Diet, health, and other factors can affect the natural fragrance, which should still not smell foul. It's neither safe nor healthy to attempt to eliminate the vagina's scent. In fact, doing so can lead to infections that cause an unpleasant odor.
In this article, we explore some strategies that can reduce vaginal odor safely and address underlying medical causes.
Types of vaginal odor
Health and diet may affect the natural fragrance of the vagina alongside hormonal shifts.
It is common for women to be self-conscious about their vaginal odor. These negative feelings can affect self-esteem and body image.
However, it is also normal for the vagina to have a mild, musky smell. Indeed, research suggests that this odor is partially due to pheromones that can increase sexual attractiveness and subtly communicate information about fertility.
This odor changes with hormonal shifts during pregnancy, menopause, and the menstrual cycle. So a subtle smell is not a cause for concern. Some other odors, however, warrant a call to a doctor.
Fishy vaginal odor
Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is the most common vaginal infection among women of childbearing age. When something upsets the vagina's complex chemistry, harmful bacteria can grow out of control, producing a fishy odor.
Some women with BV experience other symptoms, such as itching or burning, which may feel like a yeast infection. For many women though, the smell is the only symptom. Prescription antibiotics can treat the problem.
Healthful habits can also reduce the risk of BV. Those include:
- Avoiding douches, which upset the delicate pH balance of the vagina.
- Not using scented or flavored products in or around the vagina. Perfumes and other products, such as scented tampons, can alter vaginal chemistry and cause BV.
- Limiting the number of sexual partners and practicing safer sex. While BV is not a sexually transmitted infection (STI), multiple sexual partners can upset the bacteria balance in the vagina, causing BV.
Sweet or beer-like vaginal odor
A yeast overgrowth in the vagina can produce a sweet smell reminiscent of honey or cookies. The vagina might also smell like beer, flour, or bread.
Sometimes the odor smells sour, but it can also be pleasant. Intense burning, itching, or feelings of dryness usually accompany yeast infections. They tend to get worse over time, and some women may notice a discharge that resembles cottage cheese.
People can treat these infections using over-the-counter medicines. However, a woman experiencing her first yeast infection should talk to her doctor to rule out other causes.
Many of the same measures that prevent BV, such as avoiding scented products and never douching, can also prevent yeast overgrowth. Other strategies include:
- Only taking antibiotics when necessary: In some women, antibiotics kill beneficial vaginal bacteria, triggering the growth of vaginal yeast.
- Avoiding oral sex with people who have thrush in their mouth.
- Keeping the vaginal area relatively dry: As yeast thrives in a moist environment. Towel off after a bath or shower, and avoid sitting in wet swimwear or underwear.
Hormonal changes during menopause may alter the scent of the vagina, and leave the vagina feeling dry.
Some STIs, notably trichomoniasis, may also alter the smell of the vagina. Any shift in vaginal odor, particularly if the smell is strong or unpleasant, demands a trip to the doctor. It is not recommended to use perfume to mask the smell.
Showering after exercise to remove sweat and using fragrance-free soap on just the vulva may help to reduce vaginal odor.
Safe, gentle vaginal hygiene practices can reduce vaginal odor. Some strategies include:
- Wiping front to back: This prevents fecal matter from getting into the vagina.
- Urinating immediately after sex.
- Using a gentle, fragrance-free soap on the vulva only. Inserting soap into the vagina can alter vaginal pH, causing infections and a foul odor. Various fragrance free products can be purchased online.
- Changing underwear daily, or when underwear is sweaty or soiled.
- Washing underwear in unscented products.
- Showering after sweating or exercise as trapped sweat can increase vaginal odor.
- Washing the vulva with water if there is an unpleasant odor. Between showers, women can use a washcloth to gently wipe down the area, removing sweat and other sources of odor.
2. Menstrual products
Some women notice a stronger vaginal smell when they get their periods; some women smell an iron-like metallic odor, and others smell ammonia.
Some menstrual products trap odor, compounding this effect. To reduce odor:
- Try wearing internal products. The moisture of maxi pads and reusable cloth pads can contribute to odor. Sitting on a wet pad can also cause an infection. Internal menstrual products, including menstrual cups, can be purchased online.
- Change menstrual products frequently.
3. How sex affects vaginal odor
Some women notice a strong fishy odor immediately after sexual intercourse, which is a telltale sign of bacterial vaginosis. Others notice a less distinct smell.
Sometimes interactions between semen and vaginal fluids can cause vaginal odor. Some lubricants can also change vaginal pH and the odor that comes with it. To reduce the odor associated with vaginal intercourse:
- Use a condom to prevent semen from coming into contact with vaginal fluids. Compare different condom brands and products to choose the most suitable one before puchasing.
- Rinse the vagina and vulva with plain water following intercourse. Do not douche.
- Avoid using scented or flavored lubricants.
Probiotics support healthy bacteria throughout the body, including in the vagina. Probiotics may help prevent some vaginal infections, especially yeast. Compare different products before purchasing.
By controlling infections, probiotics can reduce causes of vaginal odor. Because probiotics help restore the vagina's normal pH, they also help reduce vaginal odor.
Clothing can trap things in or around the vagina such as:
- dead skin
- leaked semen from earlier intercourse
- other sources of odor
Very tight-fitting clothing is a common culprit. That includes some shapewear. Fecal matter that travels to the vagina can cause infections and odors, so avoid clothing that encourages this spread. This includes tight-fitting thong underwear.
Breathable cotton is the best choice for women concerned about vaginal odor. Cotton is less likely to hold moisture close to the vagina. This makes it more difficult for bacteria and other sources of odor to accumulate and produce a strong smell. Cotton underwear can be purchased online.
Very sugary foods can trigger an overgrowth of yeast, altering the odor of the vagina.
Staying hydrated may help to ensure sweat does not smell bad. It may also prevent bacterial overgrowth.
There's some evidence that other strong-smelling foods might also change the vagina's smell. Onions, coffee, and other strong-smelling foods can alter the smell of the vagina by changing the smell of sweat and other bodily fluids.
There's little scientific research supporting the use of any specific food to change the smell of the vagina. Some anecdotal evidence suggests that some sweet-smelling foods, such as watermelon, apple, and celery, might help.
It's also important to drink plenty of water. Remaining well-hydrated prevents bacterial overgrowth. It can also prevent sweat from smelling bad, resulting in less pronounced vaginal odor.