Let’s get one thing out of the way right now: Despite what a sexist ex or vaginal perfume adverts say, you vagina is supposed to smell, says Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., a clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut. “Just like with the gut, the vagina has its own microbiome filled with different bacteria and yeast, many of which are incredibly helpful,” she explains. And just like with the gut microbiota, the vaginal mix is incredibly personal. In other words, your lady garden has its own bouquet that might naturally smell stronger or milder compared to say, your best friend or sister.
Still, there are times when you catch a waft from your nethers that smells a bit…off. The cause can be as innocuous as sweat or as troubling as an infection, says Minkin, so it’s worth taking a whiff and investigating—especially if the unusual aroma is accompanied by symptoms like itching or out of the norm discharge.
Scan through the scents below to see what’s normal, and when should you book it to your doc.
What you should—and shouldn't—be doing to keep your lady parts in good shape:
The most likely culprit behind this beachfront scent is bacterial vaginosis (BV), the most common vaginal infection in women ages 15 to 44, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The infection can creep in when the vagina’s pH gets thrown out of whack by an overgrowth of “bad” bacteria, says Minkin. Docs aren’t sure what causes this to happen, but BV isn’t an STI, stresses Minkin. Which means that BV on its own is pretty harmless. Still, you want to get rid of that funk—and you may be able to re-balance your vaginal acidity via some over-the-counter “pH warfare,” says Minkin. Check your local drugstore for a pH gel, which is designed to balance out your vagina’s pH and nix odors. If this doesn’t take away the pungent stank within a week or so, see your gyn. You might need an antibiotic to clear up the infection, or you might actually have trichomoniasis, a common and easily treatable (via antibiotics) STI.
Most yeast infections aren’t smelly, but occasionally the thick, cottage cheese-like discharge that’s a hallmark of the itchy nuisance has a faint scent of beer or yeast. If you notice redness or burning around your vagina, or have pain after you pee, this is the likely cause, says Minkin. Diabetic women may especially notice this since yeast feed on sugar, and diabetic women tend to have more glucose (a.k.a. sugar) in their vaginal secretions, says Minkin. See your M.D. about what's going on down there, and she might prescribe something or recommend something you can buy OTC.
Can we ask if you’ve just pounded out a major sweat sesh or have been wearing synthetic underwear? Exercise and non-breathable knickers can cause a musky smell from trapped sweat, says Minkin. It should go away as soon as you shower (use just water or a mild soap). To minimize the scent in the future, switch to cotton knickers (or at least ones that have a cotton gusset) and don’t sit around with sweaty clothes.
A tampon that’s been left in your vagina for days or longer (don’t be embarrassed; it happens all the time, says Minkin) can smell rancid or foul. “The scent is brought on by an overgrowth of bacteria in a confined space,” she says. If you can’t dislodge it yourself (lie on your back and reach into your vagina with clean fingers to search for the string, or squat with one foot propped on the toilet to try to fish it out), get to your gyn, who can fish it out with the aid of a speculum, and check to make sure nothing’s left behind. If left behind too long, the bacteria can sometimes (but rarely) trigger toxic shock syndrome, a deadly condition linked to tampon use.
Blood (you know, from your period) can change the pH of your vagina, making it smell coppery or tinny, says Minkin. The odor should go away once the blood passes, but you can douche with an OTC vinegar and water if it lingers. Avoid going crazy with strong scented soaps because they can throw the pH even further out of whack, says Minkin.