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Sweaty and showerless: Why music fests can be daunting for your downstairs

 A photo illustration of a diva cup, a condom, a tampon and a pair of underwear.
Lindsey Moon
Music festivals – and other, hot, sweaty, and sometimes unsanitary environments – create ideal conditions for bacteria to grow.

There’s nothing like a bad yeast infection to ruin a good time, amirite?

Picture this: it’s August 6, 2023. After Zach Bryan’s headlining set at Hinterlandlast night, you went back to your tent, sleepy and content, ready to rest up for the final day of the festival. As you wake up Sunday morning, your eyes blink open to a clear sky. You breathe in a deep whiff of fresh air. The birds are chirping. The familiar scent of coffee floats by your nose as your fellow festival-goers start up their camp stoves. You can feel the anticipation building for the first set of the day…but wait…what’s that? Oh, you feel like someone poured hot sauce all over your downstairs (and not in a fun, kinky way).

The bad news is music festivals – and other, hot, sweaty, and sometimes unsanitary environments – create ideal conditions for bacteria to grow. That means it’s easier to get yeast infections, BV, and other vaginal ailments (don’t forget about STIs). The good news is there are precautions you can take. Since festival season is here, I sat down with obstetrics nurse and lactation consultant Brenna Beltramo of St. Anne Hospital in Burien, WA, to talk about how you can dance it up all day long and keep your vagina from feeling like it’s swimming in a bottle of Tapatio. Read on for her tips. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

P.S. Are you confused about what a vagina actually is? Don’t worry; a lot of people are. In America we tend to refer to the entire female pubic area as the “vagina,” but that area is actually composed of multiple pieces of anatomy. The vagina itself is the canal that connects the cervix (the organ at the top of the vagina that separates the vagina from the uterus) to the exterior genitals.

Key takeaways:

  • Bacteria grows in wet, warm environments. The key to preventing yeast infections, BV, UTIs, and other infections is to keep your vaginal and pubic area as dry and cool as possible.
  • The best ways to keep your vaginal area dry and cool in a hot environment are to wear loose fitting clothing and stay hydrated and urinate often. Avoid thongs if possible, as they can bring anal bacteria forward to the vagina.
  • Hair helps protect your skin from bacteria, but too much hair can trap moisture. If possible, use clippers to trim your hair. If you prefer to wax, shave, sugar, etc., allow enough time for your skin to heal from the microabrasions caused by the hair removal before attending a festival.
  • Using a condom during sex can help prevent bacteria from spreading between you and your partner. Even if you don’t use condoms normally, you may want to consider using one in an unsanitary environment like a festival.
  • If you do start to notice any symptoms, see a doctor as soon as you are able. Self-diagnosis can be dangerous if the diagnosis is incorrect. In rare cases, BV and UTIs can become systemic and affect your kidneys, fallopian tubes, and other organs.
  • Don’t put your period products in the porta-potty. They can clog the pump used to suck the waste out. Bring dog bags to put your period products in so you can throw them in the trash.

Let’s start with what can go wrong. What can happen if you don't keep your vagina clean? 

Yeast infections – that’s the big one. A yeast infection is an overgrowth of Candida albicans, which is already present in your body. When it becomes a problem is when it overgrows. Sweating, dehydration, and stress can disrupt the pH level in your vagina and make it harder for the good bacteria to grow. Yeast is going to take over. It’s like a weed.

BV – bacterial vaginosis, a bacterial infection that must be treated with antibiotics – can also be a problem. That can affect the areas around your vagina because those are all open pores. When we're shaving and sweating, pores open up. Because the skin in our pubic area is folded, it’s easier for that skin to get ingrown hairs, zits, or abscesses that can get worse and turn into a bigger, more painful infection.

Ultimately, bacterial vaginosis is an infection. A UTI (urinary tract infection) is also an infection. In a worst case scenario, BV can turn into a UTI or vice versa. UTIs can go to your kidneys and become systemic. Any of those infections can become systemic and become sepsis, fevers, etc. I would say that's rare. That's unlikely. But, if you wanna go to the worst case scenario that could theoretically happen.

You mentioned sweating. How does sweating impact vaginal health?

Sweat is normal. It's good. It keeps you cool. But when we sweat we're creating a moist, warm environment where bacteria is naturally going to grow. The reason we have body odor is because bacteria is growing. In your pubic area, that moisture gets trapped because you don't get a lot of air flow. That's what makes it really easy to get a yeast infection, BV, or UTIs.

Female urethras are really short and accessible to bacteria, and that's why we’re more likely to get urinary tract infections than males. If you're going to a music festival, staying hydrated and voiding frequently are going to help flush out some of that bacteria. It also gives you an opportunity to wipe everything down and keep it as dry as you can. Wiping from front to back is also very important.

 An info graphic with information about wearing loose fitting clothing, hydrating and using condoms.
Lindsey Moon
The B-side's Dan Ray talked with an obstetrics nurse about staying healthy at a summer music festival.

What about hair removal?

Hair is very helpful in that it's another layer to protect our skin and pores from bacteria. On the other hand, having a lot of hair can trap moisture even more, so it's a fine line. When you shave it creates microabrasions, and it’s very easy for bacteria to get into your skin that way. When we do surgeries at the hospital, like a C-section, we do not shave. We use clippers because they leave enough of the hair to protect the skin.

Be aware of what works best for your body and pay attention to how your body responds to different methods of hair removal. For some people, hair grows back three days after shaving. For other people it takes a week. Waxing is very dependent on how many times you've been waxed before. If you are someone who's more prone to ingrown hairs or bleeding when you shave, try to shave long enough before the festival that your hair can grow back and you can get past the stage in which your skin's vulnerable.

What clothing is best?

Try not to wear clothing that's super tight and oppressive. Leggings or gym wear that breathes well would be better than tight jeans. Think about what we would recommend wearing outside on a really hot day: a loose-fitting cotton t-shirt and loose-fitting, comfortable shorts. Same thing for your hoo-ha. Cotton underwear is the best for moisture wicking. Avoid thongs, as they can bring bacteria forward from your anus.

How does the climate of a festival impact vaginal health?

In dry heat, you're going to have more airflow. When it's humid, the breeze is not quite there and you're stewing in your own sweat. Try to get airflow when you can, like standing by fans and going into the shade. You're going to be sweating no matter what, but what makes us feel cool is when airflow is evaporating the sweat off our skin.

If someone with a vagina wants to have sex, how can they protect themselves from bacteria?

Make sure to clean up afterwards. If you don’t clean up, that’s more moisture that’s going to get into your clothing and hang out right next to you. If you pee afterwards, that's going to protect your urethra from UTIs. Make sure you're in a clean environment. Make sure your partner has good hygiene. And even if you're with a partner who you don't normally use condoms with, be receptive to using a condom in a festival environment. With a condom, you're using a sterile product as a barrier so that you’re not spreading any bacteria.

What can people do if they do end up feeling symptoms at a festival?

Number one would be to get in with urgent care, especially if this is not something you've dealt with frequently. Some people have recurrent yeast infections. They know what it feels like for them. They know what it looks like, and they feel confident self-treating. If you are not one of those people, I would really encourage you to reach out to urgent care because there are so many things that can present the same way. It could be a yeast infection, but it could also be an STI. There are so many things that could be going on.

If you can’t get to an urgent care right away, coconut oil can help relieve some of the itching because it introduces an oily barrier. And if you do have an infection it's not going to make it worse as long as you're using a clean jar that doesn't have any additives. There are also tea tree oil suppositories that are usually combined with coconut oil. Anecdotally I know people who have had bad skin reactions to tea tree oil on their labia where it's more sensitive – so be careful – but that can be a good option.

You can also get over the counter medications like Monistat if you think it's a yeast infection. That won't make BV worse if it's not a fungal infection, but topical antifungals can take longer to resolve the issue. If you go see a doctor you can take something orally that will resolve the issue in one to three days versus five to seven. Plus, if I'm going to treat something myself, I'm not going to know whether it's gotten better for a few days. At that point, if it's BV, it will have gotten much worse. Symptoms show up differently for everyone, so sometimes we have BV and the only symptom is some smell. Or maybe my skin's a little red. But that's still an infection. That's still something that can get bad. It can damage your fallopian tubes.

What about boric acid? Douching?

There's a lot of mixed opinions on boric acid. It’s in a lot of products to treat yeast infections or BV as a “natural” alternative to antibiotics or antifungals, but boric acid is rat poison. If you’re going to use a boric acid suppository, make sure you tell your partner and do not let them perform oral sex on you for the next few days. They could get very sick.

Don’t douche. Douching or introducing any type of soaps or products that have fragrances or chemicals is going to disrupt the pH of your vagina and your natural bacterial flora. Your vagina is designed to have bacteria in it. We don't want to kill off everything because then we're going to have yeast infections. Everyone presents differently with symptoms, and sometimes you may have no idea until it's a big problem. So when we're introducing things that could irritate our skin, we’re just asking for trouble.

What cleaning products do you recommend? Especially for camping festivals where people may not have access to a shower.

Use warm water and a plain, antibacterial soap on the sides of your thighs, your inner thighs next to your vagina, and your outer labia. Wet saline wipes are really good for the inner labia. You can get sterile saline wipes in little packets. Be careful with baby wipes, because often they include fragrances or other antibacterial products.

Some people get their periods at a festival when they aren’t due. Why does that happen?

I can think of a lot of reasons that could happen. If you're hanging out with the same people for a few days that you don't normally hang out with, your hormones will shift. Everybody will sync up. Changes in stress, changes in your day-to-day, changes in diet, and dehydration can also affect how your hormones behave.

What period products are best to use at a festival?

It depends on the person. Diva cups are a great product, but you have to make sure you're using clean water to wash them and you've got clean hands when you insert and remove them. It's the same thing with tampons. You need to take those out. I've heard horror stories about people forgetting they had a tampon in. One product isn’t inherently better than the other. If you're using them properly, switching them out when they're saturated or at least every couple hours, and using good hand hygiene, they're all fine.

Be mindful of what resources you're going to have at the festival, too. Say there's only porta-potties and no sinks – a diva cup may not be the best option because you won’t be able to rinse it out with good hygiene.

Is there anything else people with vaginas should be aware of?

Have fun. Be nice to your vagina. Be nice to other people’s vaginas.

Thanks, Brenna!

A note on porta potties

An illustration of two porta potties demonstrating that if you put the lid down when you're done, the smell is contained.
On a note about porta potties, this photo is self explanatory and taken from a viral share on Facebook by Yellowstone National Park.

Last thing: If you do get your period at a festival, don’t put your period products in the porta-potty. Porta-potties are cleaned by a truck that sucks up the waste through a pump, and anything besides urine and feces can clog the pump. According to Bob’s Septic, even toilet paper that’s too thick can clog the pumps. Most porta-potties don’t have trash cans for period products, either, so we recommend bringing dog poop bags to put your pads, tampons, and saline wipes in so you can dispose of them in the trash. You can even find cute, lavender-scented bags or this eco-friendly option.

Bob’s Septic also said it’s up to the festival organizers how often the porta-potties get cleaned, and even if they are cleaned frequently, you never know who went in there before you or what was on their hands. Wash your hands thoroughly, bring hand sanitizer, and be mindful before you eat or touch your face or vagina (or anyone else’s).

Dan Ray is a freelance journalist, musician, model, and human with a vagina. Have a question or comment on this story? Reach out to Dan on IG at @heyimdanray or send her an email at heyimdanray@gmail.com.