"WHY DOES MY VAGINA SMELL BAD?"

June 23, 2023

Floral smell, said no vagina, ever.

Real talk for a sec, Moxette: all vaginas have a smell – it’s normal. Though let’s be honest, we’ve all wondered what ‘normal’ smells like. Though how do we know the difference? Save yourself the panicked midnight web-search that will send you into a spiralling hole of self-diagnosis, and read this blog instead.

If you haven’t figured it out already (of course you have), your vagina is a pretty miraculous organ – but did you know, it’s also a self-cleaning one? There's really not much you need to do to it to keep it in tip-top health. In fact, it's more about what not to do to it that's important. Though when things do go a little haywire, there are certain odours that can help give us clues as to what’s going on down there, indicating that it might be time to check in with your doctor.

Here’s how to tell the difference between what's considered a 'normal' smell and when you should make an appointment to see your doc (though if in doubt, always get checked out).

 

WHAT SHOULD A HEALTHY VAGINA SMELL LIKE?

All vaginas have smells, even healthy ones! Your vag won't smell floral, but it shouldn't smell unpleasant, either. A healthy vagina is naturally acidic, so you might notice a tangy smell (a bit like vinegar) - caused by a mix of lactic acid and hydrogen peroxide that help keep unwanted bacteria out. A slightly sweet 'n' sour smell, yeasty/bread-like smell, slightly musky, oniony, or even a metallic scent (this one's usually associated with your period) are all generally pretty normal, too. (Though read on for when these smells and associated symptoms might be a sign you should see your Doc).

 

WHAT CAUSES UNPLEASANT VAGINAL ODOUR?

There are a few causes for a less-than-pleasant smelling vagina. Here, we break down a few of the most common culprits.


HORMONES 

You might notice a change in smell during your period, if you're experiencing menopause or even pregnancy - anything that causes the cervical mucus to change can also effect how it smells. It's usually nothing to worry about unless you notice a foul smell, in which case, check in with your doctor.


BACTERIAL VAGINOSIS (BV) 

This is actually one of the most common culprits of an unpleasantly smelly vagina. Symptoms of BV include a fishy smell accompanied by grey or green-ish discharge. You might also feel itchy down there or a burning sensation when you pee. Whilst doctors don't know for sure what causes BV (it's said that it's most linked to those with vaginas who are sexually active, but it's not considered an STI), the odour is caused by an imbalance of your good and bad vaginal bacteria throwing your pH out of whack.


A RETAINED TAMPON 

It happens; you forget to take that last one out, and it becomes a li'l stinky bacterial breeding ground. Always be sure to remove your tampons at least every eight hours during your period, and don't forget to remove that lucky last one at the end of your cycle so you don't have any nasty surprises in the aftermath.


THRUSH 

Thrush, a.k.a a vaginal yeast infection caused by excessive growth of the natural yeast-like fungus, called 'candida albicans', is actually super common. It's most obvious symptoms are itching and burning down there, often accompanied by cottage cheese-like discharge that smells, you guessed it - yeasty. 


STIs

Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) like trichonomiasis (a.k.a "trich"), gonorrhea and chlamydia can cause your discharge to smell bad, or cause you pain when you pee (trichonomiasis might even cause itching). If you notice these symptoms see your doctor ASAP, though note that some people may not experience any symptoms at all.

 

DIFFERENT VAGINA SMELLS AND WHAT THEY MIGHT MEAN

FISHY (LIKE FISH THAT HAS GONE OFF)

This one is hard to miss, tbh. Trimethylamine is the chemical compound responsible here - for the smell of rotting fish, and also the pungeant aroma caused by bacterial vaginosis (BV) or trichonomiasis.

Verdict:  Red alert! Not normal. go straight to the Doctor as this will likely require some treatment.


YEASTY  (BREAD-LIKE) OR FERMENTED

A bread-like smell (it may even be a bit tangy or sour) in the vagina may indicate a yeast infection caused by an overgrowth of candida fungus. Speak to your Doctor if you have itching, burning, or unusual vaginal discharge for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.

If not, this smell is likely caused by lactobacilli, the 'good' bacteria also found in a lot of the foods we love like bread and milk! 

Side note: Your vagina is generally a slightly acidic environment, with a 'healthy' pH range of around 4.0 - 4.5. It's the lactobacilli that keep it acidic.

Verdict:  Not normal if you have itching, burning, funky discharge (make an appointment to see you Doctor). If not, all good here.


BLEACHY (LIKE AMMONIA OR CHEMICAL-Y) 

This is a tricky one as it can be caused by two things: either dehydration, in which case your urine will smell a little bleach-y, or bacterial vaginosis (BV).

Verdict: This needs attention either way. If it's BV, you may have other symptoms like a fishy smell, grey or green-sih discharge and itching or burning, so look out for those and see your Doctor. If not, up your water intake as being dehydrated isn't good for you in general.


COPPERY OR METALLIC

A coppery or metallic smell is most commonly linked to your period, so you'll most likely notice it around that time of your cycle. Sometimes sexual contact and vaginal fluids mixed with semen can alter the pH level of your vag and create a similar smell.

Verdict:  Normal. Usually related to your menstrual flow.


ROTTING FLESH (OR LIKE SOMETHING HAS DIED) 

We all know what this smells like. The good news is that there's a 99.99% chance that nothing has died inside your vagina (win). The most likely scenario here is that you've forgotten to take your last tampon out and it's been left inside you for way longer than it was meant to (like, days, or even weeks).

Verdict:  Not normal. Check for a retained tampon or anything other foreign objects or materials inside your vagina. We strongly recommend seeing your Doctor if you do find a retained tampon or object due to the risks associated with Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS).


LIKE ONIONS 

BV and trichanomiosis are at it again! Look out for those other symptoms like itching burning and funky-coloured discharge, otherwise an onion-y smell down there might be caused by something as simple as something you ate (onions, asparagus, garlic and those types of foods can do that, especially to your wee).

Verdict:  Normal unless you have symptoms associated with BV or trich.


SWEET 'N' SOUR

A little like brown sugar or molasses. All is well under the hood here, Moxettes. Usually the sign of a happy, healthy vag (assuming you don't have any funky coloured discharge or any other causes for concern). This is a normal, natural scent of healthy bacteria just doing their thing. 

Verdict:  Normal. Nothing to see here.


LIKE VINEGAR 

A vinegary smelling vag is usually also a happy, healthy one, and a sign that your pH levels are where they need to be; that is, slightly to moderately acidic. To keep bad bacteria at bay and help keep you infection free down/in there, lactobacilli secrete lactic acidic and hydrogen peroxide - letting off that vinegar-like odour.

Verdict:  Normal. Associated with the acidic environment in your vag.


EARTHY OR MUSKY (EVEN A BIT LIKE WEED/CANNABIS) 

Emotional stress sweat glands known as apocrine glands, mixed with vaginal bacteria, are what result in this musky-type smell. You might also notice this smell coming from under your armpits.

Verdict:  Normal. Might be time for a shower though (no washing inside the vag, Moxette).

 

HOW TO PREVENT BAD VAGINAL ODOUR / HOW TO IMPROVE VAGINAL SMELL

DRINK LOTS OF WATER

We all know this one's good for our overall health, but it will also help keep you peeing regularly, which helps flush anything unwanted bacteria out. 


WEAR BREATHABLE FIBRES

Keep things light and airy. Choose naturally breathable fabrics like cotton where possible, and avoid synthetics that tend to trap air and moisture (that goes for your period care, too).


DON'T DOUCHE

That means, washing inside your vagina. It's really not necessary, unless you have an infection and medication has been prescribed by your doctor that needs to be inserted. Douching is more likely to cause likely to cause vaginal odours rather than get rid of them as it upsets the natural balance of bacteria in the vagina, making the environment more favorable for the growth of bacteria that cause infection and smells. Avoid!


AVOID USING SCENTED SOAPS OR SPRAYS

Your vagina is actually self-cleaning and so using soaps and scents are likely to disrupt the balance of your pH and cause irritation or possible infection. Discharge excreted from the vagina is actually what helps to keep it clean and infection-free, removing any bad bacteria. But if the colour or texture of your discharge is a little off (i.e. green or grey, or super yellow and has a cottage cheese-like texture), it's a sign to get checked by your doctor. 


CHANGE OFTEN

Whether that's your menstrual pad if you're on your period, or your sweaty gym clothes, or your wet bathers - don't wear anything damp for too long that will just act as a breeding ground for bad bacteria. Be sure to change your pad when it's full, and change out of your gym clothes or bathers as soon as you're done with the activity.


PEE AFTER SEX

If you're having penis in vagina unprotected sex, you may not know that semen is naturally alkaline and as the vagina is more acidic, which means that semen can disrupt its pH. Either way, any kind of downstairs play (with anyone of any gender) and especially any kind of intercourse has likely pushed some bacteria into the vagina, and so you want to be flushing it out afterwards.

 

WHEN TO GET CHECKED BY YOUR DOCTOR

The smell of your vagina will change throughout the month, and likely if you have your period, are pregnant, breast/chestfeeding, experiencing menopause, or even when you eat certain foods (asparagus, anyone?). But if you notice your smell change in a not so pleasant way - usually to something a bit 'off' smelling,  like fishy or foul - and of course, if your discharge looks grey or green - this could be a sign of infection and is an alert that it's time to make an appointment to see your doctor, stat. If you're ever unsure about anything relating to your intimate health, or have any questions, it never hurts to get checked.

 

PSA: The info provided here is not intended to, nor should it substitute, a personalised medical diagnosis. If you have any concerns relating to your own intimate health, see your Dr.

 

Hero cover image via Pinterest.



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