Vaginal Odors: What's Normal + What's Not
Updated: Feb 21
Vaginas are supposed to smell! We have been told in big and small ways that the normal vaginal odor we have is not right or acceptable. Think about how aware you are of your own vaginal smell, how many products are on the market for making your privates “smell nicer”, and if you have ever apologized to someone who is getting close to you about your personal smell.
Most likely, there isn’t a need to be so aware or concerned about your vaginal odor. Vaginas, like the rest of our bodies, have odor to them. The longer we go unshowered, the more opportunity there is for bacteria, sweat and discharge to make normal odors stronger, not necessarily making a bad odor.
Our vaginas are full of bacteria. And not all bacteria is bad. Most of the bacteria in our vaginas is good and keeps the bad bacteria in check. This is called our vaginal flora- a term that mean all the ecology that is going on in there.
If you have sex, work out, or are otherwise more physical or stressed than usual, chances are your vagina is going to respond to that activity and your nose might notice. But how do you know if what you are smelling is normal or abnormal? Today we dive into all the smells you may notice, what's normal and when you should be concerned:
A slightly musty smell is normal. This is usually caused by sweat, dead skin, heat and is especially present in pubic hair. All you need for this smell is a regular shower, just don’t go cleaning inside your vagina- the vagina is actually a self-cleansing organ and takes care of itself in there. You can soap up your pubic hair, your groin and your upper legs to get yourself as clean as you need to be.
A slightly fishy odor can be normal when it is mild and doesn’t last more than a couple days. This usually means that there is a bacteria over-growth in the vagina, but our bodies usually take care of it on their own. If the smell becomes stronger, lasts longer than a few days and there is unusual discharge present, you could have an infection that needs a bit more attention from your midwife or primary care provider.
Bread, beer or sour smells are a sign of yeast. It’s normal for yeast to live in your vagina, these cells actually get along quite well with the other bacteria present. However, when the yeast gets out of balance it can cause candida, an overgrowth of yeast and creates the symptoms of a yeast infection like thick cottage cheese-like discharge, itching, swelling and redness in and around the vagina.
Strong food smells like onions and garlic can be present in the vagina also. Its most commonly caused by eating a larger amount than usual of that exact food. It could really seem like it’s coming right from your vagina, but most of the time this odor is actually present in your urine and you are smelling it after going to the bathroom. It should return to normal after a day or two.
Bleach smell in the vagina is usually present after you have sex- ejaculate has a bleach-like smell to it and if you have sperm or semen remnants in your vagina you may get a whiff of this, especially as it starts to discharge onto your underwear afterwards. This isn’t a harmful smell, and the quality of the scent can change a bit with condom or lubricant use too.
Ammonia is a strong and sharp scent, close to very strong or old urine, or a windex-type smell. This can be a sign of bacterial vaginosis or a urinary tract infection and you should seek medical attention right away. If you are prone to UTIs, remember to urinate after sex and drink plenty of fluids. The use of spermicides and cervical caps and diaphragms is also a risk factor for bacterial infections in the vagina.
The smell of iron or blood in your vagina is likely just that- your menstrual fluid which contains blood cells. Menstrual fluid doesn’t have an odor by itself, it actually doesn’t start to smell until it hits the air, so cleaning up the outer parts of your labia, even while you are still bleeding, will temporarily remove the odor until more of it comes out to hit the air again.
There is one odor that you are sure not to miss- and that is the smell of rotten meat. This is usually caused by something left in your vagina on accident and will not improve until it is removed. If you think this is what is causing a terrible odor for you, reach inside to ensure that a forgotten tampon or something similar is not present. If it is, you can remove it and wait a couple days for your vagina to restore its odor balance again. If you cannot identify the cause of this type of smell, get to your gynecology care provider right away so they can locate the source of the smell before you get sick.
Have we demystified vaginal smells for you a bit? Hoping that you feel more at ease with your normal vagina smells and empowered to care for your vagina in new ways too!
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