How to interpret your vagina’s normal (or abnormal) scent
Fi, fie, fo, fum – is a smell in your vagina making you glum? New smells in your vagina or changes in your discharge shouldn’t be ignored, as they could be a sign of infection. However, not every vaginal odor means something is wrong.
Your scent is unique to you and can fluctuate slightly depending on your hormone levels, the food you’ve been eating, whether or not you’ve been having sex, and a number of other factors.1 Here’s the down-low on common vaginal smells and what they could mean.
Not all vaginal odor means trouble
Like any other body part, the vagina has a smell. Vaginal odor, along with discharge, is completely normal and is usually nothing more than a sign of good health. Familiarizing yourself with how your vagina typically acts and smells will help you detect changes that might indicate illness or infection.
Normal vaginal odor might smell like:
Tangy or fermented: The natural pH of a vagina is acidic, similar to coffee, wine, or apple juice. “Normal” vaginal pH can range from 3.8 to 4.5 on the pH scale. The vagina coincidentally also carries the same bacteria found in yogurt, lactobacilli, which keeps its pH low and helps to prevent the growth of the bad bacteria.2
A sour, tangy smell – reminiscent of yogurt or sourdough bread – is a good thing; it’s a sign that your vagina has a healthy pH level and lactobacilli presence. You may also notice a tangy smell after sex, which could be a combination of sweat, other bodily fluids, and semen. Because semen has a higher pH than the vagina, it can sometimes temporarily change the scent of your vagina (and throw off your vaginal pH).
Coppery: A metallic smell could be a sign of blood and is common when you are near the menstrual stage of your cycle. It could also be a sign of bleeding after sex, which isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. However, if it’s constant, you should consider telling your doctor or health provider and ask for a Pap smear.3
Sweet: Like tangy smells, a sweet vaginal odor is usually simply due to a bacterial fluctuation and shouldn’t be a cause for concern.
Skunky: No, you’re not high – sometimes vaginas can smell like weed. Your groin is full of apocrine sweat glands that secrete a milky fluid. When this fluid comes in contact with vaginal bacteria, it can create a smell that reminds you of Pepe Le Pew or your local dispensary, depending on where you live.
Vegetable-like: Much like the way chowing down on asparagus can make your pee pungent, your diet can also influence vaginal odors. Onions and garlic are two examples of foods that can echo in your vaginal smells. Again, this has to do with the smell of your sweat changing and then interacting with vaginal bacteria.
Sweaty: Sweat is your body’s way of cooling down. It’s pretty much inevitable whenever your body temperature rises, especially when the local ventilation is minimal. Vaginas – being warm, naturally hairy, and full of sweat glands and bacteria – are prone to “sweaty” smells. Some are just sweatier than others, regardless of size or weight. It’s nothing to worry about! Just hop in the shower or change your underwear if it’s bothering you.
What about discharge?
The amount of discharge you’ll have will vary depending on where you are in your cycle. Discharge that is clear or slightly cloudy is a sign that your vagina is healthy and cleaning itself, and it might be thinner and clearer during ovulation. Changes from vaginal discharge and odor norms could be an indication that you need to see a healthcare provider.
Abnormal vaginal odor: When to get checked out
If your vagina or vaginal discharge has a very noticeable odor, including after sex, it may be a sign of infection. Keep an eye out for discharge that changes significantly in color or amount, or is accompanied by any of the following symptoms:4
- Bleeding or spotting
- Pain during urination or sex
- Any sort of swelling or discomfort
These symptoms may be accompanied by a change in vaginal odor. If you’re noticing any of the above, give your healthcare provider a call to get checked out. Below are a few ways to describe vaginal odor that could be problematic (i.e. pointing to possible infection):
Chemical or bleach-like: Bacterial vaginosis will sometimes cause vaginal odor that’s similar to the smell of bleach. This is not in itself perfect evidence of infection, since buildup of urine in underwear or around the vulva can also smell like ammonia.
Foul and/or fishy: A “low tide” smell coming from the vagina should be regarded with the same level of suspicion as fresh fish that smells strongly “fishy.” Trimethylamine, the chemical compound responsible for the smell of rotting fish, is actually found in the vagina when certain infections are present. Bacterial vaginosis (BV) and trichomoniasis (trich), an STI, are the two most common culprits behind fishy vaginal odor.5
Rotten: A rotting smell coming from any part of the body is generally not a good sign, and your vagina is no exception. The most common reason for a putrid smell is a forgotten tampon. TSS is definitely still a thing: If you notice a terrible odor and also happen to have a fever, diarrhea, confusion, or muscle aches – and then realize you may have left a period product in a little too long – get yourself to the ER, stat.
As uncomfortable as it may be, there’s no need to be embarrassed if you think there may be something abnormal going on in your vagina. Your healthcare provider won’t judge you (we promise). Most infections are common, treatable, and preventable – plus, these symptoms are rarely a sign of a more serious condition. However, don’t put off a doctor’s visit if an unusual change in odor or discharge catches your attention.
Common vaginal infections
The most common vaginal infections are usually accompanied by a handful of the symptoms described above. Some are sexually transmitted, but the most common infections can happen with or without sexual contact.
Yeast infections are so common that nearly every person with a vagina will have one at some point. They are caused by a “friendly” fungus known as candida that always lives in your body. Certain factors, such as taking antibiotics, hormonal changes resulting from pregnancy or contraceptive use, and high blood sugar can lead to an overgrowth of candida. Thankfully, most yeast infections are easy to treat with over-the-counter antifungal medication.
You’ll know you have a yeast infection if you start to see more discharge than usual with a thick, white, clumpy appearance (many say it resembles cottage cheese) accompanied by itching and redness of the vulva. Yeast infections don’t typically change your vaginal odor, though some have reported a noticeably “yeasty” scent to their discharge – if you’ve baked bread from scratch, you may be able to pick up on it.
Bacterial vaginosis, aka BV, is related to another friendly bacteria, Lactobacilli (the one we mentioned earlier that makes your vagina smell like yogurt). When the proportion of this bacteria dips too low within your vagina, other “bad” bacteria tend to take over, leading to BV.
Symptoms of BV include discharge that is thick and whitish, or slippery and clear. A fishy odor is often present, especially during intercourse – but itching and burning are generally not present. BV can be treated fairly easily with oral or topical antibiotics.6
Trichomoniasis is a common STI, often accompanied by burning, irritation, redness, vulval swelling, a yellow-green or grayish discharge, fishy odor, and pain during urination. Because it is transferred from partner to partner, both partners will need to be treated with antibiotics before resuming intercourse in order to prevent reinfection.
Chlamydia and gonorrhea are STIs that do not always cause symptoms but can lead to changes in discharge in some people. If you have weird stuff going on in your underwear after a change in partners or unprotected sex, you may want to get an STI test to rule these two out.
Noninfectious vaginitis is not an infection but can have symptoms similar to one. This is just a fancy term for the reactions and allergies in the vaginal area that cause the skin around the vagina to become sensitive. Irritants in laundry detergent, scented tampons, and perfumed soap are common culprits, and the treatment is to simply switch to gentler products that don’t contain perfumes or other known irritants.7
How infections happen
While your vagina is a magnificently strong organ that can squeeze out objects the size of grapefruits, the bacteria that naturally lives inside can be easily disrupted by outside factors including (but not limited to) the following:8
- Hormonal changes (i.e. new hormonal contraceptives; entering menopause)
- Sex (including oral sex)
- Pregnancy and/or breastfeeding
- Poor hygiene
- Wearing undergarments that trap moisture (or leaving your sweaty underwear on for hours after your spin class)
Don’t be a douche to your vagina
Healthcare providers and medical researchers are all in agreement that douching does nothing but wreak havoc on your vagina.
It’s bad on two levels: First, it throws off vaginal pH levels by introducing a substance with a higher pH into the vaginal ecosystem. Second, it robs the vagina of the good bacteria, the lactobacilli, that play a key role in maintaining an acidic pH level and preventing infection.9 This creates a perfect storm for bad things to happen. Our advice to you: leave douches back in the 1950s, where they belong.
How to reduce vaginal odor
Our first and most important tip is to recognize that your vagina is not supposed to be odor-free! It’s home to an entire ecosystem of living microorganisms that are constantly at work, keeping infection at bay and making sure your reproductive system is functioning as it should.
Many of us have been bombarded with not-so-subtle marketing messages about how our bodies are supposed to look, feel, and smell since a young age. Take a stroll down the flowery menstrual product aisle at your local drug store and you’ll leave with the impression that your vagina is a stinky, gross problem that needs to be corrected with perfumed tampons, wipes, deodorant sprays, and douches.
Trust us when we say that your natural vaginal odor is not something you need to fix. It’s time to acknowledge that many of these “beauty standards” we’ve been indoctrinated with for so long are completely ridiculous – and even unhealthy. Your vagina is no exception, and we hope that you’ll join us in celebrating all of its incredible, unique qualities (including its scent!).
That said, if you tend to experience strong vaginal odor around your period, when working out, after sex, or as a result of a change in medication or some other factor – and if that change in odor has been addressed with your doctor and is not to be related to an infection or other problem – there are a few things you can do to minimize the funk.
First, make sure to practice good hygiene: It sounds overly basic, sure, but it’s easy to forget to switch out your thong for a fresh pair of undies after a sweaty workout. In that same vein, stick to breathable underwear made from moisture-wicking fabric. Cotton is always a good bet.
Avoid bubble baths (or taking long baths with products that aren’t pH-balanced) and don’t even think about douching. In the shower, rinse your vulva with warm water – soap isn’t necessary, but if you feel the need to use it, pick a product that’s gentle, fragrance-free, body-safe, pH-balanced, and gynecologist approved (like Flex Foaming Cup Wash, designed to be used on both menstrual cups and body parts).
After using the toilet, wipe from front to back to avoid spreading bacteria from your rectum to your vagina. Even better, upgrade from toilet paper to a bidet and spray your bits clean after every bathroom trip: There are a few different models available today that are easy to install on a regular toilet. Bidets also make cleanup during your period even simpler and can help reduce the vaginal odor sometimes caused by period blood.
If you’re not quite ready to take the leap to a bidet, vaginal wipes are a convenient way to safely freshen up your vulva. Flex Biodegradable Wipes are another great period (and all-month-long) companion; like the Cup Wash, they’re pH-balanced, free from chemicals, parabens, and other bad stuff, and they’re OB-GYN recommended.
Another tip for period odor? Change your period products regularly and never wear a product for longer than is recommended by the manufacturer. Flex Cup™ and Flex Disc™ can each be worn for up to 12 hours at a time, but tampons and pads have an 8-hour maximum limit. Also, since pads and tampons absorb, rather than collect, your period blood, they’re more likely to smell after a shorter amount of time.
Finally, practice safe sex and use condoms with any new sexual partners. If you have any concerns, never be afraid to get tested! Planned Parenthood offers non-judgmental STD testing and treatment if you aren’t able to see a primary care provider or OB-GYN.
Normalize your body
Fragranced menstrual products were not invented with your health in mind, but that’s a story for another day. Just know that fragrances disrupt the vaginal pH and can irritate the delicate tissues in your vulva – so why risk it? If your vagina smells that “bad,” figure out the root cause and then work with a healthcare professional to come up with a healthy way to take care of it (rather than just covering it up).
At the end of the day, the best thing to do is to embrace your vagina for what it is. Get to know it a little better. Take a whiff of your underwear every now and again to familiarize yourself with your own healthy, normal scent.
We’re not saying you need to start burning vagina-scented candles or wear your vaginal odor as perfume on your next date (though some swear by this as an aphrodisiac!). Simply be kind to your body, listen to what it’s telling you, and appreciate your vagina for all the incredible things it does on a daily basis.
This article is informational only and is not offered as medical advice, nor does it substitute for a consultation with your physician. If you have any gynecological/medical concerns or conditions, please consult your physician.