Contact dermatitis of the vulva

What is contact dermatitis of the vulva?

It is a skin problem that causes:

  • Vulvar or vaginal burning
  • Irritation
  • Itching

It happens when the vulvar skin becomes sensitive to products called contact irritants. This can be sudden or get worse slowly with repeated exposure to irritants, such as:

  • Laundry detergents
  • Fabric softeners and dryer sheets
  • Body soaps
  • Feminine products (douches, vaginal deodorants, over-the-counter vaginal creams and ointments, pads, wipes)

What are the signs?

  • Mild to severe burning and/or itching of the vulva
  • Vulvar redness and swelling
  • Raw feeling due to the vulvar irritation
  • Damp or wet feeling due to weeping of the irritated skin surface
    • Some women mistake this dampness as vaginal discharge.
  • Pain with insertion of a tampon, speculum, or with intercourse

How is it diagnosed?

Your provider will do an exam of the vulva to look for skin changes. A sample of your vaginal discharge may be tested to rule out infection.

What irritants should be avoided?

  • Laundry detergents with enzymes, whiteners, and brighteners
  • Fabric softeners and dryer sheets
  • Perfumed bath soaps, gels, and lotions
  • Bubble bath, oils, bath salts, and skin softeners
  • Feminine hygiene sprays, perfumes, and powders
  • Adult and baby wipes or towelettes
  • Deodorant tampons and pads
  • Douches
  • Contraceptive creams, jellies, foams, and sponges
  • Condoms, prepackaged with lubricant or spermicides
  • Colored, perfumed (aloe) toilet paper
  • Nylon underwear or panty hose
  • Other irritants–talk about these at your visit

How is it treated?

Remove irritants

Follow the Vulvar Skin Care Guidelines.

Steroid ointments

Put a thin layer to sites of discomfort. This will slowly lessen redness, swelling, itching, and burning. Use only as prescribed by your provider. Overuse may result in thinning of the skin. This will make your problem worse.

Baking soda soaks

Follow the Vulvar Skin Care Guidelines.

Gold Bond or Zeasorb Powder

These may be sprinkled in your underwear if dampness is a problem. Do not use powders with cornstarch.

Other treatment options:

  • Do not wear pads daily.
  • Change your underwear when they are damp.
  • Do not sleep in underwear at night.
  • Use extra virgin olive oil, vegetable oil, or zinc oxide ointment to protect the vulvar skin when you are not using a steroid ointment.

It should slowly get better. Call your provider if you still have symptoms.

Last reviewed: 
July 2020

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