Repeat after us: Every vagina has a smell. Yup, every single one.
“Because vulva owners aren’t taught their vagina will (and should) have some odor, many feel self-conscious when their vaginas do have an odor,” says Dr. Jackie Walters, OBGYN and author of THE QUEEN V: Everything You Need to Know About Intimacy and Down-There-Health-Care.
But there’s really no need to be shy about it. Vaginas smell the way they do for a reason.
Why? Usually, bacteria.
No need to squirm, these bacteria are the good kind. “[They] help the vagina maintain the environment it needs to stay healthy,” says Dr. Walters.
And since the precise makeup of bacteria in the vagina is constantly changing based on the food you eat, your hygiene habits, menstrual cycle, when you last had sex, etc., it’s normal for smells — from strength to type — to change quite a bit.
Although most scents aren’t something to worry about, sometimes it does warrant a trip to the doc. Read on to learn why you’re catching that whiff, and if there’s anything you need to do about it.
Ways your vagina might smell that are totally healthy
Within a given month (heck, even with a given day!) the way your vagina smells can change quite a bit. Here’s a breakdown of all the healthy variations.
Zippy or zesty
What can cause it: Bacteria, especially Lactobacilli.
“The pH of a healthy vagina is pretty acidic — usually a pH between 3.8 and 4.5 — thanks to the presence of Lactobacilli, the good, or protective bacteria,” explains Sherry A. Ross, MD, OB/GYN and author of She-ology and She-ology, The She-quel: Let’s Continue the Conversation.
The presence of these Lactobacilli, which are the same strain of bacteria found in fermented foods like yogurt and sourdough bread, are what make the vagina smell a little zippy or zesty, she says.
But so long as the scent isn’t so strong it makes your face wince, it’s no cause for concern.
What can cause it: Blood, like your period.
“During your menstrual cycle a coppery scent is nothing to worry about. That’s what blood smells like due to its iron content,” says Dr. Felice Gersh, MD, author of PCOS SOS: A Gynecologist’s Lifeline To Naturally Restore Your Rhythms, Hormones and Happiness.
However, if you’re not menstruating (or just finished menstruating), she recommends hitting up your gyno. “It’s not common, but it could indicate abnormal internal vaginal bleeding,” she says.
What can cause it: Condoms, lube, bacterial vaginosis.
There are a few reasons your bits might smell like a just-cleaned lavatory.
“Usually, it’s due to the fact that you just used a condom, dental dam, or lube that had chemicals in it,” says Dr. Walters. So if you just had sex don’t freak out. In a few hours the odor should subside.
But if it’s been a minute since you used a protective barrier or lube, you might have bacterial vaginosis, a very common and easy-to-clear-up infection caused by an overgrowth of not-so-good bacteria.
If so, Dr. Gersh recommends checking in with a healthcare provider who can prescribe you antibiotics.
Pungent and spicy
What can cause it: Certain strong foods, such as garlic, onions, and red meat.
Blame your last meal. “Pungent foods and spices seem to take a fast lane in our bodies through our body (including vaginal) secretions, causing especially intense smells under arms, on the scalp, and in the genital area,” says Dr. Ross.
Foods she says may give off a Very Noticeable Odor include:
- garlic and onions
- turmeric and curry
- blue cheese and other fermented foods
- cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, broccoli, and asparagus
- red meat, liver, kidneys, seafood, and fish oil
Mulch, weed, or dirt
What can cause it: Sweat.
Box smell earthy like BO? Thank your sweat glands.
Yup, sometimes the scent isn’t being emitted by the vagina at all, but from the sweat glands along your inner thighs, bikini line, and bum.
Most of the sweat glands around our bits are called “apocrine sweat glands,” which release sweat with a high protein and lipid content. According to Dr. Gersh, it’s slightly stinkier than the sweat released from our eccrine glands.
Some smells that call for a chat with a doc
“In most cases a vulva owner does not need to be concerned about their scent or visit a doctor,” says Dr. Gersh. “But there are few scents that may indicate something else is going on with their vaginal health.”
What can cause it: Yeast infection.
When there’s an overgrowth of yeast, your coochie can smell like sourdough bread, wet pizza crust, or the bread aisle, which Dr. Gersh says is a telltale sign of a yeast infection.
If you suspect you might have a yeast infection, call up your healthcare provider. They’ll be able to prescribe either a prescription antifungal cream, ointment, oral tablet, suppository, or recommend an OTC option. Most yeast infections are cured within 1 to 3 days.
What can cause it: High glucose.
If your vag smells more candy-shop sweet than fruit-salad sweet, Dr. Gersh says it could indicate high glucose levels. “This is common in folks with diabetes.”
If this smell persists and you have other risk factors associated with diabetes, it’s worth a checkup.
What can cause it: Trichomoniasis, bacterial vaginosis.
“A fishy odor always needs evaluation,” says Dr. Gersh. “[It] nearly always indicates an abnormal bacterial overgrowth, what is termed bacterial vaginosis.”
A fishy odor could also indicate the presence of a parasite called trichomoniasis. ICDYK: trichomoniasis is a completely curable sexually transmitted infection once treated.
Rotten meat or garbage can
Why: Forgotten tampon.
It’s probably not your actual vagina, according to Dr. Walters. “A pungent smell like something died inside is almost 99 percent of the time an old decaying retained tampon,” she says. “I see this at least once or twice a month because it is very common amongst menstruators.”
If you can reach it, go ahead and gently pull it out yourself. Otherwise, call up your gyno and ask for a same-day appointment.
If you’re sensing an abnormal vaginal odor, be on the lookout for these other common symptoms:
- itching around the vulva and vagina
- burning or pain during penetration
- redness and irritation
- clumpy, grey discharge
- burning when you pee
- abnormal bleeding
- abdominal pain
What your discharge means
“Discharge is the body’s way of keeping the vaginal canal clean,” says Dr. Ross. And it’s a pretty good indicator of what’s going on with your vagina.
Normal, healthy discharge generally appears milky or white in color, and be described as thin and odorless,” she says.
|Color||Cause for concern?||What causes it?|
|White to off-white||no||your vagina doing its self-cleaning thing|
|Clear||no||you’re probs ovulating, or super turned on|
|Pink to red||probably not||your period, spotting, or light bleeding after penetrative sex (if you don’t usually spot and haven’t recently had rough intercourse, it could be a sign of something more serious)|
|Light to dark brown||depends||a few days after your period, this is super normal — but any other time of month, it warrants a call with your doc|
|Green||yes||trichomoniasis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia|
How to keep your vagina happy and healthy
TBH, some vaginas are just more prone to infection than others. If that’s you, try out some of the following tips for keeping your vagina happy and healthy.
- Don’t douche. Your vag is a self-cleaning machine. “Washing your own vagina, messes with the vaginal microbiome, and can cause infection if one is not already present,” says Dr. Gersh.
- Don’t wash with soap. All you need to use is your fingers and some warm water to wash your bits.
- Wear cotton and sleep naked. A vagina that can breathe is a happy vagina! A vagina trapped in its own sweat is not.
- Take probiotics. “Taking a probiotic that’s loaded with different strains of Lactobacillus may help support the bacterial balance in your vagina,” says Dr. Gersh. She suggests seeking out a probiotic specifically formulated for women.
- Avoid fragrances. If it’s going near your vagina (think: tampons, condoms, detergents, lube) Dr. Gersh recommends using organic, fragrance-free products.
“If you are experiencing recurrent or chronic yeast infections, urinary tract infections, or bacterial vaginosis, make sure to talk to your healthcare provider about it,” says Dr. Gersh.
Vaginas have a smell, and that’s normal!
Go on, give your vagina a good ol’ whiff right now!
Learn to recognize and love this signature scent (or scents, we should say!). Trust, chances are your partners will love your fragrant, delicious, sweet, musky taste and scent, too. It’s a part of who you are, after all.
Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based sex and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. Follow her on Instagram.