What is a vagina supposed to smell like anyway?
I would be willing to bet that your grade school sex-ed class taught you very little when it comes to vaginal odors. In this blog post, I want to share with you the basics. What is normal, what is not and how normal hormonal shifts can impact the scent of our lady bits. I also wanted to emphasize that as women culturally we have been taught to feel shame and embarrassment over our normal body functions and I want to change this. You won’t believe the advertisements I dug up that you will see later on in this blog!
At the end of the day, every woman has a unique vaginal smell that when all is well is considered 100% normal. This is part of the individualized beauty of who we are. There are though some specific scents that are not normal and give you an important signal that your vagina needs some medical care. Unlike what popular douche companies try to tell us, your vagina is not meant to smell like lavender and roses.
Your vagina is home to many many bacteria and yeasts that keep us healthy when balanced. The basic function of this microbial population is to serve as a barrier and keep the vaginal pH just right to protect us from harmful infections as well as yeast and bacterial overgrowths – the kinds that cause yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis.
When this microbial population is not balanced you may experience discharge, odors and/or recurrent infections. In addtion, the vaginal microbiome plays a big role in the overall health of the uterus, vagina, as well as sex hormones. Research does exist showing a correlation between the microbe population and conditions such as pelvic and uterine inflammation, endometriosis, PCOS, pelvic pain and fertility issues.
One of the most abundant types of bacteria is known as lactobacillus. This bacteria helps to keep the vaginal pH acidic or low by producing lactic acid and thus prevents less friendly microbes from being able to set up camp. IT also promotes mucus production and this mucus provides a protective barrier from unfriendly organisms. A decrease in Lactobacillus has been found in women with endometriosis and is believed to play a role in immune and hormone signaling cascades. Research has also shown that this change in the vaginal microbiome can result in decreased sensitivity of the uterine lining to the signaling of progesterone, create inflammation and the symptoms associated with endometriosis. The wrong gut flora can negatively impact fertility through affecting conception and implantation, embryo transfer effectiveness, increase miscarriage risk and even preterm birth.
Where our society has really failed women is with the negative associations we have learned from our culture between normal female physiology. The shame and embarrassment women often express about their bodies has been internalized teachings from our culture. What is frightening is studies clearly show that how we feel about our bodies has an influence on our experience of being a woman from our confidence, sexual behaviors and self-care. Knowledge and self-love promoting practices in medicine need to be adapted if true preventatives measures want to be taken in women’s health.
Douches and Fragranced Tampons
From 1900-1960s Lysol (yes the household cleaner) marketed their toxic chemical filled products to be used as vaginal disinfectants. Lysol back then was even more toxic than it is now (I would not recommend using Lysol products even today). The way these ads targeted women made them feel unclean in their own bodies and marketed these products as a way to “keep your man”. These advertisements unfortunately directly produced anxiety, shame, embarrassment and confusion over what likely was “normal” vaginal odor. This promotes the opinion that women’s vaginas should be “fresh and clean” or “odorless” which is just not the case. A vagina should smell like a vagina and now a flower garden.
Your vagina does not require douching because the microbiota, pH, and mucus all contribute to a self-cleaning process. Douching can also contribute to inflammation, irritation, itching, burning, vaginal tissue damage, and more infections. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends against douching, vaginal hygiene sprays/powders, as well as the use of fragranced tampons and pads. Fragranced products cause more problems as they are filled with chemicals.
What is considered Normal? When to seek medical care?
Normal vaginal scent can range from musky to earthy, to sweet like bread. A slightly fishy odor may be normal if combined with sweat gland secretions but may also point to an infection. To find out if an infection is present your doctor will take a sample of vaginal fluid and add chemical reactants and view it under a microscope. In addition, scents can change depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle because hormonal fluctuations influence the vaginal ecology and pH balance.
So what can influence your vaginal smell?
- Around ovulation, a women’s vaginal scent tends to be more fragrant. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Our most fertile time is around ovulation and thus it is the best time to attract a mate.
- Towards your period as well as during your period you may notice more of a metallic order due to the iron lost when you bleed.
- At the start of the cycle when estrogen is higher ( or during pregnancy) the vagina is more acidic and more lactobacillus is present. This is often a time of neutral odor.
- During menopause or even the second half of your cycle, a decline in estrogen is associated with alkalinization meaning the pH goes up likely due to a decline in lactobacillus. This can lead to increased risk of vaginal infections as vaginal dryness. A lactobacillus probiotic suppository or evening primrose oil gel cap suppository for 1-2 weeks may improve dryness.
- More sweat, when combined with vaginal fluid, can create a fishy scent. The fishy odor may also be associated with bacterial vaginosis which should be addressed.
- Stress and non-breathable fabrics can also lead to sweating which would, in turn, contribute to additional vaginal scent. The same way your arm-pit smell changes with sweating the vaginal smell can change. Sitting in sweating gym clothes may also promote bacterial growth. The best is to change out of sweaty clothes right away as well as wear breathable fabrics that allow you to stay dryer.
- Wearing tampons and pads can change the smell of the vagina. An ammonia-like odor may be due to wearing a pad or tampon which is hanging out in a dark damp place, and also probably has traces of urine on it (the pad more obviously, but also the tampon string).
- Sexual intercourse can also impact the vaginal flora. Semen has a high pH to neutralize the acidic vagina. This temporary shift in pH of the vagina can predispose one to bacterial vaginosis which can cause a fishy odor.
- Due to the close proximity, the gut flora and gut health can influence and impact the vaginal flora
- Vaginal infections that cause an odor are usually obvious and significant. Other symptoms usually also present at the same time as itching, burning, frequent urination, and discharge.
- Yeast infection: usually no smell, cottage cheese discharge
- Bacterial Vaginosis: Fish odor, itching, redness, irritation
- Trichomoniasis: Foamy green discharge, putrid odor
- Gonorrhea/Chlamydia: no smell, clear fluid, mucoid or mucus-like discharge
When in doubt, it is best to have any concerning odor or discharge investigated by your primary care physician.
Typically unless there are other symptoms (pain, abnormal bleeding, fever, discharge, fever) or a new odor what you’re experiencing is probably normal. As women, we are constantly being bombarded with messages that tell us that our natural bodies are not good enough and we need to put a stop to it through education and empowerment. Our vaginas are not meant to smell like flowers they are meant to smell like vaginas. If you found this article helpful please share <3
PS. If your vagina is troubling you or if you are fighting recurrent yeast, BV or UTIs check out my other blogs, webinars, and social media posts.