If You Suspect Your Discharge Is Bleaching Your Underwear, You’re Probably Right
If your vagina came with an owner’s manual, there would definitely be a couple of chapters dedicated to the stuff that comes out of this magical organ basically every day: vaginal discharge.
Discharge is a combination of bacteria, vaginal skin cells, and mucus and fluid from the cervix and vagina, Jennifer Paul, M.D., an ob/gyn at University of Chicago Medicine, tells us. It’s totally normal to have discharge that ranges from white to clear, doesn’t have any kind of strong smell, and doesn’t present with symptoms like irritation, itching, and swelling.
You may notice, though, that even your garden variety discharge can leave a bleach-like stain in your underwear. It’s irritating to discover while folding clean laundry, but it’s not a cause for concern. Here’s what to know.
👉You can blame that “bleached” underwear on your vagina’s naturally acidic pH.
Dr. Paul is hesitant to refer to what the discharge does as “bleaching,” noting that she’s a gynecologist and not a fabric expert. Fair! She can, however, confirm that the acidic nature of vaginal discharge may interact with the dye in underwear and cause a stain.
The resulting discolored splotch in the fabric of your underwear doesn’t automatically mean something is wrong with your discharge or vagina. “People shouldn't be worried about some mild staining,” Taraneh Shirazian, M.D., assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at NYU Langone Health in New York City, tells us.
But why exactly does this happen? To understand, we need to revisit high school chemistry and go over the pH scale. PH stands for “potential hydrogen.” As a measure of the hydrogen ion concentration within a substance, pH tells you whether something is acidic or basic.
The pH scale is from 0 to 14 or 1 to 14, depending on your source. Either way, pure tap water falls in the middle at 7. Anything with a pH below 7 is acidic, including lemon juice (pH of 2), black coffee (pH of 5), urine (pH of 6), and...vaginal discharge!
Depending on whom you ask, the normal vaginal pH range falls anywhere between 3.5 and 4.5. No matter where in that exact range it lands, that makes the discharge coming from your vagina acidic. “The acid of discharge can discolor clothing, but it's important to keep in mind that that's a normal, healthy discharge for your vagina,” Dr. Paul says.
👉It’s natural for vaginal pH to fluctuate a bit even within its usual range.
Among others, factors like sexual activity, menstruation, and cleaning the vagina with soap (not a good idea) can affect the vagina’s pH to some extent.
This fluctuation is not always a problem in and of itself. The vagina “has its own equilibrium,” says Dr. Shirazian. When its pH balance is disturbed, it should—and usually does—eventually find its way back to normal. “It's like a self-cleaning oven, the vagina, because there's constant growth and maintenance of the bacteria,” says Dr. Shirazian.
👉When your vagina’s pH gets really out of whack and stays there, it can lead to vaginal infections.
“It's very uncommon to have a vagina that's too acidic,” explains Dr. Paul. “The issue is actually when the vagina becomes not acidic enough.” This can give rise to different infections.
Lactobacilli bacteria help maintain the vagina’s acidity, which keeps the amount of harmful bacteria in the vagina under control. But when your vaginal pH isn’t in the right range, the incorrect types of bacteria can proliferate, leading to vaginal infections like bacterial vaginosis (BV), says Dr. Paul. BV often causes symptoms like a fishy odor, itching, burning when you pee, and more.
Yeast infections can also sometimes occur as a result of pH imbalance, but they can also happen even if your pH is normal.
If you notice any strange vaginal symptoms, Dr. Paul underscores the importance of getting a diagnosis from a medical professional. “It's very difficult to accurately self-diagnose what's going on, and you want to make sure that you're getting the right treatment for the right infection,” she says.