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What Makes Your Vagina Smell Different? An Expert Explains

Although anti-odor products are marketed to both men and women — think breath mints, deodorant, cologne, and perfume — drugstore shelves are a lot less equal when it comes to products for keeping your nether regions smelling good. While there are some hygiene products for men, men's wipes and powders offer a "neutral" scent, not the floral fragrances that accompany most "feminine deodorant" products. With so many years of advertising telling us our vaginas need to smell like tropical islands (whatever that means), many women wonder: what makes your vagina smell different? Experts offer a lot of answers.

According to Barbara Slocum, a Board Certified Women's Health Nurse Practitioner and full scope Certified Nurse Midwife, a different smell from your vagina could be bacterial vaginosis (BV), which is "the most common culprit of an abnormal vaginal odor." BV "is triggered by a change in the vaginal pH that allows an overgrowth of a 'bad' bacteria (that normally resides in harmony with the good bacteria) in the vagina." Slocum emphasizes the word 'abnormal' when talking about a not-so-pleasant odor because, as she puts it, "the vagina does not, nor should it, smell like potpourri."  

In the course of her work at Lone Tree Obstretics and Gynecology in Colorado, Slocum finds that "for some reason, women have been told and now believe that their vagina should either be odorless or smell like a field of roses — neither is true. Additionally, many are concerned about vaginal discharge and I like to remind them that the vagina is self-cleaning. As long as the discharge is colorless, without odor, and does not cause itching or burning, it is probably totally normal."  

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However, "if a woman is concerned about a vaginal odor, she should contact her care provider. Too often I have women using at-home remedies that either cause an increase in symptoms, or do nothing to treat the cause," says Slocum. In the OB-GYN office, she explains, "We would take a quick vaginal culture in our office and do a whiff test (yes, we smell what we swabbed) and wet prep where we add liquids to the discharge we collected and look under the microscope for clue cells (they look like potato chips with salt and pepper on them)."

If you do have BV, it can be treated with "oral medication or vaginal applications," says Slocum, although with pregnant women, "there is some concern that repetitive treatments can cause weakening of the membranes, so they are only treated if symptomatic in pregnancy."  

While you can't expect your vagina to smell like roses, Slocum offers tips for everyday perineal hygiene (your perineum is "the area between the anal and vaginal orifices").

  • A vagina and the perineal region should be cleaned with a soft cotton washcloth and warm water only. Avoid washing the vagina with soaps, body scrubs, or detergents (read your soap — it may actually be a detergent).
  • Avoid all perfumes and sprays (in this area) as well.
  • Thongs are your vagina's nemesis. Get rid of them — granny panties really are the way to go (as long as they are cotton).
  • Sleep without underwear whenever possible.
  • Avoid tight-fitting clothes like leggings and skinny jeans, especially when symptomatic.
  • Get out of wet exercise clothes (underwear, running shorts, leggings, etc.) ASAP.
  • Wash your unmentionables with scent-free laundry soap.
  • Avoid fabric softeners and other smelly scented anythings to prevent further irritation.

Overall, Slocum says the most common vaginal odor complaint she hears from patients is "a fishy odor." If this bugs you, too, try incorporating some of these tips into your routine. It's also helpful to remember that every vagina has its own natural odor and what is "normal" can fluctuate depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle and whether or not you're pregnant. As with many other aspects of the human body, "normal" is a relative term.

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