When it comes to public understanding of female anatomy, we’ve come pretty far in the last few decades. This is no small feat, especially for the countless women who have benefited from the early detection of cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. However, while we’ve made great progress, female body parts like the labia minora and labia majora are still largely ignored.
Really, it’s no surprise that the labia are often overlooked in favor of the cervix, vagina, clitoris, and other parts of the female genitalia. These body parts have distinct roles in childbirth and sexual pleasure. But the labia minora and majora also play key roles in the health and function of the female reproductive system.
So what is the difference between your labia minora and labia majora? And why are these body parts important in the day-to-day health of your body?
Labia Minora or Majora: What’s the Difference?
Despite frequent use of the word to refer to the entire female genitalia, the vagina is actually only a small part of this anatomical system. Your vagina is the tube-like structure extending from your vulva (the external part of your genitals) to your cervix.
The labia minora and labia majora are both parts of the vulva. While these body parts are both called labia, and do share some similarities, they are distinctly different.
The labia majora feel much like the skin on the rest of your body, though the skin there might be a bit softer and thinner than the skin across your thighs or stomach. This is also where the vast majority of pubic hair grows.
Between your labia majora and vaginal opening, you’ll find the labia minora (which, as you might have guessed, translates to “small lips”). The labia minora extend down from the clitoral hood and clitoris, pass the urethra opening, and frame the opening to the vagina. Compared to the labia majora, the labia minora tend to have much softer, thinner skin and appear more pink than the rest of your body.
Typically, the labia minora will be completely hairless. Depending on your individual anatomy, your labia minora could be completely hidden between your labia majora or protrude outside of them. Either way is 100 percent normal and just dependent on your genetics (just like the size and shape of one’s earlobes).
Functions of the Labia Minora and Labia Majora
Of course, the labia minora and labia majora aren’t just there to aesthetically frame the internal female genitalia. Both labia serve an important purpose.
True, the labia minora and majora don’t have the impressive role of birthing children or giving intense sexual pleasure. This causes many health classes, puberty books, and even medical professionals to completely overlook their presence.
However, this lack of education leaves countless women vulnerable to misunderstanding their labia minora and labia majora. An overwhelming number of women feel self-conscious about their labia’s appearance, and many others miss early signs of disease or infection because of their lack of knowledge.
We believe living a healthy and happy life means understanding the entire female genitalia. So, to help bridge these potential knowledge gaps, let’s look at the labia minora and labia majora’s key functions:
The role of protection falls primarily on the labia majora. But what are the labia majora actually protecting you from?
Remember, clothing is a very modern invention. Especially clothing that offers a fully protected and near-sterile environment for the genitals.
Today, we joke about finding sand in our genitals after a day at the beach. But dirt and debris were real concerns for our ancestors!
Even with modern clothing, most of the vulva and internal organs consist of extremely sensitive nerve endings and delicate skin. The labia majora tend to hold a relatively large amount of fatty tissue as a means of cushioning and protecting these more delicate organs.
Just think about sitting down on a hard bench or chair — without this protective tissue, things could get quite painful.
But physical debris and uncomfortable surfaces is just part of this protective role. In fact, the most important job of the labia majora is protecting the internal genitalia from infectious organisms.
Of course, this protection isn’t fool-proof. Modern women still struggle with vulvar and vaginal infections from time-to-time. But just imagine how often these infections would occur if our delicate internal genitalia had no protection from the elements.
The labia minora do some protecting, too. This protection mostly exists around the clitoris and urethra opening, which are often covered by the labia minora when sitting or standing. Again, the degree to which your labia minora cover these parts depends on your personal anatomy.
In most cases, lubrication is crucial to safe and pleasurable sex. This is especially true in the past, when artificial lubricants were much harder to access.
When we think of natural female lubrication, we typically attribute this function to the vagina. Yes, the vagina does produce natural lubrication in most cases, but it’s not the only body part to have this function.
Both the labia minora and (to a lesser extent) the labia majora produce lubrication. This lubrication might increase during sexual arousal or times of stress. But, like the vagina, the labia minora maintain a certain level of lubrication at all times to protect the delicate vulvar skin.
When discussing the female genitalia on a medical or anatomical level, it can be easy to overlook one of the most important roles of these body parts: pleasure.
One could certainly argue that screening for cancer and ensuring safe childbirth take precedence over sexual pleasure. But, in many cases, caring for a woman’s health can also mean addressing physical and emotional hurdles to her sexual pleasure.
The labia majora plays a relatively small role in sexual pleasure. While the skin is soft and sensitive to touch, much like the inner thigh or neck, the rest of the vulva and internal sex organs easily outshine the labia majora.
On the other hand, the labia minora contain a large number of sensitive nerve endings. While the density of these nerve endings might pale in comparison to the clitoris, they can provide an intense amount of pleasure during sex or masturbation.
During arousal (whether that be sexual arousal, stress, or something else) the labia minora’s many blood vessels will also swell. This swelling offers additional protection for the delicate vulva during vaginal intercourse and increases nerve sensitivity for maximum pleasure.
Just like the appearance of the labia minora can vary greatly from one person to another, the level of sensitivity can also vary. These variations are entirely normal, so don’t be alarmed if you believe your labia are overly sensitive or vice-versa.
The Relationship Between Your Labia and Your Health
When it comes to being as healthy as possible, it’s important to look at the big picture. For women, this includes their internal and external reproductive organs.
So how do you ensure your labia minora and labia majora are as healthy as possible?
What should normal labia look like?
At the moment, there is a niche movement urging women to find beauty in their natural labia. This sentiment is mostly (for good reason!) a response to the numerous women undergoing labiaplasty solely for cosmetic reasons.
But an issue arises when women feel pressured into labiaplasty because they believe their labia are ugly or deformed. Maybe they’ve been told this by past or current sexual partners. Or maybe it’s just a result of social beauty standards no one can actually achieve.
Even with the knowledge that labia come in all shapes and sizes, many women still worry that something is medically wrong with their genitals because they don’t look like their friends’ or photos they’ve seen online.
So what should the labia minora look like?
Actually, it’s less about how your labia look and more about if the way they look changes.
Anatomically, labia can be pretty much any size, shape, or color. But if you notice your labia change in size, shape, or color, it’s time to make an appointment with your doctor.
Chances are, everything is fine. But these changes can also be a sign of growths or infections.
What should you do if you experience pain or itching of the labia?
Any type of labia discomfort, whether acute or long-lasting, should be addressed by a doctor as soon as possible.
Often, itching, burning, or pain is a sign of something routine and easy-to-treat, such as a yeast infection or allergic reaction to laundry detergent.
However, these same symptoms can also indicate a serious infection or underlying disorder. Seeing your doctor right away allows for early detection and treatment for these more severe conditions.
You may also notice the occasional bump on your labia majora or labia minora. This could be nothing more than an ingrown hair or acne bump, but we always suggest getting an expert opinion rather than ignoring it.
Is it safe to wash your labia with soap?
One of the biggest debates surrounding the female genitalia is whether or not you should wash your vulva with soap.
On the one hand, yes it’s safe to wash your outer genitalia with gentle, scent-free soap. However, is it necessary to do so?
In most cases, no. Washing your genitalia with warm water is typically the best option for day-to-day hygiene. This will help ensure that the pH and natural bacteria in your vagina, which help keep everything healthy, stays intact.
Get to Know Your Anatomy on a Personal Level
When it comes to your personal health, ignorance is one of the most dangerous factors. This is especially true for body parts, like the labia minora and majora, that are surrounded by social stigma.
Often, women aren’t encouraged to think about the health of their genitalia until they’re trying to have a child. But your sexual health can greatly affect your emotional and physical well-being throughout your entire life.
Did you learn the anatomy of female genitalia from a health class, doctor, parent, or not at all? Let us know your experiences in the comments below.