Yeah, we’ve seen those scented tampons ads too. And it seems to us like all that flowery sunshine is another example of the world getting vaginas all wrong.
Just take a quick trip to your local drugstore. You’ll find a wall full of products promising to mask the natural way your vagina smells. Like douching. Widely acknowledged by the medical community as harmful to the natural balance of vaginal flora, this common tool that cleans the vagina might actually cause bacterial vaginosis instead.
The truth is, your vagina is home to billions of bacteria. And the precise makeup of this bacteria changes on a daily — sometimes hourly — basis.
Change is normal. These smell variations are likely a result of your menstrual cycle, your hygiene habits, or just you being you.
Plus, considering the groin contains a collection of sweat glands, is it really a wonder that your vagina isn’t odorless?
We called up Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, who has over 30 years of experience working in women’s health. She helped us get down to specifics with all the medical accuracy but less of the medical jargon.
Here is your medically accurate guide to vaginal odors.
1. Tangy or fermented
It’s very common for vaginas to produce a tangy or sour aroma. Some compare it to the smell of fermented foods. In fact, yogurt, sourdough bread, and even some sour beer contain the same type of good bacteria that dominate most healthy vaginas: Lactobacilli.
If it smells curiously similar to that sour IPA you had last weekend, don’t freak out.
2. Coppery like a penny
Many people report smelling a coppery, metallic vaginal odor. This is usually nothing to worry about. Rarely, it signifies a more serious problem.
A coppery smell can also be due to less common, but serious, causes of vaginal bleeding. The metallic scent shouldn’t linger too long after your period is over. If your vagina has had contact with semen, this may change the pH level and cause a metallic smell.
If you’re experiencing bleeding unrelated to your period or the metallic smell continues with itching and discharge, it’s best to see a doctor.
3. Sweet like molasses
When we say sweet we don’t mean freshly baked cookies sweet. We mean robust and earthy. But don’t fret, a sweetish tinge is no cause for concern.
4. Chemical like a newly cleaned bathroom
An odor similar to bleach or ammonia could be a couple different things. Sometimes, this odor is reason to see a doctor.
Bacterial vaginosis is a very common infection. Symptoms include:
- a foul or fishy odor
- thin gray, white, or green discharge
- vaginal itching
- burning during urination
5. Skunky like BO or a smoked herbal, earthy scent
No, it’s not just you. Many people find a similarity between body odor and marijuana. Sadly, there isn’t a good scientific answer for this, although Vice did take a stab at it. But thanks to the sweat glands down there, at least we do know why vaginas and body odor can smell so similar.
When you are stressed or anxious, the apocrine glands produce a milky fluid. On its own this fluid is odorless. But when this fluid contacts the abundance of vaginal bacteria on your vulva, it can produce a pungent aroma.
6. Fishy or that fillet you forgot about
You’ve probably heard an abnormal vaginal odor described as fishy. In fact, fresh fish shouldn’t smell like much at all. Decomposing fish is the more apt comparison. Why? Trimethylamine, which is the chemical compound responsible for both the distinct aroma of rotting fish and some abnormal vaginal odors.
In rare cases, a fishy smell is indication of a more serious condition.
7. Rotten like a decaying organism
A rotten odor that makes your nose wince and your face contort is definitely not the norm. If the smell is putrid, like a dead organism, it may not be your vagina but something in your vagina.
Fortunately, Minkin says it’s perfectly safe to remove a forgotten tampon on your own.
When you should see a doctor
In general, abnormal odors should be easy to spot. They’re the ones that make your face scrunch up. Rotting fish, dead organism, decay — these are all red flag odors.
If there’s a serious cause, often other symptoms will appear alongside the smell.
Smells change, and that’s OK
Subtle shifts in your vaginal fragrance is normal. Remember, the way your vagina smells has everything to do with its pH. And there are lots of things that affect your pH.
Take penile vaginal sex, for instance. Semen has a relatively high pH, so it’s super normal to notice a different kind of smell after you’ve had penile vaginal sex. Don’t worry though, this change is only temporary.
Menopause also has an effect on vaginal pH. “Due to a lack of estrogen, women in menopause end up with less vaginal mucosa,” says Minkin. “Vaginal mucosa lines the vagina and nurtures the Lactobacilli bacteria. So, without these cells you can end up with a much higher pH.”
Our advice? Don’t be afraid to really get to know your vagina, in all its fragrant glory. The better you understand the smells your vagina produces day to day, the more prepared you’ll be when something goes amiss. After all, vaginas do so many wonderful things for us. It’s about time we start understanding what they’re really all about.