Body odor can be worrying, especially when it’s your vulva or vagina that you think doesn’t smell quite right. While you might jump to “infection” as the explanation for your scent down there, it isn’t the only possible cause. Noticeable odor can be caused by a long list of factors, many of which are nothing to be concerned about. However, if the smell is persistent, you’ll want to consult with a professional.
Below, we talk to obstetrician-gynecologists Dr. Suravi Ghatak, and Dr. Gunvor Ekman-Ordeberg of DeoDoc, to get the facts on vaginal odor, how to take care of it and when to see your OB-GYN.
What is vaginal odor?
Vaginal odor is the smell that your vagina, and any discharge from it, gives off. A certain amount of vaginal odor is totally normal, but particularly strong or noticeable smells can be an indication of an infection or other problem. “Some infections can result in infertility or other health conditions,” Dr. Ghatak explains. “So if you have any concerns about vaginal discharge such as color, consistency or smell, it is important to get it checked out.”
What causes vaginal odor?
“The vagina produces discharge, which is its housekeeping function as it naturally cleanses itself,” Dr. Ekman-Ordeberg says. “Regular discharge does have a slightly sour smell as the vagina has a naturally acidic environment.” This is common for most people with vaginas, and both doctors emphasize that you shouldn’t try to change it by washing or douching, as this may cause pH disruption and lead to infection.
Dr. Ghatak adds that discharge smell can change depending on the time of the monthly cycle you’re in, the contraception you’re on and whether you’re sexually active. Again, this is all normal — it’s simply your vagina lubricating and self-cleansing. However, if your discharge starts to resemble something similar to cottage cheese, this could be sign of a yeast infection and should be brought to your doctor’s attention.
“If there is an underlying infection, discharge can become very smelly,” Dr. Ghatak notes. An offensive fishy smell can be a sign of bacterial vaginosis (BV), which is caused when the pH of the vagina is disrupted and should be raised with your doctor who can advise on treatment. “Some people may experience this infection after menstruation or after sex, as blood and semen have higher pH levels,” Dr. Ekman-Ordeberg explains. Similarly, STIs like gonorrhea or chlamydia and thrush can cause a change in the smell of your discharge.
It’s easy to mistake vulva odor for vaginal odor, but as the vagina and vulva are very different and have different needs and pH balances, it’s important to be aware of how these differences can impact odor.
“The female intimate area as a whole is usually referred to as the vagina, but that is incorrect,” Dr. Ekman-Ordeberg tells us. “The internal canal leading up to the cervix is the vagina, while the vulva is everything that is external, including the labia, clitoris, mucous membrane, urethral opening and vaginal opening.” According to Dr. Ekman-Ordeberg, the vulva has the same sweat glands as those found in the armpits. “They’re called apocrine sweat glands and they empty into the hair follicles, so sweat is digested by the natural skin bacteria and causes an odor similar to body odor from the armpits,” she says.
Sweat odor is very individual and can be linked to genetics as well as digested food or medications, so this smell and its intensity vary from person to person. To prevent sweat, Dr. Ekman-Ordeberg recommends keeping the environment breathable and humidity-free. “100% cotton underwear and menstrual care products are the best options, as lace and plastics can trap heat and cause a humid, sweaty environment,” she adds.
Vaginal care tips
“You should practice good hygiene, wash with clean water, avoid perfumed soaps and do not wash the inside of your vagina,” Dr. Ghatak says. “If you have excess discharge, you may wish to wear a panty liner — in which case, make sure that you change it regularly.”
Both doctors emphasize that no products can get rid of or mask vaginal odor, but it is possible to treat vulva odor with properly formulated products. “The vagina has a pH of 3.5, whereas the vulva pH is 5. And as it’s externally located, it can be cleansed,” Dr. Ekman-Ordeberg states. As a co-founder of intimate care brand DeoDoc, she recommends the brand’s DeoSpray, a specially formulated deodorant which is safe to use on the vulva and works by absorbing moisture throughout the day.
“Our Intimate DeoWipes can also be used for a quick refresh after a sweaty activity, like a boxing class or on a hot summer’s day,” Dr. Ekman-Ordeberg adds. The brand was founded and is run by female doctors and gynecologists with firsthand experience of patients in need of safely formulated intimate care products. “So many OB-GYNs, including me, have always recommended patients to just use water, but we felt a responsibility as doctors to offer a better solution,” Dr. Ekman-Ordeberg says. “Our products are pH-balanced at 5 and contain zero allergens, perfumes or essential oils.”
When to see a doctor
If you’ve noticed a persistent or unusual change in your vaginal odor then it’s probably worth bringing it up with your doctor. “Other things to look out for are bleeding with your discharge or after intercourse, if your discharge is thicker than usual, or if there is any itching or pain in your vagina,” Dr. Ghatak adds. “It’s important you see a doctor, as these could be signs of an infection.”
Grace Day is a full-time beauty editor based in Manchester, U.K. Her first job, as a beauty advisor in department stores, was where her love of beauty began — and where she discovered the importance of a good concealer. She loves the science of skincare and counts herself as the resident skincare advisor among friends. You can find Grace on Instagram and her blog.