Don’t be embarrassed. Every now and then, some ladies experience less-than-fresh odors in their nether regions. But it’s usually not because of poor hygiene—in fact, obsessive washing could be the culprit.
The truth about vaginas: they contain more bacteria than any other part of the body, besides the intestines. Sounds gross, we know, but that’s a good thing! Of course, it’s understandable that ladies want to feel fresh down there. Lathering up with sweet smells seems like the natural thing to do. But as much as we want to believe floral-scented soaps will make lady parts smell like roses, it’s not the case.
“The vagina is self cleaning, so you don’t need to add all of these cleaning products. That’s actually what [vaginal] discharge is—the byproduct of your vagina cleaning itself,” explains Dr. Vanessa Cullins, Vice President of External Medical Affairs at Planned Parenthood. That naturally occurring cervical mucus women deal with is normal—part of the reason it’s there is to flush out dirt and toxins. Sometimes the amount of discharge is disconcerting, but this is usually determined by hormones and menstrual cycle, not because it needs to be manually cleaned out. If it doesn’t have a strong smell or color it’s usually normal. If it does, then it’s time to head to the gynecologist to investigate.
A healthy vaginal microbiome means good bacteria prevent bad bacteria from thriving, and that same healthy bacteria maintains a slightly acidic pH level between 3.5 and 4.5 in order to fight infections—a highly sustainable process (seriously, what can’t the female body do?).
One of the signs of an imbalanced pH level, however, is an unpleasant odor that can result from a yeast infection, bacterial vaginosis, or trichomoniasis. Instead of addressing these potential underlying infections, some women end up making things worse by trying to cover them up with fragrant products, which can disrupt the balance within the vaginal microbiome. It’s a vicious cycle! And a dangerous one, since failing to treat these infections can lead to reproductive issues. Rather than attempting to mask vaginal odors—which doesn’t work anyway—a trip to the gyno is crucial. Luckily, all of these issues can be treated with oral or topical medications.
So, stop with the lavender-scented soap. “Scented products often have harsh chemicals that strip away natural and healthy bacteria,” says Dr. Cullins. Avoid using fragrant cleansers on the external and internal areas of the vagina. Water will do just fine, but also consider this alternative: A probiotic soap that can freshen while helping keep the “friendly” bacteria fighting the good fight. Whatever you do, never, ever douche! While douching does, in fact, flush everything out, that includes healthy bacteria, and you don’t want those good guys to go.
Food may also play a role in odoriferous private parts. A high-sugar diet leaves diabetic and pre-diabetic women more susceptible to yeast infections. Foods with naturally strong smells can also manifest themselves through feminine odor. Ever notice people emit the scent of spices, garlic, onions, or red meat whenever they eat lots of curry, Chinese food, or steak? It’s literally coming out of their pores via sweat—and the fact that the vaginal region is almost always well-concealed by underwear (and sometimes, skintight–skinny jeans that look so good) means sweat happens down there, too.
Which brings us to another tip to keep things smelling fresher: Ditch tight, synthetic underwear in favor of organic cotton ones that allow the vagina to breathe.
And like probiotic soap might help things out on the outside, eating yogurt with live, active cultures may help to restore vaginal pH balance from the inside. With everything amazing probiotics have been found to do, we definitely want them in our lives either way.