There have been quite a few public debates about the vagina: what it’s supposed to look like, how much hair it should have, how to keep it tight, and, of course, what it should smell like. Everyone’s thoughts on such matters vary, especially when it comes to the ladder. A doctor was literally just telling us that it should have a “slightly sour smell.” But every woman is different. Every woman’s body, size, diet, habits and circumstances are unique. Therefore, according to Alyssa Dweck, MD, a gynecologist in New York, author of V is for Vagina, and the assistant clinical professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive science at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, those kinds of conversations are not helpful. Instead, we need to talk more about how to maintain a good vaginal pH and avoid infections rather than worrying about whether or not we smell like a bed of roses all the time. I asked Dweck a variety of vaginal health questions and she gave us a boatload of information to share with you, and at the same time, she shut down some controversial opinions about vaginal smells.
MadameNoire: What role does your weight play in the smell of your vagina?
Alyssa Dweck, MD: As far as the role of weight, women who are overweight are definitely going to perspire more because of less aeration in the areas of skin that are creased and have folds. They may perspire more and have a little bit more of an odor as a result. It might be harder for some of these women, especially morbidly obese women, to manage their hygiene and so that may have some influence as well. Some women, particularly if they’re wearing very confining garments in order to have a flatter stomach or those other types of non-breathable fabrics, that can definitely increase perspiration and odor because they don’t allow the area to breathe. And we all know that yeast and bacteria, they love dark, moist places. And women who are really overweight tend to have urine leakage more commonly. If you have urine leakage in addition to perspiration, that, of course, is going to have its own characteristic smell.
MN: What are your thoughts on people still buying and utilizing douching products?
AD: Douching is totally out. There’s not a gynecologist who’s going to recommend douching anymore. In fact, it can disturb the pH of the vagina and that can cause an infection.
MN: How does a woman maintain a healthy vaginal pH?
AD: The truth is, the vagina has its own mechanisms to maintain a normal acidic pH and should not need vigorous scrubbing or cleaning at all. For women who are sensitive or prone to or suffering with chronic symptoms of irritation, itching or infection, I recommend avoidance of harsh detergents, fragrant tampons and pads and common irritants such as products with strong perfumes and dyes. Avoidance of confining and/or moist underwear and workout pants might also alter the environment and make infection more common for those who are sensitive. PH balancing products such as Rephresh might be helpful in some cases. And limiting high sugar or alcohol intake is also beneficial. Too much sugar and too much alcohol, those things could really alter your chances for infection. And you should not have to get the loofah and start scrubbing like crazy, particularly around the inside of the vagina, because that would be caustic.
MN: Is it true that women shouldn’t use soap to clean down there?
AD: Using bar soap or general body wash in the intimate area is an individual preference. We all have health and hygiene habits passed along to us from our moms and sisters, friends and confidantes, health care providers and the web. There are no one-size-fits-all hard-and-fast rules. Certainly, heavily perfumed or chemical-laden washes can be irritating for some and are essentially not needed for most. As a clinician who sees women of all ages with varied backgrounds and medical histories, I often recommend a moisturizing wash free of harsh chemicals for women who suffer with dryness due to menopause, chronic irritation, and chronic itching from sensitive skin or who suffer with constant infections. Preferred ingredients include sodium hyaluronate and elastin. Lubrigyn cleansing lotion from Italy is a wonderful choice. I often recommend hypoallergenic products free of parabens and other chemicals.
MN: Most people heard about this no soap idea and flat-out refused to believe it. It was like, how else can you cleanse?
AD: The vagina is not a filthy, dirty place. In fact, the mouth likely harbors more bacteria than the vagina! Harsh detergents and vigorous scrubbing are just not needed.
MN: Is the only real sign of a less than pleasant smell a fishy odor?
AD: A fishy odor typically signifies infection and if persistent, should be checked out by your gyno.
MN: If we don’t have all that going on down there, is it safe to say that our vaginas are in “good condition”?
AD: Most women know what’s “normal” for them. A notable change in odor, discharge or skin condition is worth a gyno seeing.
MN: What are your thoughts on people who try to claim vaginal odors vary by ethnicity?
AD: Vaginal smells are individual and are influenced by the menstrual cycle, hormonal status, hydration, diet, medical history, exercise habits, hygiene and undergarment choices, to name a few. I would suggest that women of different ethnicities might “smell different” due to their “ethnic” dietary choices or hygiene habits rather than their actual ethnicities. Women of different ethnicities have different health and diet habits. Those are what are probably changing their smells, rather than their actual smells.
MN: It’s a very ugly conversation but there are quite a few threads online with people asking about it.
AD: As with so many hot-button topics, education is essential to correct and clarify misconceptions and misperceptions.
Learn more about Dweck and vaginal health on her site.