How to Wash Your Penis, and Other Stuff You Should Know About Genitals

If your hookups are marred by the fact your penis or vulva starts screaming in the days after sex, read on.

02 April 2021, 8:15am

Traditionally, sex is supposed to be unbridled fun. So it can put a bit of a downer on things when you’re plagued with chronic conditions like thrush, UTIs, dermatitis, or really any ailment whose Google results are accompanied with phrases like “cottage cheese discharge”.

Unsurprisingly, these conditions can make sex uncomfortable or even painful, in the moment, or in the days that follow. In the worst case scenario, having sensitive sex organs can put you off sex altogether.

Without going into too much detail, let me just say I have a “special interest” in this subject, which means I would rather stick pins in my eyes than use anything labelled “chocolate body paint”. I spoke to a urologist, dermatologist and gynaecologist for their advice on how to have the best sex life possible when you’ve got sensitive genitalia. 

Quick note: You should always speak to your GP and/or local sexual health service about your symptoms, and get a full STD test, in case your “weird itch” needs to be treated with antibiotics. But if you just have sensitive bits, read on.

WHAT IT MEANS TO HAVE ‘SENSITIVE GENITALIA’

Dr Mahantesh Karoshi, consultant gynaecologist at the Royal Free Hospital, London: To a gynaecologist, “sensitive vulva” means vulvodynia, (chronic vulval pain), which can lead to depression and low sex drive. Sensitive vulva can also mean regular flare-ups of common infections such as bacterial vaginosis, thrush or herpes. So, before the sensitive vulva is diagnosed, it is important to seek an opinion from a health professional and get checked.

Lifestyle changes can also help, like wearing loose trousers or skirts and cotton underwear, and giving up “feminine hygiene” products. Also, if you can, don’t give up touching your vulva or having sex altogether, as this can increase sensitivity.

Dr Emma Wedgeworth, consultant dermatologist & British Skin Foundation spokesperson: Vulval irritation is a very common problem, and people don’t talk about it enough. Generally, vulval dermatitis will cause itching and irritation, while thrush will come with a discharge, as well as the other symptoms. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference, so see your doctor if you’re getting ongoing problems. They can swab the area to see if you have signs of the yeast infection Candida, which causes thrush.

Dr Maria Peraza Godoy, consultant andrologist and co-founder of the Healthy Pleasure Group:
Sensitivity in the penis and glans also exists. It is a benign condition most of the time, and can be associated with a basic condition of hypersensitivity (such as contact dermatitis in the skin) or subsequent trauma due to friction with fabrics, friction with toys, burns or other irritations from substances or infections. Any new lesion should be consulted and not self-treated. There are penises and glans very sensitive to lubricants, soaps, lipstick and rubber condoms, for example. If there is any doubt about allergy to latex, use condoms made with polyisoprene or medical-grade non-latex – polyurethane, for example.

WHICH LUBES TO USE IF YOU HAVE A SENSITIVE VAGINA OR PENIS

Dr Karoshi: In general, we recommend water-based lubricants, as they’re condom-safe. You could also consider using a silicone-based lubricant, which lasts the longest, so you don’t need to re-apply as often. But be aware that using silicone lube with silicone sex toys can cause the material to break down, so you’ll need to put down your vibrator before applying.

When it comes to specific ingredients, glycerin is often blamed for causing thrush outbreaks. However, in research trials glycerin was actually found to reduce yeast infections. That said, in general glycerin-free lubricants are less likely to trigger irritation.

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Dr Wedgeworth: When choosing a lubricant, use a non-fragranced one and avoid those which are flavoured or those which say they cause tingling or enhanced sensations. All of these extra ingredients can irritate.  

Dr Godoy: I’d recommend using water-based lubricants if you have a sensitive penis. However, be aware that water-based lubricants must contain preservatives (typically parabens, sorbic acid and sorbates, phenoxyethanol and benzoic acid) to prevent microbial growth, and these preservatives can cause irritation and sensitivity in some individuals. Lubricants with flavours or high levels or propylene glycol could be bothersome for some people with penises. Be aware that some research suggests that spermicidal additives (most commonly nonoxynol-9) have significant irritant effects, and, overall, their use is not recommended.

You should also avoid baby oils, burn ointments, dairy butter, palm or coconut oil, cooking oil, fish oil, mineral oil, suntan oil, haemorrhoid cream, petroleum jelly (vaseline), honey or other sweet foods, and hand and body lotions. Not only because they can cause condoms to break, but also because they can cause allergies and increase in temperature and friction, causing minor burns.

HOW TO WASH YOUR VAGINA

Dr Wedgeworth: Women are often so focused on keeping the area “clean” that they use harsh cleansers or feminine hygiene products, which actually cause more harm than good. Vulval skincare should be extremely gentle. Avoid harsh foaming cleansers or washes, or feminine hygiene deodorants. Water is actually enough and won’t shift the balance of bacteria and the pH of the skin down there. Less is definitely more. If, despite getting rid of your harsh washing products, you are still getting irritation, you can use a gentle emollient ointment, such as emulsifying ointment, but avoid aqueous cream or any fragranced products or essential oils.

Dr Karoshi: The vagina is a self-cleaning organ, and needs to be treated very, very gently. Vaginal washes are sold purely for commercial reasons, and they’re permitted because the government gets its tax paid and in general they do not cause harm, but health professionals advise against their use. Simple plain water is sufficient, or emollient ointment is good for mild symptoms of irritation.

HOW TO WASH YOUR PENIS

Dr Godoy: There are a few formulations for the penis similar to douches, but it is advisable to use neutral soaps on the penis that do not change the pH and the microbiota. Daily soap is enough if the sensitive penis condition is mild. In case there is no circumcision, retract the foreskin during daily hygiene in addition to keeping the area dry. Smegma and retained urine are irritants to uncircumcised men.

CAN YOU MOISTURISE YOUR GENITALS?

Dr Karoshi: The skin on your vulva can be moisturised with a gentle unfragranced moisturiser if it’s dry. If you’re diagnosed with vulval eczema, your doctor might prescribe a mild steroid based cream such as Clobetasol.

Dr Godoy: Moisturising the glans and penis as part of the daily or inter-day care should be a must. I personally recommend using lipogels based on vitamin E, enriched with fatty acids or phytosterols.

SHOULD YOU WASH AFTER SEX?

Dr Karoshi: Not needed, just pee within an hour of sex. If you want to wash, just use plain water front to back.

CAN YOU BE ‘ALLERGIC’ TO YOUR PARTNER?

Dr Karoshi: There’s science to the phenomenon that you can have a sensitivity flare-up after sleeping with someone new.

Typically, this would be bacterial vaginosis (BV). BV is not considered an STI, but because the vaginal microbiome changes with each partner, this can make you prone to BV.

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Dr Godoy: You can be allergic to almost anything, including vaginal lubricant. Using condoms can help a lot with penile dermatitis and sensitivity.

CAN YOU BE ALLERGIC TO CUM?

Dr Karoshi: Yes! Semen allergy is real, and affects mostly women. But it’s still pretty rare. The condition triggers common allergy symptoms, including itching, swelling and inflammation, typically about ten to 30 minutes after contact with semen. The allergy can occur with some partners, but not others. You should be able to tell if you have a semen allergy through condom use - symptoms should only appear after unprotected sex.

Dr Godoy: Also be aware that sometimes the pH in semen changes a lot, and can cause irritation after ejaculation.

THERE’S A HORRIBLE RUMOUR THAT GETTING EATEN OUT CAN GIVE YOU THRUSH. IS IT TRUE?

Dr Karoshi: Unfortunately, yes. Oral saliva is alkaline, vaginal secretions are acidic. When there is oral sex, there is a chemical reaction between alkali and acid, hence a neutralising effect promoting BV and thrush. 

SHOULD MARATHON SEX SESSIONS BE AVOIDED IF YOU SUFFER FROM SENSITIVE GENITALIA?

Dr Karoshi: Definitely if you suffer from UTIs. UTIs are often caused by sex, because the movement can make it easier for faecal bacteria to get pushed toward the vagina. The longer the act, the higher the chance.

Dr Godoy: It’s not bad to have a marathon session, but if you have penile sensitivity, take the proper precautions and be aware there may be inflammation that will need to be treated for a few days. 

WHICH BIRTH CONTROLS ARE BEST IF YOU HAVE A SENSITIVE VULVA?

Dr Karoshi: Hormonal birth control measures (oral pills, contraceptive implant and the hormonal coil) all cause dryness in the vagina. So a copper IUD might be best if you’re sensitive down there.

AND FINALLY, IS IT OK TO HAVE SEX IF YOU HAVE THRUSH?

Dr Karoshi: Thrush is usually confined to the vaginal skin, so it depends on the severity of the infection. It may get worse post-sex, as the vaginal acidity gets lowered, causing a thrush flare-up.

Quotes edited for length and clarity.

@iamhelenthomas

Tagged:

Health, Lube, safe sex

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