Progress is being made in the vaginal-product realm (via an influx of vaginal-health products made by women for women that don’t attempt to alter the natural scent). But still, nothing should make a vulva-owner feel ashamed of the way their vagina smells.
- Adeeti Gupta, MD, board-certified OB/GYN and founder of Walk In GYN Care
- Felice Gersh, MD, board-certified OB/GYN and founder of the Integrative Medical Group of Irvine
- Gunvor Ekman-Ordeberg, MD, PhD, OB/GYN and co-founder of DeoDoc Intimate Skincare
- Jill McDevitt, PhD, California-based sexologist
- Lauren Streicher, MD, board-certified OB/GYN and author of Sex Rx: Hormones, Health, and Your Best Sex Ever
- Stephanie Hack, MD, board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist and the founder of Lady Parts Doctor
“So long as it doesn’t have an infection, the way a vagina smells is natural and normal,” says OB/GYN Felice Gersh, MD, author of PCOS SOS: A Gynecologist’s Lifeline To Naturally Restore Your Rhythms, Hormones and Happiness. Adeeti Gupta, MD, founder of Walk In GYN Care, echoes this point: "To have a vagina that smells like vagina is to be someone who has a vagina. To think otherwise is a sad approach to the human body," she says.
So, what determines the way a vagina smells? In one word: bacteria. Like the gut, every vagina has its own ecosystem of bacteria (sometimes called a vagina microbiome) that keeps it healthy. “There are a billion 'good' bacteria in the vagina, called lactobacilli, which keep the vagina at the pH needed to protect you from infection and keep you healthy,” says OB/GYN Lauren Streicher, MD, author of Sex Rx-Hormones, Health, and Your Best Sex Ever. (ICYWW, that pH is somewhere between 3.8 and 4.1).
But that bacterial makeup can change daily, and even hourly, in response to things like hormones, pH change, and hygiene. And guess what? That can affect vaginal odor. In fact, one 1975 study found that more than 2,100 factors that can shift your scent. “The olfactory signature of an individual is complex, highly individual, and composed of many ‘mini odors’,” according to the study.
"To have a vagina that smells like vagina is to be someone who has a vagina. To think otherwise is a sad approach to the human body.” —Adeeti Gupta, MD
To that point, below find 10 pieces of vagina-scent intel that’ll come in handy the next time you find yourself wondering, Do I smell normal?
1. A stronger odor is common during ovulation
The reason behind this is that you're most fertile when you’re ovulating. “During ovulation, your body is trying to get people to come mate with you, so you produce a stronger smell that biologically draws folks to you” Dr. Gupta says. Your body also secretes more lubricant and mucus at that time to protect the sperm (which can also make sex more pleasurable), and that may affect the odor.
2. Going on birth control may change how you smell
Because your cycle and correlating hormones play a big role in your scent, “if you start taking a contraceptive that takes away your menstrual cycle, that will change the way you smell,” says Dr. Gersh.
3. Don't be surprised if you smell like pennies during your period
Your vagina might smell more metallic-y around the time of your period, courtesy of iron in the blood, Dr. Streicher says. “Especially if you’re using a pad instead of a tampon, you’re going to be able to smell your menstrual blood, which is going to have a coppery smell.”
4. Semen is known to shift the scent
“Semen has a higher pH and its own molecular components, which react with the bacteria in the vagina,” says Dr. Gersh. So if ejaculate has come into contact with your vagina, you may notice a subtle shift in smell.
Dr. Streicher adds that the odor may actually smell a bit like fish. “For women who notice a funky odor after sex, I recommend an over the counter gel called Rephresh that helps to normalize your pH, but only if a patient tells me this is something they're noticing consistently.” Otherwise, she says the odor should go away within a few hours or after a shower where you wash your vagina with lukewarm water. If you think you might benefit from a pH-balancing product, seek advice from your healthcare provider.
5. A musky smell during/after exercise is normal
Groin sweat comes from the same type of sweat glands—the apocrine glands—that produce stinky stress sweat. “The odor you notice between your legs after a workout is the same odor you’d notice if you stuck your nose in someone’s armpit,” says Dr. Streicher.
Another possible culprit of the sweat-sesh scent? Pee. “Many women experience incontinence, which causes them to release a bit of urine while exercising,” Dr. Streicher adds, noting it's an especially common side effect of workouts with jumping involved.
6. What you eat is probably a factor
There are foods that make your pee smell, foods that cause body odor, and—you guessed it—potentially foods that impact the way you smell down there, too. “It’s said that you are what you eat,” says sexologist Jill McDevitt, Phd. “And it’s true that what you eat can and does impact how your vagina smells to a certain extent.”
But that doesn’t mean there’s a Vagina Scent Diet. “What we eat affects pretty much everything, so it’s fair to think that a whole-food, plant-based diet (which is best for the rest of our body) is also good for the vagina and its scent,” says Dr. Gersh. (There are even foods that make pee smell.) But, just to be clear, this is strictly a hypothesis—as is that adage you may have heard about eating pineapple being an effective strategy for making a pineapple vagina taste—meaning you're making your vagina smell and taste sweeter. “There is nothing magical about pineapple," Dr. Gersh says. "But eating more fruits and vegetables is never a bad thing.”
7. Yeast infections may cause your vagina to smell more, well, yeasty
“Usually it’s the cottage-cheese discharge and itching—not the odor—that tips a woman off that she has a yeast infection,” says Dr. Streicher. “But it will make some folks smell yeasty, like bread.” Yeast infections happen when the “bad” bacteria in the vagina get out of the control and the good bacteria get killed off.
8. A strong fishy smell may indicate bacterial vaginosis
You may be wondering, why do I have a fishy smell? "When you have bacterial vaginosis, the bad bacteria proliferates and makes the vaginal pH go up,” says Dr. Streicher. The result? A fishy and/or rotten-egg smell. “It almost smells like day-old fish,” she says.
BV can also cause symptoms like thin, white or green discharge, itching, or a burning sensation. If you experience these symptoms, or feel like you have a "fishy vagina smell," see a doctor who can diagnose and then prescribe an antibiotic to clear it up within a few days, Dr. Streicher says.
The bottom line—does bacterial vaginosis smell? Yes, and you'll realize something is off. If you're trying to get rid of vaginal odor at home, it's not recommended you use vaginal suppositories to mask the smell. They normally do more harm than good, according to docs.
9. A “leftover” tampon is a likely culprit if you feel you smell like a farm
You put in a tampon and then forgot about it... whoops. Alongside symptoms like vaginal discharge, pelvic pressure and pain, and itching, Dr. Streicher says a very strong odor can be a giveaway. “It smells like a zoo…it’s a really strong, and foul smell.” Why? “The bacteria in the vagina react to old dead cells and the old blood, which creates creates the horrendous odor.”
If you can pull the string or get it out with your fingers, go ahead and do so. Otherwise, if you have a stuck tampon, you may need to bop over to your healthcare provider to help you get it out.
No tampon inside? There's one other possible culprit for this scent: trichomoniasis, a common and curable STI. So if you notice this smell and there's no tampon to blame, it doesn’t hurt to visit your doctor, who will be able to prescribe antibiotics for the infection, if you have one.
10. Odor and taste go hand-in-hand
“One of the main reasons people come in is because their partners notice that they taste different,” Dr. Streicher says. "It could indicate an issue.” If your partner or you notice a change in your smell or taste, Dr. Gupta offers the following suggestion: “Start wearing cotton underwear to let the vagina breathe, and go see a doctor. “Most infections won’t go away on their own, so there’s no point in waiting to get treated.”
Why do I have a strong odor down there?
As mentioned, there are many different reasons why you may feel your vagina smells. "When talking about 'down there,' we need to break down the anatomy first," says Gunvor Ekman-Ordeberg, MD, an OB/GYN and co-founder of DeoDoc Intimate Skincare. "We have a vagina, which is the internal canal leading up to the uterus. This part is self-cleansing, and the discharge that every woman has is the house keeping function. As the vagina is acidic, a healthy vagina/ discharge has a subtle sour smell." So what you may think is a smelly discharge can actually just be your healthy vagina functioning properly.
"The vulva is the external part of the genitals and everything you can see with the eye (outer labia, inner labia, vaginal opening, urethra, and clitoris). This part is not self-cleansing," explains Dr. Ekman-Ordeberg. "Urine can get stuck in the area and bacterial build up happens during the day, which causes odor. Also, where we have hair, we also have sweat glands. The apocrine sweat glands are exactly the same as the ones we have in the armpits and just like how the armpits smell, the vulva can sweat and smell."
How do I get rid of the odor down there?
“This depends upon the cause,” explains Stephanie Hack, MD, founder of Lady Parts Doctor. “If it's your vagina's unique smell, there is nothing to get rid of. It's just a matter of becoming comfortable with your personal smell." If you think you can truly smell your discharge through your pants, try taking a shower—taking care as to how you wash your vulva. "If it's a stronger or mustier version of your typical smell, a shower or bath (using only water to clean your vulva) may lessen the smell. This is similar for post-period and post-coital smells," adds Dr. Hack. "Finally, if it is an infection, treatment of the infection should improve your smell."
When to see a doctor
"Every vagina has its own unique smell," reiterates Dr. Hack. "It's important to familiarize yourself with your smell so you know what is normal and what is abnormal for you." However, infections can and do change your vaginal smell. If you think one might be the culprit, head to your doctor for confirmation.
- Keith, L et al. “The odors of the human vagina.” Archiv fur Gynakologie vol. 220,1 (1975): 1-10. doi:10.1007/BF00673143
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