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The labia minora are part of the female reproductive system and consist of two folds or “lips” of skin on the outside of the vagina. They sit just beneath the larger and more visible labia majora, and it’s often the case that they can’t be seen at all unless these larger lips are spread or pulled back. The main role of these small folds is to protect the clitoris, urethra, and vulva.
In healthy women, the labia minora are light to dark pink and sometimes brown or purple in color. A woman’s overall skin tone does not always match the color of her labia, as some women who have dark brown complexions have light pink folds while some women with very fair complexions have genital skin that is dark brown or purple. Pretty much any combination is considered normal, but if the area becomes splotchy or begins changing colors, this could indicate a skin disorder or a rare skin cancer.
These folds protect some of the more sensitive parts of the female anatomy. They cover the clitoris, which houses many sexual nerve endings, and shield the vulval vestibule, which contains the openings to both the urethra and vagina. They make it harder for mucus secreted from the vagina to enter the urethra, and by the same token they can act as a barrier preventing urine from entering the vaginal chamber. Debris from the outside environment similarly has a more difficult time penetrating either opening.
Symmetry and Size
The lips are often asymmetrical, which in practical terms means that they are commonly of slightly different sizes or lengths and one side may hang lower than the other. In most cases this does not indicate any problem, and is actually considered “normal” for most women. The only time when differently sized folds may indicate a problem is when one side becomes swollen suddenly, primarily if it is accompanied by burning, itching, or redness. This may indicate an infection or sexually transmitted disease, both of which should be treated by a medical professional.
Infection and Inflammation
Infections often start in these folds of skin in part because of how moist they are, as well as their proximity to the urethra and vaginal opening. In many women the initial symptoms of infections, particularly itching, burning, swelling, and discomfort, begin with irritation here, then progress to the rest of the vulva and vagina. Other symptoms that may occur at the same time include lower abdominal pain, burning during urination, and increased vaginal discharge that is thick, yellow, green, or chunky in nature. The most common causes for vulval-vaginal discomfort are yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis, and both can be successfully treated with prescription medications. Sexually transmitted diseases are also a concern.
Most of the time, the size and shape of the labia minora are of no consequence to a woman. They can be almost nonexistent or long enough to hang below the labia majora, but they don’t really play a part in sexual stimulation or intercourse. Some women become self-conscious of their appearance, however, and may even elect to have surgery to make the folds smaller. This procedure is commonly known as a “labiaplasty,” and is almost always done for cosmetic reasons. In very rare cases the folds may be so long as to actually interfere with intercourse, however, in which case surgery is often performed as a matter of necessity.
Alternatively, some women with very small lips wish to actually elongate them by regularly stretching them or using small weights to pull them downward. Elongation may also be part of cultural ritual in some places. Women who choose to pierce their genitals for personal, often sexual reasons also tend to focus on the labia minora, in part because of their proximity to the nerve-rich clitoris.