sexual activity. Use only water-based lube if you are using a condom (external) and rinse off any extra or remaining lube with water after use. If you have any reaction or symptoms to a particular lubricant – stop using it and try another one.
- If you experience urine (pee) or faecal (poo) incontinence or diarrhoea, use a barrier ointment to protect the skin and if using continence pads, change regularly.
- Pay attention to any changes to the genital skin and see a doctor or nurse if you develop any genital symptoms that are not usual for you.
- Do not scratch or rub irritated genital skin – this may worsen the symptoms.
- If you are having sex, consider regular testing for sexually transmissible infections (STIs) even when you have no symptoms.
If you have a vulva, you can:
- Only wash the vulva gently with water or soap-free products such as Cetaphil®, QV®, Dermaveen®, Aveeno®, Hamilton®
- Or use an unperfumed moisturiser to wash with, such as sorbolene or aqueous cream
- Consider protective ointments before exercise such as Vaseline®, Dermeze®, and zinc paste
- Avoid cleaning inside the vagina or douching. Your vagina cleans itself and it is normal to have some clear or white discharge with little or no smell.
- If you are using disposable period products - use unscented cotton sanitary pads and tampons only when having a period (menstruating) and change them regularly. You can also use menstrual cups or period underwear.
If you have a penis, you can:
- Only wash the genital skin gently with a mild, unscented soap or soap-free product such as Cetaphil®, QV®, Dermaveen®, Aveeno®, Hamilton®
- If you have a foreskin, gently pull back the foreskin and wash underneath with warm water and a mild unscented soap or soap free product.
- Pull the foreskin back all the way when urinating to prevent infections and odours.
Genital skin symptoms
Genital skin conditions are extremely common. Some conditions found on genital skin are also seen on other areas of the body.
There are a range of different symptoms people can experience such as changes to the skin colour, swelling, rash, dry, cracked or split skin, sores or lumps. There may also be changes in the discharge (fluid) odour, itching or pain.
What can cause genital skin irritation and/or symptoms?
- Irritation from products and/or unsuitable genital skin care.
- Allergies, inflammatory skin conditions and autoimmune disorders – such as dermatitis, psoriasis, lichen planus, lichen sclerosis, balanitis, eczema.,
- Infections (e.g., fungal, yeast, lice, mites, viral and bacterial – including STIs).
- Changes in hormones generally but especially around the time of a period (menstruating), pregnancy, breastfeeding or during menopause.
- Not having enough lubrication (internal fluids or lube) during sex.
What if I have genital skin irritation and/or symptoms?
It is recommended you see a doctor or nurse if you are experiencing genital skin irritation and/or symptoms. Treating these yourself may worsen the condition.
The doctor or nurse will usually take a detailed medical and sexual health history. Any information or details you discuss will be kept private and confidential. This will help them to assess the condition and guide any tests and possible treatment options.
It can often be helpful for the doctor or nurse to look at your genitals, do a genital examination and testing to diagnose genital skin irritation or symptoms. However, diagnosis and treatment options can be determined sometimes just from the history you give and the symptoms you describe.
When you are ready, you may need to undress from the waist down in a private space in the consultation room. Doctors and nurses are professionals who will be respectful of your privacy and try to minimise any discomfort you may have. You can stop an examination at any point.
During the examination the doctor or nurse may use:
- A speculum inserted into the vagina, if tolerable
- A cotton swab to collect a sample from the affected area(s)
- A skin scrape or biopsy (small sample of skin)
- Urine tests
- Blood tests
- A sexually transmissible infection (STI) screen.
Sexual Health Victoria (SHV) provides expert, confidential STI and BBV testing to Victorians. We also provide expert information, healthcare and support on a range of reproductive and sexual health matters. For more information on SHV clinical services, see our clinics or you can book an appointment online.
How are genital skin symptoms treated?
The treatment and management of genital skin symptoms depends on the cause, the condition, other medical conditions and any other factors that could be affecting your genital health.
Most genital symptoms are easily treated, often by removing or treating the underlying cause.
Some genital skin conditions and/or symptoms are cleared by the immune system and do not need treatment.
Some conditions and or/symptoms cannot be cured, however, there are usually effective treatment options that can be used to manage symptoms.
Your doctor or nurse will discuss options with you.
You may be referred to a specialist such as a dermatologist for further investigations.
Will genital skin symptoms affect my pregnancy or breastfeeding?
People who are pregnant or breastfeeding can be affected with genital skin symptoms.
During pregnancy, suppression of the immune system and hormonal changes can increase the chance of having some conditions and infections.
If you are planning a pregnancy, are already pregnant or breastfeeding and you have genital skin symptoms, it is recommended you see your doctor, nurse or midwife.
Where to get more information and support
- Sexual Health Victoria
- A doctor or nurse
- Your local community health service
- A gynaecologist
- A dermatologist
- 1800 My Options phone line 1800 696 784
- Melbourne Sexual Health Centre – a specialist sexual health clinic
- Better Health Channel
- Jean Hailes
- Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health – for culturally and linguistically diverse women.
- The Labia Library
- What’s Going on Down There - an interactive website that can help self-assess vaginal discharge changes
- The Women’s (The Royal Women’s Hospital)
- Equinox – for transgender services
- The Centre Clinic – a safe and friendly general practice, providing care for LGBTI community members as well as specialist medical care for people living with HIV, and expert sexual health screening and treatment.
- Healthy Male (formerly Andrology Australia)
If you are using the internet for information, only use reliable and reputable websites, such as the ones provided above.