Sweet, musky, earthy, tangy, zesty. The floral and fruit comparisons end here. While the visual link pervades our cultural references (looking at you, Georgia O’Keefe), your vagina should not smell like roses.
Normalizing care and the understanding of our vaginal health is the first step. Destigmatizing vaginal scents and reclaiming our bodies natural process will help us reverse the societal shame that’s disrupted sex lives and self confidence everywhere.
The vagina is entirely self-cleaning. It doesn’t require powders or perfumes to make it palatable for your partner. You don’t need special soaps or fake fragrances to mask your natural musk. Your vagina is not a dirty place.
Stop and smell the vulva.
Making Sense of Your Vaginal Scents
Let’s clear something up — just like every vagina is unique in size, shape, and color, every vagina also has a special smell. Your signature scent is unique to you and your body’s chemistry, and only you know what your usual smell is.
If you think Gwyneth Paltrow’s This Smells Like My Vagina candle is what a healthy vagina should smell like, you’ve been Goop-duped. We promise you, it definitely doesn't smell like her vagina, because her vagina, like your vagina, doesn’t (and shouldn’t!) smell a single certain way — or like bergamot.
The point is, you should never feel embarrassed, or ashamed of how your vagina smells.
Education, body literacy, and taking preventative care of your health is more important than feeling the pressure to smell palatable to your partner. Unfortunately, many of us still struggle with the ingrained stigma and societal “standards” that pervade our conversations regarding our sexual health — whether it’s a comment a partner said, something you read online, or a vaginal product that uses shame-inducing language or promises to “clean” your vagina, or smell “fresh.”
To help you make sense of your vaginal scents and to keep an eye...err nose...on your overall health, we put together a guide to 10 different vaginal odors and the possible reasons why your vaginal scent changes over time.
What affects my vagina’s scent?
Not to be vague, but pretty much anything and everything can affect how your vagina smells. We’ll get into more details below, depending on the notes you’re picking up, but basically, it all comes down to your vaginal microbiome, or vaginal pH — the environment where all the microorganisms, bacteria, and yeast thrive or die.
A healthy vaginal pH is slightly acidic, the ideal range being anywhere from 3.4 — 4.5, where the bad bacteria don’t stand much of a chance of crowding out the good bacteria, or the yeast from over multiplying.
And what affects your vaginal pH? Lifestyle choices and changes like what type of hormonal birth control you’re on, the detergent you use, the amount of physical or mental stress you’re dealing with, who (or what) you have sex with, the hot pants you wore to the park last week...it’s all connected and all has in impact on your microbioime.
Just like the color of your period blood or vaginal discharge, your vaginal scent changes over time — even throughout the day depending on what you eat, where you’re at during your menstrual cycle, and whether you’re going through big transitions like puberty, pregnancy, or perimenopause. Even the weather can affect how your vagina smells (humidity + hot pants = not a great idea).
Without further ado, below are 10 common vaginal smells, and what they may indicate about your overall health.
If you smell: sour, tangy, or fermented
It could be due to a healthy vaginal microbiome
A sour, tangy, or fermented vaginal smell is no cause for concern! It's the result of a healthy vaginal bacteria called lactobacilli, which helps keep your vaginal pH levels a healthy acidic level.
Promote a balanced vaginal microbiome: Shop The Probiotic
If you smell: sweet or earthy
It could be due to healthy bacteria or high blood sugar
Another perfectly normal smell, nothing to worry about here! Most often, a sweet or earthy smell is the result of all the healthy bacteria doing their thing and keeping things running smoothly.
Folks who are at risk of or have been diagnosed with diabetes, however, should pay particular attention to the strength and occurence of a sweet smell, as it could indicate high blood sugar as your body tries to rid itself of excess glucose in your blood, urine, or discharge.
Essentially, when you’ve had too much sugar and your body can’t get rid of it, it ends up in your blood, running throughout your body — including to the vagina, where blood vessels abound. When that excess sugar passes through your reproductive region, otherwise healthy existing yeast may overgrow, which could lead to a yeast infection.
If you smell: metallic
It could be due to period blood or microtearing
You may notice a metallic, coppery, or “penny” like smell leading up to, during, or shortly after your period. Blood contains iron, and as it mixes with your body fluids like sweat and discharge, it’s normal to pick up a coppery smell and it’s usually nothing to worry about.
However, if you haven’t recently had you your period, a coppery smell may indicate microtearing to your vaginal walls from post-sex bleeding. If you struggle with pain during or after sex, keep an eye on your vulva, and slather on some Salve to soothe and protect sensitive skin.
Soothe vulvovaginal itching, dryness, and irritation: Shop Salve
If you smell: ammonia, bleach, or chemicals
It could be due to urine build up, latex condoms, or lube
A smell comparable to bleach, ammonia, or other chemicals is usually the result of urine buildup in a pad, pantiliner, or underwear. If you’re dehydrated, it might smell stronger, so try to keep a bottle of water on your nightstand and desk as a reminder to drink more water.
A chemical odor could also be the leftover smell from latex condoms or lube. Be sure to check the ingredients in these items, and look for filler and fragrance free options that will be less likely to disrupt your vaginal pH.
If you smell: strong or pungent
It could be due to BV or Trich
You may pick up on a strong "fishy" vaginal smell when a strain of bad bacteria called Gardnerella vaginalis outnumbers the strain of good bacteria, known as Lactobacillus, which results in Bacterial Vaginosis. A more pungent smell may also indicate trichomoniasis infection a common, treatable sexually transmitted infection. Keep an eye on other symptoms like vaginal itching, redness, or irritation
Get concentrated relief from vaginal infections: Shop The Suppository
If you smell: bread or beer
It could be due to an overgrowth of yeast
Sometimes yeast infections cause a change in odor, and seeing as that bread and beer are both yeast products it only makes sense that this smell would resemble that of bread or beer.
Prevent and protect against yeast infections: Shop The Yeast Infections Bundle
If you smell: skunky or mulch-like
It could be due to stress
We have two types of sweat glands—the eccrine glands produce sweat to cool your body down and the apocrine glands respond to your emotions, or your body’s stress response. People with vaginas have a high concentration of apocrine sweat glands surrounding the vagina on the labia majora. These are different from the sweat glands on other parts of your body (known as the eccrine glands) as they contain protein. Bacteria break down this protein, which can produce a distinct odor. When stress induced sweat from the apocrine glands is released around the pelvic region, it can culminate in a skunk or mulch-like smell emanating from the vulva.
If you smell: musky
It could be due to sweat
The vagina itself cannot sweat as it doesn’t have sweat glands. But regular sweat from high temps or exercise can accumulate in the many folds and creases of your outer labia and pelvic area, resulting in a musky smell. If this bothers you, all you need is a water rinse. If you don’t have time or access to a shower, you can spray Hydrosol on your pubic area to maintain pH imbalance and prevent an overgrowth of bacteria.
If you smell: “rotting” food or meat
It could be due to a forgotten tampon
If you sniff a whiff of something like rotting food or meat, don’t panic! It’s likely a forgotten tampon. This potent smell is just a combination of body fluids — blood, vaginal secretions, and absorbed sweat. If you tend to forget to regularly change your tampon, set a reminder on your phone!
If you smell: pungent or spicy
It could be due to your diet
What you put in your body is as important as what you put on your body — and vice versa. Never underestimate the power of food to help heal or impact your body. Eating strong smelling foods like garlic, onions, and red meat can make your discharge smell pungent or spicy just like your breath.
Smelling yourself is a form of self care
Only you know what’s normal for your body, so go ahead and smell yourself! You might pick up whiffs of yourself here and there if you’re moving around a lot or going commando (highly recommended on occasion to let your vagina breathe!). Take note of your, uh, notes when you pee, change your pad or tampon, have sex or masturbate, and bathe.
Consider smelling yourself a simple form of self care that helps you not only connect with your body, but accept where it’s at without judgement or fear.
If you do pick up on a particularly strong or out-of-the-ordinary odor — don’t panic, or feel embarrassed! A lot of shame surrounding vaginal scents has been ingrained in us from an early age due to a lack of scientific, unbiased sexual education. The more we know about our genitals and how to care for them, the better off we all are. It begins with being able to talk about, discuss our bodies without shame or stigma.
Ignoring any health-related issue won’t make it go away. Acknowledge and address the source of your symptoms so that you can take preventative care in the future.
How can I prevent or get rid of vaginal odor?
Okay, it bears repeating that all vaginas have some scent, and your vagina has a unique smell. Unless you’re experiencing a very strong odor that’s unusual and persistent for your body, and is accompanied by other symptoms like itching or burning, you don’t need to care for your vulva with anything other than warm water. The best thing you can do for your vagina is to treat it with the love, respect, and care you would for any other body part.
Avoid perfumed sprays, deodorants, and douches, or any products that claim to “clean” your vagina, as they’re most likely full of harsh chemicals that will further irritate your vulva and vaginal microbiome. The best vulvovaginal care is maintaining a healthy vaginal pH.
Drink enough water and eat a balanced diet. That means avoiding excess alcohol and sugar, since both are a literal breeding ground for yeast and bad bacteria that can lead to pH imbalance. We always encourage enjoying yourself, and that includes the occasional overindulgence. Incorporating a daily Probiotic can help protect, promote, and maintain a healthy gut and vaginal microbiome.
Let your vulva breathe. Wear breathable cotton underwear, loose fitting clothing, and sleep naked (or, at least without panties).
Stay dry. Take off gym clothes and damp swimsuits as soon as possible! Excess moisture is a breeding ground for bad bacteria. If you can’t rinse off after a heavy sweat sesh, Hydrosol can help maintain a balanced pH without drying out your skin.
Try to stay on top of your menstrual care. If you tend to forget to regularly change your pad or tampons, set a reminder on your phone! You should also look at the ingredients and materials in your menstrual care products—some have hidden fragrance synthetic materials that cause irritation and it’s worth switching up your product of choice to see if it helps with your overall vaginal wellness.
Practice safe sex. This includes the obvious like using condoms and getting regular STI tests, but it also means peeing after masturbation or partnered sex (which helps literally “flush” bacteria out to help prevent UTIs and other vulvar infections) and only using toys and lube specifically designed for vaginal penetration and stimulation. Kitchen ingredients like cucumbers and coconut oil are good for you — but only when you eat them!
Stay calm. Alright, this one is way easier said than done. But when we’re overstressed, it can affect your sleep, digestion, and immunity, which lowers your body’s natural defenses and can make you more vulnerable to infection. Meditate, masturbate, and again, drink water!
How do I know when I should see a doctor?
If you’re worried about an unusual (for you!) and persistent vaginal odor, don’t hesitate to call your doctor to or schedule an appointment — especially if you’re experiencing other symptoms like an increased amount of discharge, or vulvar itching, burning, or irritation, as it may be sign of infection caused by pH imbalance.
The Bottom Line: Body Literacy Is Important In Overcoming Societal Sexual Shame
Caring for your health shouldn’t be scary, or filled with shame. Understanding your body — and how to take proactive care of your physical and mental health — is the first step in reversing the negative connotations we’ve been taught to associate with our sexuality.
The ultimate goal is to know, understand, and learn about your body so that you’re attune to it when something feels, or smells “off.” No need for judgement and certainly no buying into harmful narratives that your vagina is dirty. You don’t have to clean your vagina. You don’t have to mask your vagina’s natural scent. And clean is absolutely not a smell.
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Momotaro Apotheca and its materials are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease. All of the information we share is provided for educational purposes only, and while we try to remain as unbiased and informative as possible, we’re not able to address every vaginal symptom — or smell! If we missed something important, please DM us or comment below— we’re still learning, too!
Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition.