And it's not the smell of freshly baked cookies.
I don't care how comfortable you are with your own body, we all have those moments where we think about how we smell down there. Maybe it's at the doctor's office before a pelvic exam, or it might be as your partner is making their way to your vagina for some up-close and personal fun. You wonder, "Do I smell normal? And what is normal anyway? What is a vagina supposed to smell like?"
But vaginas often do have smells, not horrible in that they make you pass out, but they have their own odors or fragrances.
Most of the time, these vagina-scents aren't awful — they just smell like a vagina; like the way you sometimes smell sweaty or how your feet stink in certain shoes. We smell like humans and the smell of our vaginas depend on certain factors. If you just took a shower and washed your lady-bits, there probably isn't any smell. But if you just had a marathon sex session, your vagina will have an odor.
Every vagina has its own unique scent, which is a combination of the normal bacteria that reside in your vagina, your diet, if you wear natural fabrics or synthetics, your level of hygiene, your bathroom habits, and what your glands secrete. It's important not to forget that your vagina also secretes pheromones that are supposed to trigger sexual interest and excitement.
"I don't know how to describe what a vagina should smell like, but I can tell you what it shouldn't smell like," says Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at Yale University School of Medicine. "The vagina shouldn't smell like rotten fish or anything rotting...The odor folks [describe] is from bacterial vaginosis, which is really an imbalance of good guy and bad guy bacteria (the bad guys are the anaerobic bacteria which tend to be overgrowing, and anaerobes classically produce a foul or rotting type odor)."
The pH of the vagina is an important gauge for what's going on down there.
"Many women notice after having their periods that there is a different odor," says Sara Gottfried, MD., founder and medical director of The Gottfried Center for Integrative Medicine and author of The Hormone Cure. " A lot of women notice a change in the scent after having sex. Semen is really basic — it has a pH of around eight — so when you have sex, it changes the pH in the vagina to the basic side of things."
The good news is that vaginas are self-cleaning and they naturally produce some discharge that helps to eject germs and bacteria out of your body, like a bouncer at the exclusive Vagina Club. You have regular discharge, which is mostly white with a little yellow, but when it's grey or neon green or yellow, that's not good.
If your vagina is itchy or there's pain, those are signs that something isn't right. You have an infection or something more serious, and should see your doctor as soon as possible.
"Another thing that we do see causing bad odors is a retained tampon," said Dr. Minkin. "If someone does notice a foul odor, check in for a retained tampon (something folks forget to take out at the end of their period). If they find on and cannot remove it, call the health care provider to remove it. That's one of the few times a douche would be helpful, and then follow it up with some RepHresh (an over-the-counter solution that helps keep the pH levels healthy)."
As far as smell goes, Dr. Minkin says, "There are times I do see women who complain of an odor, and I don't smell anything abnormal. The one thing I strongly discourage women from doing is using scented products in the vagina, because that tissue is the most delicate in the body, and the most sensitive to irritation (like an allergen)."
For the most part, don't mess with your vagina. It knows how to take care of itself. If you do see or smell something that doesn't seem right, have a health care professional check it out.