The internet — and likely the magazines in the supermarket checkout line — are full of tips to help you achieve and maintain a healthy vaginal pH. Eat yogurt. Douche with vinegar and water. There’s lots of free advice out there, but how do you know what’s safe and what’s harmful?

Your vaginal pH is the level of acidity in your vaginal fluids. Normal vaginal discharge should have a pH of 3.8 to 4.5, which — on a scale of 1 to 14, with 1 being the most acidic — is pretty high in acidity. This acid helps ward off harmful bacteria and keeps your vagina in a healthy state. When your pH levels fall outside that range, you risk discouraging good vaginal bacteria and encouraging the bacteria you don’t want, such as E. coli and yeast.

Signs your vaginal pH may be a little off

If your vaginal discharge is causing a burning sensation, is discolored, itchy, or has an unusual thickness or odor, you can use a home vaginal infection test to get a reading on the pH level. The tests typically cost less than $20 and can sometimes help you identify what type of infection or bacteria your vagina is harboring.

There are two caveats about testing at home, however:

  1. pH tests do not test for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
  2. pH tests are not a substitute for advice and care from your physician.

If you’re experiencing these unpleasant symptoms for the first time, schedule a consultation with your doctor immediately. Remember, when it comes to your health and well-being, it’s better to be safe. Don’t assume you have a yeast infection, and don’t use a cream for a yeast infection if this is not something your doctor has previously sanctioned.

What is safe when it comes to maintaining a healthy vaginal pH

On a regular basis, it’s usually safe to clean the outside of your vagina with water or a gentle soap designed for vaginal care. Douching, however, has been linked to an increased risk of bacterial vaginosis (BV).

It’s also safe to use most birth control pills and condoms without spermicide to avoid pregnancy. Some other methods of birth control have been known to alter vaginal pH, however. It’s a good idea to consult your physician if you intend to try any other means of contraception or if you have concerns.

When it comes to vaginal pH, it’s best to know your normal condition. This means you’ll know when something isn’t right, and you’ll be able to take the right steps to getting treatment. If something seems abnormal, you can take a pH test at home or call your doctor’s office for a visit. He or she will be the best source of information when it comes to topics like diet, cleansing, topical creams and more.