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 SELF. 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 SELF.
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.
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 issues like yeast 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.
For instance, the vagina is home to a type of fungus called Candida, or yeast. Lactobacilli bacteria are supposed to maintain the vagina’s acidity. This keeps the amount of yeast in the vagina under control, thus preventing yeast infections, says Dr. Paul. But when your vaginal pH isn’t in the right range, yeast can proliferate, leading to itching, burning, cottage cheese-esque discharge, and other yeast infection symptoms.
Another pH-related problem is bacterial vaginosis, which is when the “bad” vaginal bacteria are able to take over the “good” vaginal bacteria, leading to symptoms like a fishy odor, itching, burning when you pee, and more.
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.
So, what do you do if your normal vaginal discharge is constantly staining your underwear?
The experts advise against wearing tampons to soak up discharge if you don’t have your period. For starters, you don’t produce as much vaginal discharge as you do menstrual blood, which means the tampon will really just be soaking up vaginal moisture, potentially leading to irritation and micro-tears upon removal. Plus, when you’re not threatened by period leaks, you may be less likely to remember to remove that tampon, which could put you at a higher risk of toxic shock syndrome. (This condition is extremely rare, but it’s still worth avoiding the risk factors, like keeping a tampon in for over eight hours.) Instead, you might want to consider going the pantyliner route, although you should make sure any pantyliner you use is unscented. Fragrances in these items can be irritating to your vulva, Dr. Paul says.
It might be easiest to change your underwear more often and give each pair a quick rinse or wash when you take it off, Dr. Paul says. That way, the discharge doesn’t have as much time to set in. In other words, yes, more laundry is one possible way to handle this. Whether you want to go that route or decide you’re fine with some pairs of naturally tie-dyed underwear is really up to you.