Written by Hanna M. Owens.
Art by Sarah Nelson.
It started with a yeast infection. Annoying, but harmless. The next month, another one. I cut out sugar, white grains, changed underwear constantly, and started herbal supplements.
I met someone. We fell into sex and the love of our lives. The following month, another infection. I bought hypoallergenic laundry detergent, took Caprylic acid capsules, quit tampons, and embraced free-bleeding like never before. Menstruation was a reset. Each month I prayed my period would wipe out whatever imbalance was accumulating.
My love moved to Germany. It was apparent that once the sex stopped, the infections stopped. I visited them in Berlin. We fucked nonstop and after 5 days, I was in pain and swollen. I quit using feminine hygiene wash and visited again a month later. Another infection. And another, for 22 months.
We got married, and I moved to Berlin. I was holding ice on my vulva in bed the night of our wedding.
My body felt ungovernable, and so horny.
The pain was maddening. The control it had over my life— my diet, choice of clothing, sexual expression. My body felt ungovernable, and so horny. Finally living with my partner, I just wanted to fuck but was afraid to let go. The constant paranoia almost broke me. I dreaded penetration of any kind, bordering on physical aversion. At times I felt it would break my relationship. Our sex was… stressful.
I saw countless doctors. In a new country and language I didn’t understand yet, no one had an answer for me. One said my partner was the root. He got tested. Nothing. Another found e.coli and prescribed antibiotics, which gave me another infection. Another told me to soak a tampon in yogurt. Like I hadn’t tried that before. Another berated me in the waiting room over why I didn’t speak German well enough to decipher my own test results.
Usually when we get an infection, or have irritation, we treat the symptoms with medication— and even that can be difficult due to lack of money, time, or access to health care. There may be underlying causes, and OTC products and prescriptions often don’t help solve the root cause. Antifungals like clotrimazole can actually exacerbate the discomfort we assume is a yeast infection, yet may not be one. Herbal supplements and dietary adjustments can help, but may not be enough.
We are fed messages that our genitals are dirty, smelly, too hairy, and that we need to buy products to curb their natural and healthy functions. Many vulva-having people are left at a loss in terms of basic genital care.
After a few months in Germany, I developed rashes on my hands and eyelids. I was diagnosed with (the super common) atopic dermatitis (eczema) and advised to avoid the tap water. My dermatologist said Germany has very hard water and many foreigners have this issue. I bought jugs of distilled water at the drugstore. It helped, but seemed like an unmanageable solution. Shortly after this, with another vaginal infection, I found a great gyno, who told me about IZD, a specialist clinic in Berlin. The doctor at IZD took a biopsy of my vulvar skin and prescribed 14 days of cortisone steroid cream, which helped calm the inflammation. My biopsy results read: eczema.
I told my dermatologist about the eczema-on-my-vulva diagnosis and repeat yeast infections. She responded plainly, “Of course. Eczema weakens the skin, allowing infections to easily enter. And if your skin never heals from a vulvar eczema flare-up, the infections won’t go away. Of course sex doesn’t help this at all.”
Like this was the simplest conclusion to draw. As if I hadn’t been searching for this answer for two years.
There seems to be a general lack of discourse between everyday gynecology and dermatology…
Many environmental agents trigger eczema, often chemicals and synthetic products we are exposed to every day. Genital eczema can cause subsequent issues when left untreated. While the root is a skin issue, it’s often treated as a gyno issue. No other doctors had mentioned the eczema-fungal link. There seems to be a general lack of discourse between everyday gynecology and dermatology, yet I found there are clinics specializing in this overlap, in the US, the UK and Australia.
Once I had “vulvar eczema” in my vocabulary, I came across this article, this self-help guide and this thread of other sufferers. I was desperate and took their advice. Sadly, the products these wonderful people suggested as a daily moisturizer only exacerbated my skin’s state.
I completely stopped penetrative sex for three months. Threw out ALL my underwear (the adhesive from pads seeps into the fabric and causes irritation) and went commando. Grew out my bush. Quit pads and pantyliners. Just free-bled.
While I lived to see maroon streaks run down my thighs, I had to accept that my menstrual fluid was irritating my skin further and worsening the eczema.
My last awakening was a sad one. While I lived to see maroon streaks run down my thighs, I had to accept that my menstrual fluid was irritating my skin further and worsening the eczema. I switched to bleach-free tampons and did another round of cortisone.
Finding the right moisturizer has been crucial. I personally can’t use anything with preservatives, petrolatum, glycerin… basically, my skin needs all natural ingredients. I recommend this, this and this. Not cheap, but worth it. I apply after peeing (urine can be an irritant), before sex (and rinse after sex) and before bed. I only use distilled water to rinse my vulva. No soap! Ever.
The following regimen has worked for me:
🌀 moisturizer 🌀 full bush 🌀 bleach-free toilet paper 🌀 patting dry
🌀 loose bottoms 🌀 bleach-free tampons or menstrual cup 🌀 showers
🌀 cut crotch out of tights 🌀 distilled water 🌀 cortisone when needed
🌀 commando or 100% cotton underwear
❌ vaginally penetrative sex (for some time) ❌ hair removal ❌ wet wipes
❌ synthetic fabrics ❌ tight bottoms ❌ pads and pantyliners ❌ friction
❌ free-bleeding ❌ bleached and colored toilet paper ❌ chemical contact
❌ soap, feminine wash, perfume
With vigilance, I slowly started feeling better. Ten months in, I have my life back. Our skin is resilient.
About The Author
Hanna M. Owens is an artist and writer originally from Baltimore. Their work has appeared in Hobart, Salt Hill, DIALOGIST and stadtsprachen magazin, and been exhibited at La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse, Montreal, Institut für Alles Mögliche, Berlin, the Ann Arbor Film Festival and MIX NYC. They currently live in Berlin and work as a newborn nanny.
Check Out Hanna’s Website: hannamowens.com
Follow on Twitter: @hannamowens