Despite what those douching ads may suggest, it’s perfectly normal for your vagina to have a slight smell. “Just like your gut, it’s home to different bacteria and yeast,” explains Dr Minkin.
A strong chemical odor could be a sign of urine build-up or dehydration, so make sure you wipe after each bathroom visit and drink plenty of water.
While many women think their vulva smells bad, or even have no odor at all, healthy vaginas actually do have a slight scent. The vulva hosts lots of beneficial bacteria, holds cervical fluid made by the body, and contains sweat glands.
These bacteria and their byproducts work together to keep the vagina at a healthy acidity (pH) level, which helps prevent infections that cause foul smells. But if something changes the way your vulva typically smells, that’s a sign that you should see your doctor.
The most common symptom of an imbalance in your bacterial flora is a fishy or musty odor. This usually indicates the presence of gram-negative anaerobic bacteria, such as clostridia and enterobacteria, that produce ammonia by breaking down proteins. Bacteria in BV work together to produce this scent, so it’s important to figure out exactly what type of bacteria you have before deciding on the right treatment.
Avoiding douches and scented feminine hygiene products, which disrupt the pH balance of your vulva, is also important for eliminating this odor. Douching can also force harmful bacteria deeper into your body, which can lead to a serious infection like pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). The best way to keep your vulva healthy is to wash it frequently with mild, unscented soap and wear loose-fitting, cotton underwear so that moisture doesn’t build up.
Bacterial vaginosis (BV) or trichomoniasis
BV is caused by an imbalance of the natural bacteria in the vagina. Normally, lactobacilli (good bacteria) outnumber anaerobes, which cause bad odors. BV disrupts this balance, causing anaerobes to thrive and produce odor-causing ammonia compounds. Symptoms of BV include watery or white discharge, itching and burning in the genital area, a foul smell, and difficulty urinating. BV can be found in women of all ages. It’s more common in women in their reproductive years (15 to 44), and it is a chronic condition that doesn’t necessarily go away completely.
A doctor can diagnose BV by performing a pelvic exam and collecting a sample of the bacterial mixture with a swab. The sample is then analyzed under a microscope to see whether there are enough of the “good” bacteria and too many anaerobes present.
To help prevent BV, it’s recommended to avoid douches and scented vaginal products such as deodorants and soaps. It’s also important to practice safe sex and not to share tampons or pads with other people. If you’re pregnant, BV increases the risk of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can cause infertility.
Urinary tract infections
Your vagina is home to a microbiome of bacteria that produces lactic acid and other substances. This helps to protect your vulva against infections. These good bacteria typically give your vulva a slightly tangy smell, like a vinegar or pickle, but if the odor is coppery or fishy or has a strong skunk-like waft to it, this can indicate an imbalance in your normal bacterial flora.
A strong, unusual odor can also indicate you need to drink more water. Getting dehydrated can cause your urine to concentrate and have an ammonia-like odor.
The smell of ammonia can also indicate you have a urinary tract infection or a sexually transmitted disease, such as trichomoniasis (trich) or bacterial vaginosis (BV). If the odor is accompanied by burning during urination, white discharge that looks like cottage cheese, itching and/or vaginal pain, make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.
The crotch area has apocrine glands that allow you to sweat. Sweat in this region can mix with bacteria to produce a scent that resembles weed. The smell will usually only last a short time and is not a cause for concern.
Infections and STIs can change the scent of vaginal discharge, as can exercise and changing hormone levels during your menstrual cycle. If your vagina smells bad for a prolonged period of time, see a doctor.
A stinky vulva can also be a sign of poor hygiene or the use of heavily perfumed feminine products. Switching to a non-scented soap or avoiding scented tampons may help to reduce your vaginal odor. If you still smell unpleasant, your healthcare provider can recommend other treatments based on what is causing it.
Many women use OTC products to clean their vaginas and reduce odor, but these can disrupt the healthy bacteria and cause infections. Vaginal odors can also change with hormone changes and age.
A light, musky, or slightly sour smell is normal in the vagina. This is caused by the natural bacterial flora that’s there to keep the area healthy, and it can even be similar to the scent of fermented foods like yoghurt and sourdough bread.
It’s a good idea to avoid using soaps around the vulva because they can upset the balance of bacterial flora and lead to irritation, says Dr Rosen. Douching and rubbing the area can also interfere with this delicate balance. Instead, wash the area with water and wear breathable underwear to decrease sweating. You can also try using a pH gel, which is designed to rebalance the acidity of your vagina and nix odors. However, you should still avoid scented deodorants and perfumed sanitary products, as they can irritate the area.