We hear this question (and misinformation on this topic) ALL THE TIME, and we decided that today is the day we’re going to answer it. But first, a quick anatomy refresher. Your vulva is all the parts on the outside, including your inner and outer labia and your clitoris. Your vagina is the part that’s on the inside of your body (where tampons and other things can go if you so choose). When most people talk about the way their vagina smells, they really mean their vulva. After all, it’s pretty hard to smell something that’s inside your body.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get back to the question. And the best way to answer it is to start with what your vulva definitely should NOT smell like.
What are vulvas NOT supposed to smell like?
Despite what the “feminine hygiene” (don’t even get us started on how f-ed up that phrase is) aisle at your local drugstore would have you believe, your vulva should not smell like Island Splash, Sheer Floral, Delicate Blossom, Morning Paradise, or Sunset Oasis, whatever any of those things smell like.
So what should your vulva smell like, if not a Sunset Oasis?
We checked in with our on-staff medical provider, Robin Watkins, who’s a nurse practitioner and a certified nurse-midwife, and here’s what she told us: “It’s normal for your vagina and vulva to have a smell, just like it’s normal for your underarms to have a smell. Body smells are a part of being human and come from bacteria breaking down sweat on your skin.”
And there is a range of normal smells. What’s normal for one person may be different from what’s normal for another person. Just like you wouldn’t expect your armpits to smell identical to your friend’s, neither will your vulva smell just like anyone else’s.
Is it normal for your smell to change, or is a change always cause for concern?
It’s absolutely normal for your smell to change. Watkins says that your menstrual cycle, exercising, the weather, having sex, and even eating certain foods, like onions and garlic, can change the way your vulva smells.
How do you know if your smell is normal? What kinds of smells could indicate a problem?
Most smells are normal. Smells that could indicate a problem are fishy or sour odors, or any kind of rotting smell. The other thing to watch out for is if you have a smell that’s unusual for you at the same time that you have other symptoms, like pain, itching, unusual discharge (especially if the discharge itself has a smell), burning, bleeding when you have sex, or fever. If that happens, you should definitely check in with a health care provider because it could be a sign of a more serious problem. Also, if you notice an entirely new smell that you’ve never had before, or if your smell is bothering or worrying you, go get it checked out.
What should you do if you’re worried about how you smell?
Assuming that you’ve ruled out any actual problems, your worry is just that—a worry. Try to internalize that you are not supposed to smell like nothing, and, as we’ve established, that you’re DEFINITELY not supposed to smell like perfume.
Whatever you do, don’t resort to using products marketed for eliminating odor. According to Watkins, “It’s counterintuitive, but using soaps with a lot of perfume or washing inside the vagina, like douching, can actually upset the balance of the bacteria in the vagina, causing a fishy odor.”
In fact, and perhaps we’ve buried the lede here, but neither your vulva nor your vagina need any kind of cleanser! That includes even the mildest soap. Your vulva only needs to be washed with lukewarm water, and your vagina actually doesn’t even need to be washed with water—it’s self-cleaning. It lives its best life when it’s left alone, like a very introverted and/or feral cat.
Ultimately, we’re going to have to learn to accept that people with vulvas and vaginas are humans, and humans have smells. It’s fine, we promise.
P.S. Wondering how the Title X gag rule will affect you if you need an abortion? Find out.