Fish taco, cod canal, tuna town… should I go on? Boys can be mean.
First, let’s get this out of the way: Your vagina is supposed to have a smell, despite what rude sexual partners or jerks on the playground may have told you in the past.
Few things make women feel more insecure than wondering whether or not they smell fresh down there, especially before getting handsy with a partner. The topic may be kept hush hush, but if you have a vagina, you know the issue all too well.
If you’re stressing out about whether your vagina smells like daisies and roses or a seafood restaurant, I have answers for you.
There are many factors that can affect the way your friend downstairs smells, and we’ll get into those. But every vagina has it’s own special smell. It’s a combination of the normal bacteria that lives in your vagina, what you eat, what clothes you wear, your level of hygiene, how much you sweat, and what your glands secrete. So, no two are alike (yay for individuality)!
Using too many soaps and perfumes and crotch sprays to frantically deodorize your va-jay-jay can interfere with the vagina’s natural pH balance and make her sad. As much as you might wish it to be true, vaginas aren’t supposed to smell like a flower garden.
Author of The Hormone Cure, Sara Gottfried M.D., thinks that women have unrealistic expectations about their scent. “There’s so much shame around the normal range of what women smell like,” she said. “We’re stuck with this mindset that women are expected to be nice, pretty and for their lady parts to smell really good, like some fake scent. Like you’re going to smell like a gardenia. And that’s just going to make you miserable because that’s not the normal human scent.”
But neither is the smell of a fish taco. Somewhere in between is what’s considered normal. Some women have no vaginal scent whatsoever, while others naturally emit a stronger vaginal odor. So how can you tell if the smell of your lady parts is A-OK? Spend some time getting familiar with your scent, so that when it changes, you’ll notice. A scent that signals something is wrong is often accompanied by other symptoms, such as itching, swelling, discharge or pain while urinating. Here are a few smells you should look out for:
1. Fishy scent
The idea that vaginas smell like fish may be something that grade school boys use to torment the girls in their class, but if you’re noticing this smell, it could be the sign of a real medical problem. An intense fishy smell down there can be a sign of bacterial vaginosis, an infection linked to an imbalance of bacteria in the vagina, or trichomoniasis – a common curable STI. These two infections give off a fishy scent, sometimes with a white or gray discharge, and both can be cleared up with prescription antibiotics.
2. Metallic scent
A metallic scent is most common right after you’ve had your period, or if you’ve let your partner’s tiny swimmers enter your vagina. Both of these things can change the pH of your vagina, changing the smell. The metallic scent should be temporary, but if you’re noticing it long after your period is gone, check in with your doctor.
3. Yeasty / Bread scent
Yeast infections often don’t give off a scent, but you’ll notice something is wrong from other symptoms such as thick, white discharge or itchiness. In some cases, a yeast infection will emit a slightly musty, bread-like odor, letting you know that something is off down there. This smell can help you distinguish a yeast infection from bacterial vaginosis or other infections.
4. Musky scent
If you’re smelling a heavier and slightly more musky version of your vagina’s usual scent, it typically means that you’ve been sweating a lot, or wearing pants or underwear that were tight with little breathing room. Washing your friend with some mild soap and wearing looser clothing every once in a while should get things back to normal, but this smell doesn’t signify that there is anything medically wrong.
5. Rotten scent
If your vagina suddenly smells like a bag of old trash, go see your doctor ASAP. It could be a sign of a tampon gone astray – which happens way more often than you’d think (check out this lost tampon question on Go Ask Alice). A tampon can get lodged near the top of the vagina, but it will stay there until you find it, so don’t worry, it won’t make it’s way to another part of your body on the Magic School Bus.
Those five scents may be signs of something extra going on downtown, but there are other factors that can influence your scent. “Many women notice after having their periods that there is a different odor,” Gottfried notes. Normally, the pH of the vagina is below 4.7, meaning it’s naturally on the acidic side of the scale. Having your period — menstrual blood has a pH of 7.4 — alters the pH of the vagina, which can change it’s scent. Semen has a pH level of around 8, so having sex can also leave you with a different smell.
Here’s the good news ladies: it doesn’t take much to keep your vagina clean and balanced. “The vagina is a self-cleaning oven,” Gottfried explains. It naturally excretes discharge to get germs and bacteria out of your body (hey, thanks!), so it does a pretty good job keeping things clean without you needing to intervene. Douching messes with the vagina’s balance of bacteria. (AKA, not a good idea.) In general, some warm water and gentle soap is all you need to keep things smelling fresh. If you’re on the go, consider a quick swipe with a pH-balanced, alcohol-free wipe.
One final piece of advice — say no to synthetic underwear. It traps in odor and can make you sweat. Cotton is the way to go. Give your friend downstairs a little breathing room to keep her happy and healthy, and you two will get along just fine.