Ever get that not-so-clean feeling? We’ve all been there: You head to the bathroom post-workout and bam, things don’t really smell so fresh down there.
But is that really even have a problem? Your vagina isn’t supposed to smell like roses, and a lot of women think that there’s something wrong with them when there isn’t, says Lauren Streicher, MD, medical director of the Northwestern Medicine Center for Sexual Health and Menopause and author of Sex Rx: Hormones, Health, and Your Best Sex Ever.
“It shouldn’t smell offensive, but there is a normal vaginal odour,” she explains. “A woman who was taught that her genitals are nasty at a young age is more apt to perceive a [bad] odour when nothing is abnormal.”
So if you smell like you always have, you’re probably just fine. However, you shouldn’t ignore a funky odour coming from your nether regions if it seems out of the ordinary. Not sure why things are smelling less than pleasant? Here are the most common causes of vaginal odor—and what you can do to stave off the stench.
You’re leaking pee
“When you talk about vaginal odour, the first thing you need to figure out is whether it is, in fact, coming from the vagina, or is it really a genital odour?” says Dr Streicher. (Remember, your vagina is located inside of your body, while everything surrounding it is your vulva or your external genitals.) For a lot of women, it’s incontinence.” In many cases, women have just a small amount of leakage that they’re not really aware of—they only notice the odour.
- Freshen up: Since the root of this issue is external (urine hanging around your genitals or underwear), showering and changing clothes should do the trick. But do tell your doc if you often have trouble making it to the bathroom on time. There are meds and other interventions that can help.
You're sweaty down there
Feeling swampy? Don’t freak out, dealing with a sweaty crotch is actually pretty normal. Most of your body is covered in eccrine glands, which produces a watery sweat that doesn’t always lead to a funky smelly. But other parts of your body—especially your armpits and groin—are home to apocrine glands, which release more of a stinky sweat, Suzanne Friedler, MD, of Advanced Dermatology in New York City
Wearing panty liners and exercising frequently can also lock in odour since heat gets trapped in. Some people also deal with excessive sweating, a condition known as hyperhidrosis. It’s more common around your underarms, hands, and feet, but can also affect your crotch area.
- Freshen up: Ditch the panty liners, look for underwear made of breathable cotton, and try to change immediately after your workout (Certain brands even have sweat-wicking properties, like these from Hanes.) Trimming your pubic hair also helps since it can trap odour, especially during the warmer months.
You’re harbouring a missing tampon
It sounds crazy, but Dr Streicher says that lots of women insert a tampon and forget to take it out. Maybe you’re at the end of your period but put one in “just in case,” and then it slips your mind because your time of the month was ending. You could have mindlessly inserted a new tampon without taking the first one out. Assuming it’s lingered in there for a while, the smell will be really strong, says Dr Streicher.
- Freshen up: You guessed it—you need to get the tampon out. Your doctor can easily remove it, or you can take a crack at it yourself: Lie flat on your back and put two fingers deep into your vagina. “Women can probably get it out themselves, but most of the time they don’t even know it’s there,” says Dr Streicher.
The bacteria in your vagina are out of whack
“The most common cause of vaginal odour is an imbalance in the normal flora in the vagina,” which causes a fishy odour, irritation, and thin to no vaginal discharge, says Dr Streicher. This unpleasant bacteria can take over anytime, but it’s most apt to happen after your period or sex because both blood and semen can throw off your natural pH.
What about yeast infections? Those might cause a slight yeasty scent, but the odour is rarely the main complaint. Itching and thick, white discharge are more common.
- Freshen up: If it turns into a full-blown infection (known as bacterial vaginosis), you’ll need antibiotics. But in many cases, you can catch the problem before it calls for meds. Dr Streicher tells patients to try RepHresh Vaginal Gel, which works to correct the pH balance in your vagina. You should notice a major improvement after two treatments, she says. If you don’t, it’s time to call your doctor (and probably get a prescription).
How to get rid of vaginal odour
Remember, your vagina doesn’t need to smell like Febreze. When it comes to keeping odour at bay, you don’t have to do much. Beyond the reasons listed above, your vagina actually does a really good job of balancing out your pH and bacteria all on its own.
However, cleansing with a gentle soap around your vulva during your typical shower won’t hurt. Go for one that’s gentle, hypoallergenic, and unscented. Just avoid washing directly in your vagina (and douching is a major no-no) since this can actually disrupt your pH and mess with your natural bacteria, increasing your risk of infection.
As for those special feminine hygiene washes? You don’t need them, says Dr Streicher. “They won’t help with infections, and for regular cleansing plain soap and water is fine.”