So, what should your vagina smell like?
The way your vagina smells is highly individualised and influenced by a couple of different factors. If there is a noticeable odour – associated with symptoms like discharge, itch or burn – there’s a problem and you need to pop in on your gynae. But without these symptoms, the smell is probably perfectly normal.
The reason your vagina has a characteristic smell is because it secretes fluids and normal bacteria to keep your vaginal pH slightly acidic at 4.5 – this plays a role in helping your vagina stay infection-free. Here, the common things that give your vagina its unique scent…
1. Your menstrual cycle and hormones
Oestrogen lowers your vaginal pH, protecting you from infections. During the second half of your cycle up until before your period, when oestrogen is low, you might be more susceptible to infections and odour. When your cycle is irregular, you’re also more susceptible to increased pH and infections.
2. Your diet
Sugary foods create the perfect environment for yeast infections, causing a change in vaginal odour. (Though yeast infections themselves don’t really have a characteristic smell.) Strong-smelling foods like coffee or onions affect bodily fluids, including vaginal discharge and smell. Incredibly, there is some evidence showing that sweet-smelling foods like watermelon, celery, pineapple and apple might help with vaginal odour. Lastly, eating foods rich in probiotics – like sauerkraut, kefir or kombucha – supports your vaginal microbiome, preventing infections.
FYI: Your vaginal microbiome is the environment of normal organisms found in your vagina. Their role? To protect you from an overgrowth of unwanted yeast and bacterial infections. The vaginal microbiome and your gut microbiome are connected.
To maintain a healthy vaginal microbiome, avoid oral antibiotics as far as possible and supplement with probiotic strains lactobacillus rhamnosus (GR-1) and lactobacillus reuteri (RC-14). Avoid: feminine hygiene products used internally, vaginal douching and scented soaps – they disturb your vaginal microbiome, putting you at risk of infection. Our natural response is to think when something smells, we need to wash it, but these efforts have the opposite effect.
3. Your pH
Your vaginal pH should be between 3.5 and 4.5 – slightly acidic. At this pH level, your vaginal microbiome should be normal. Anything above that puts you at risk of infections and odour. So, what increases your pH? Menstrual blood and tampons, sperm, scented soaps, hot baths, vaginal douching and hormonal contraception.
4. Leakage of urine/menopause
After normal childbirth and with increased age, bladder control becomes more difficult. A cough or sneeze can cause leakage, and walking around with soiled underwear can result in unwanted odour down south. If you’re prone to this, try Kegel/pelvic floor exercises, wear a panty liner, or carry extra undies in your bag for emergencies.
5. Personal hygiene and sweat
This is a common cause of a musky or fried onion-like smell – but staying hydrated helps. If you’re prone to sweating, you can use feminine wipes (not inside the vagina – only on the outside folds) and change your underwear during the day. Baby powder can also help, but once again: for external use only. Lastly, hairy areas are more prone to sweat, so treat yourself to a Hollywood or laser hair removal.
6. Sexual intercourse
Semen has a strong ammonia smell and it can also increase your pH, putting you at risk of vaginal infections. It’s important to urinate after sex and wash properly with water after the act.
7. Your choice of underwear
First, make sure your underwear is clean. Washing your undies in the machine is often not enough – you need to wash them properly by hand. Tumble drying for 30 minutes also helps to get rid of bacteria. Secondly, throw the old ones out. If your undies are stained or worn with holes, get rid of them. Lastly, fabric is important. Avoid synthetics like nylon and spandex – they’re non-breathable. Rather choose cotton.