The vulva is the collective name for a female’s external genitals. It consists of a range of parts including the labia majora, labia minora, mons pubis, the external part of the clitoris, the opening of the vagina, and the urethra.
The vulva develops primarily while a fetus is still growing in its mother’s womb. Further development occurs during puberty, under the influence of estrogen.
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The vulva secretes a variety of liquids including urine, menstrual fluids, sebum, sweat, and vaginal wall secretions. During sexual arousal, parts of the vulva become more lubricated. Despite all of these secretions, women need only wash their vulva with warm water and dry it thoroughly with a clean towel to ensure good vulvovaginal health.
The vulva can become irritated or swollen if it comes into contact with irritants. For this reason, women should wash their undergarments with a mild soap, then rinse them thoroughly after purchase and use. Some dyes and chemicals can also irritate the vulva, so sensitive women may find they benefit from wearing only white, cotton undergarments and using white, unscented toilet paper.
During sexual arousal, a number of changes can be observed in the vulva. When a woman becomes aroused, vaginal secretions cause the vulva to become moist. The labia majora flattens, and the clitoris and labia minora grow larger as they fill with blood. These parts continue to swell until orgasm is reached, or sexual arousal ceases. During arousal, if an orgasm does not occur, it takes much longer for the vulva to return to its normal state.
Most people use the term vagina to refer to the vulva. This is incorrect, however, as the vagina is an internal part of a woman’s anatomy, whereas the vulva is the term for the exterior genitalia.