UPDATED: Jan. 17, 2021 —
You shower regularly, you eat a healthy diet and you change your underwear daily – and even wear a panty liner, but for some reason, you still have a funny stench downstairs. This can make you feel uncomfortable when you want to be intimate with your partner, or even when people come close to you, and especially during a visit with your gynecologist.
Most women have a generally familiar scent to their own vagina. “This scent varies from person to person and is oftentimes influenced by environmental factors like diet, exercise, perspiration, medications, fabrics worn and products used,” says Dr. Alyssa Dweck, a New York-based OB/GYN and brand ambassador for Monistat. “This scent may change with the various phases of the menstrual cycle as well. But don’t freak out, a vaginal scent should not be interpreted as unhygienic or dirty by any means.”
When you should visit your doctor
While most women know what is normal for them and what is not, it is never a bad idea to get checked for an unusual or concerning odor. “A recurrent, persistent or worsening odor should be evaluated by a doctor in order rule out or treat an infection,” says Dweck. “Odor that is associated with sex or with bleeding might signify an infection or other medical issue that requires attention.”
Above all, listen to your body. And if you think you may have a yeast infection, but aren’t sure, check out the Monistat symptom checker tool and call your gynecologist to share any concerns.
If you’re struggling with vaginal odor, here are 13 surprising things that can affect how your vagina smells:
1. Allergy or misuse of condoms
Some women are allergic to certain materials in condoms, which can throw off vaginal bacteria and cause odor. If this occurs, switch to a few different types of condom over the course of a few weeks and see if the stench improves. This will take a little trial and error so have patience.
- Use a new condom for every sexual act from start to finish. Before any genital contact, put the condom on the tip of the erect penis with the rolled side out.
- If the condom does not have a reservoir tip, pinch the tip enough to leave a half-inch space for semen to collect. Holding the tip, unroll the condom all the way to the base of the erect penis.
- After ejaculation and before the penis gets soft, grip the rim of the condom and carefully withdraw. Then gently pull the condom off the penis, making sure that semen doesn’t spill out.
- Wrap the condom in a tissue and throw it in the trash where others won’t handle it.
- If you feel the condom break at any point during sexual activity, stop immediately, withdraw, remove the broken condom, and put on a new condom.
- Ensure that adequate lubrication is used during vaginal and anal sex, which might require water-based lubricants. Oil-based lubricants (e.g., petroleum jelly, shortening, mineral oil, massage oils, body lotions, and cooking oil) should not be used because they can weaken latex, causing breakage.
According to the Office on Women’s Health, douching can mess with the pH levels of the vagina and even cause a large number of bacteria to grow. There are good and bad bacteria that can be down there, but the bad bacteria can cause a strong smell.
Here’s how to keep your vagina clean:
- Washing the outside of your vagina with warm water or a mild soap when you bathe.
- Only use unscented tampons, pads, powders and sprays.
3. Physical activity
If you’re an avid exerciser, what you could be smelling is just sweat accumulating down there or sweaty pants. According to the Office on Women’s Health, lots of physical activity (not the actual exercise, but sweaty clothing) can give your vagina a muskier smell.
4. Tight clothing
Even if you’re not very active, wearing very tight pants or underwear can cause your vagina to sweat. This, again, can cause vaginal odor.
5. A retained tampon
A super foul odor could be due to a retained tampon, says Dr. Dweck. We hope you wouldn’t leave a tampon inside of you, but if you do, seek medical attention immediately to make sure it’s completely out. You also want to make sure there were aren’t any flyaway fibers left inside you.
Here are tampon safety tips, according to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA):
- Follow all labeled directions. Even if you have used tampons before, read the instructions in the package.
- Wash your hands before and after using a tampon. This will help reduce the spread of bacteria.
- Only use tampons when you have your period. Tampons are not intended to be used at any other time or for any other reason.
- Change each tampon every 4 to 8 hours. Never wear a single tampon for more than 8 hours at a time.
- Use the lowest absorbency tampon needed. If you can wear one tampon up to eight hours without changing it, the absorbency may be too high.
- Contact your health care provider if you have pain, fever or other unusual symptoms. If you have discomfort, pain or other unexpected symptoms like unusual discharge when trying to insert or wear a tampon, or if you have an allergic reaction, stop using tampons and contact your provider.
- Know the signs of toxic shock syndrome (TSS) and how to reduce your risk. Symptoms and signs of TSS may include a sudden fever (usually 102°F or more), vomiting, diarrhea, fainting or feeling like you are going to faint when standing up, dizziness, or a rash that looks like a sunburn. If you have any of these symptoms during your period or soon after your period, stop using tampons and seek medical attention immediately.
6. Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) and Yeast
“Some women will notice a foul, fishy odor if they have a bacterial overgrowth called Bacterial Vaginosis,” says Dweck. “Some will note a yeasty odor with a yeast infection. If you feel the typical signs and symptoms of a yeast infection, such as thick white discharge and intense itching, I recommend the OTC Monistat for quick effective treatment.”
According to Medical News Today, when a doctor diagnoses a cause of vaginitis (inflammation of the vagina), the cause is typically:
- BV in around 40–50% of cases
- A yeast infection in 20–25% of cases
- Trichomoniasis in 15–20% of cases
- Not an infection in the remaining 5–10% of cases
7. Scented body wash
Using scented body wash or even scented lotion near the vagina can cause odor. “Some women admittedly use products to mask scent or odor, which is not medically indicated but used for personal preference,” says Dr. Dweck.
8. Laundry detergent
Just like scented laundry detergent or fabric softeners can irritate your skin, it can do the same for your vagina. If you find not only is it irritating your private area, but also causing you to sweat more or even trigger yeast infections, be sure to wash your underwear separately with unscented detergent.
9. Excess pubic hair
A study published in The Journal of Sex Medicine found that “women are likely to report stronger associations with feelings of cleanliness, comfort, sex appeal, social norms of their peer group, and affordability as reasons for their chosen pubic hairstyle.” So while there’s a popular theory that our pubic hair is meant to waft the smell of the vagina around—this actually used to attract mates thousands of years ago—most of us don’t want that smell lurking so trim, wax or shave away if it truly bothers you.
However, note that what you’re smelling is a mix of bacteria and sweat on the hairs, the public hair themselves don’t smell.
Additionally, having public hair is a great way to minimize friction during sex. So if you do decide to get rid of the hairs, find out what length is best for you before you trim.
10. Synthetic materials
An epidemiological survey in the European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology, discovered that “one of the factors associated with vaginal yeast infections is wearing underwear made from synthetic fabrics, which doesn’t ‘breathe’ and thus keep the genital area warm and moist, perfect conditions for the growth of yeast.”
Your best bet for keeping your vulva free from infections and smells is to wear cotton underwear. Synthetic materials and those pretty lace panties we all love don’t allow air to flow through, which ultimately traps humidity and smelly sweat inside.
Looking for comfy, and cute cotton undies? Try these:
- Commando Stretch Cotton Thong ($26)
- Only Hearts Organic Cotton High Waist Brief ($35)
- Richer-Poorer High Waist Brief ($22)
- Everlane The Bikini ($12)
- Thinx Period Proof Cotton Briefs ($34)
11. Spicy and sweet foods
Spicy food can cause a sudden increase in vaginal discharge, which can cause vaginal odor. Also, Dr. Dweck confirms that many women report a sweeter odor after eating pineapple.
Simply put: In order for your vagina to build up beneficial flora, you should eat a healthy diet. Consider eating yogurt or taking a daily probiotic. According to research, these can help eliminate the funky smell.
WebMD lists garlic, onion, asparagus and curry as foods that can cause vaginal odor. You should also add coffee, alcohol, and the tropical fruit durian to this list. Finally, it’s also important to note that alcohol, smoking, and not drinking enough water can also throw off your PH balance, too.
You may notice vaginal odors accumulating directly after sex. Research says that this is because the pH levels of semen can alter the natural balance of things in your vagina.
According to the American Pregnancy Association, 10 to 30 percent of pregnant women will get BV. The main symptom of BV is a fishy-smelling, gray discharge.
Another common pregnancy symptom is an unusual ammonia-like vaginal smell that can be caused from dietary preferences, dehydration, and supplement use. If you are pregnant and these symptoms, contact your OBGYN as soon as possible.
Here are easy to try tips for good hygiene from Medical News Today:
- Change and wash clothing and bedding regularly. Clean clothing is less likely to contain trace amounts of urine, which may be more noticeable to pregnant women.
- Wipe from front to back. Wipe from the vagina toward the anus to reduce the spread of bacteria.
- Wash the genitals with soap and lukewarm water. Make sure the vagina is clean, but avoid exposing sensitive vaginal tissues to irritants found in scented body wash, vaginal deodorants, antiseptic products, and spermicidal products.
- Avoid douches and diaphragms. Douching and the use of diaphragms can your vagina and allow external bacteria to enter the urinary tract.