Latinas Are More Prone to Bacterial Vaginosis – Here’s How to Avoid and Treat It

Getty / LumiNola. Photo illustration by Keila Gonzalez

Self-love, for many, means making time to slow down, meditate, and journal every day. But it can also look like taking care of your body – including your vaginal and sexual health. The vagina is quite magical, but in order to keep it healthy, it needs to be in balance. While our bodies contain what we need to stay healthy, external factors can impact what’s happening inside. Our vagina is basically a canal that extends from the vulva to the neck of the uterus or cervix. Think of it as a highway where miracles occur, like the shedding of the uterus during menstruation and childbirth. It’s also where penetration can occur during sex. All of this activity can muddle the path of this highway, leaving it vulnerable to bacteria and infections.

Bacterial Vaginosis, or BV, is a common vaginal infection caused by the overgrowth of disruptive bacteria in the vaginal microbiome. It is the most common cause of vaginal symptoms among women globally, impacting an estimated 21.2 million women between the ages of 14 and 49 in the United States. BV is directly related to an imbalance in vaginal pH levels, and research shows that Latinas and African American women have disproportionately high diagnosis rates.

“The incidence of BV globally is about 20 to 30 percent among all women. Latin America is in the same range,” says Monica Simons, MD, a Latina gynecologist currently working at BronxCare in New York. “There is a slightly higher incidence among Latinas in the US, however.”

Daniella Levy is the co-founder and CEO of Happy V, a Latina-owned and operated wellness company focused on delivering high-quality information about vaginal health, along with a line of clinically proven products.

“Latinas may be more prone to BV due to our genetic predisposition affecting the composition of our vaginal microbiome,” Levy explains, adding that microbial profiles can vary, with some having a higher proportion of pathogenic bacteria, while others may have a balance of beneficial bacteria or probiotics.

“It’s kind of like a family thing – this trait gets passed down through generations in Latinx communities, so it’s literally in our DNA,” she says. “When you start looking into the science and our cultural background, you realize it’s a whole intricate web of factors that makes us more prone to BV.”

Rebecca Alvarez, a Latina sexologist and founder of Bloomi, an intimate wellness brand, says she believes Latinas are more susceptible to BV due to two primary reasons: “Genetics and bad ingredients in intimate products we use.”

She explains, “Within the vagina, there are hundreds of good bacteria strains that keep the ecosystem balanced. This is where the term ‘self-cleaning oven’ comes from.”

Vaginal acidity keeps our pH levels balanced, but when those levels become basic or when the bacteria is higher in our vaginal flora, BV may be the cause. Good bacteria include lactobacillus, which Alvarez explains is a strain with protective qualities that keeps our pH low and acidic.

“However, when there is an overgrowth of candida in our vagina, it can lead to yeast infections, and an overgrowth of bacteria can lead to BV,” Alvarez says. “Research shows that Latinas are genetically predisposed to BV because our vaginal pH is naturally higher. On average, Latina women have a pH of 5, whereas white women have a pH of 4.”

Additionally, Latinas tend to use intimate care products like douches and deodorizers more often than women of other ethnic backgrounds, Alvarez adds. She says these products are pushing the idea that strong fragrances are associated with cleanliness and that Latinas may opt for products containing synthetic fragrances, glycerin, and propylene glycol, like Summer’s Eve and Lemisol, the popular Dominican vaginal wash that reportedly leaves your vagina smelling and tasting like mint.

“Unfortunately, these ingredients have been linked to disrupting the vaginal microbiome and increasing the risk of BV,” Alvarez says.

Dr. Simons explains that BV presents itself with symptoms including abundant white discharge (generally associated with yeast infections) or gray-colored discharge (often associated with BV); in some cases, women can also experience a fishy odor.

According to Levy, other symptoms may include experiencing itching or irritation around the vaginal area, as well as discomfort during urination.

The risk factors that can expose a woman to contracting BV include lack of condom use because unprotected intercourse may cause a change in the flora and pH, Dr. Simons explains.

Other risk factors include harsh and perfumed soaps, IUD use, and other vaginal infections and STDs, adds Dr. Simons. When a woman has BV, she becomes vulnerable to other infections as well.

“The risk of other STDs, infections, and even premature labor increases since the usual vaginal acidity or protection is decreased,” she says. “Men do not carry the organisms which produce BV, but since semen generally has a higher pH than the vagina, it may cause the bacteria to overgrow.”

The vagina is self-cleaning and self-regulating, so there’s no need for washes. In fact, washes containing perfumes may cause irritation and allergic vaginitis. Dr. Simons adds that the use of boric acid helps to maintain the acidity of the vagina and may reduce the risk of BV, especially in those who may develop it more frequently.

According to Dr. Simons, semen can also up your chances of developing BV. Alvarez breaks it down further to explain that semen is alkaline, with a high pH ranging from 7.5 to 8.0, so if a cis woman has sex with a cis man without a condom, it could lead to BV for the woman.

“Other intimate activities like sharing toys, oral sex, or fingering can also lead to BV,” Alvarez adds.

BV can cause discomfort and is something that can recur even after taking antibiotics to restore balance in the vaginal flora. Levy adds that if left untreated, BV can lead to severe health issues.

“One of the big risks is an increased susceptibility to sexually transmitted infections like HIV, herpes, and gonorrhea, especially with a lowered immune system,” she says. “It can also interfere with your reproductive health, increasing the risk of complications like pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can lead to infertility or pregnancy complications. It’s definitely something you want to address sooner rather than later.”

The good news is that we can prioritize our vaginal wellness to keep infections like BV at bay. Levy says this includes the practice of good hygiene habits, including urinating and cleansing before and after sex and using condoms with non-irritating lubricants to maintain a healthy pH balance in the vaginal environment.

“Incorporating probiotics containing strains known to support vaginal health can be beneficial,” she adds.

Levy knows and understands this firsthand, as the foundation of her company Happy V came from her own vaginal health journey. She struggled with BV for five years before launching her company. This led to extensive efforts in sourcing the highest quality and safest ingredients, prioritizing formulations that support her health and wellness goals.

“Witnessing the positive impact these products had on my own well-being, I felt compelled to share this formula with others who may struggle with chronic or occasional BV,” Levy says. “It became apparent that there was a genuine need for safe and effective solutions in the market, and I was driven by the desire to provide individuals with a reliable option for managing their health concerns.”

Let’s face it, there’s an underlying shame many women carry when they are susceptible to recurring vaginal infections like BV, yeast infections, UTIs, and more. Levy’s goal is for customers to feel supported, informed about their options, and empowered to take control of their health journey.

“Oftentimes, these conditions create a feeling of isolation, which can lead to other health concerns, such as emotional and mental health issues,” Levy says. “By fostering a community where individuals feel empowered to discuss and prioritize their health and well-being, we aim to make a positive impact beyond just the products we offer.”

Alvarez similarly wants to empower women through Bloomi to provide inclusive sexual education and intimate health essentials for all bodies. Bloomi’s products include plant-based ingredients and aphrodisiacs, as well as recyclable or compostable packaging. Alvarez considers wellness from the inside out (including doing good by the environment), with a particular focus on Latina consumers.

“As a sexologist and researcher, I was genuinely taken aback when I learned about the disparities in Latina women’s intimate health,” she says. “It hit close to home as I realized how deeply ingrained our cultura is in promoting the idea of ‘smelling fresh,’ often leading us to rely on products that harm rather than help our vaginal microbiome.”

To maintain vaginal hygiene, Levy suggests sticking to gentle cleansing methods like using a soft washcloth or your hands. “Opt for a mild cleanser without any harmful ingredients aimed at enhancing scent or making you smell ‘fresher’ – these can disrupt the microbiome,” she says.

Wash only the vulva, or the outside visible part of the vagina, which includes the labia or lips, while avoiding the vaginal opening and opening of the urethra. Try your best to avoid getting any soap inside the vagina.

“This is especially harmful if the wash contains fragrances,” Levy says. “Recognize that vaginas possess the remarkable ability to self-cleanse, requiring minimal external intervention for natural maintenance.”

Like Latinas, Black women also face similar challenges when it comes to BV and being susceptible to contracting it, Alvarez says. Additionally, Black women also tend to use intimate products with fragrance more often compared to caucasian women. In the end, Alvarez says, “Understanding these differences is crucial for tailored healthcare and promoting vaginal wellness among diverse communities.”

Zayda Rivera is a former POPSUGAR contributor. She has been a professional writer for more than 20 years. Z is a certified Reiki Master Teacher, yoga and Zumba instructor, mindfulness and meditation guide, tarot reader, and spiritual mentor.

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