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A Shame-Free Guide to Vaginal Odors

Let’s move past the myth that clean vaginas should smell like perfume or freshly laundered clothes, shall we? It's time to accept our odors for what they are: A glimpse into the state of our ever-changing vaginal ecosystems.

6 minutes

14 Citations

Despite societal misconceptions, having a vagina that smells doesn’t make you unclean or abnormal. It makes you a human.

Vaginal odor is just another signature of your vaginal microbiome, a dynamic ecosystem that’s constantly in flux. And while some odors are perfectly normal, others can tip you off to a microbial imbalance or infection.

Learning to discern and interpret your particular vaginal odor can offer invaluable insights into the state of your microbiome. So, let’s embark on a shame-free guide to vaginal odors, and how to discern natural smells from potentially problematic ones.

Why Do Vaginas Smell in the First Place? 

All vaginas have a natural scent—and, no, they’re not supposed to smell like a bouquet. 

Vaginal odor is a combination of different smells that are produced by the microbes present within the vaginal microbiome or on the skin of the vulva (which has its own microbiome, too, FYI).1,2 The odor is created when the bacteria from the vagina mix with other fluids or bacteria in the surrounding area. 

Healthy vaginal odor is also influenced by the different fluids produced by your genitals. Sweat, vaginal discharge, and trace amounts of urine all make up the way you smell down there. Add into the mix the fact that your vulva and vagina are moist environments, and you have a perfect recipe for odor. 

“At a molecular level, these odors result from the enzymatic breakdown of proteins and amino acids by bacteria,” says Ava Mainieri, Ph.D., a geneticist and evolutionary biologist specializing in female reproductive health. “Abnormal vaginal odors often arise from shifts in the balance of lactic acid-producing bacteria (Lactobacillus).”

This highlights the importance of maintaining a balanced vaginal microbiome for controlling odor. Since the bacteria in your vaginal microbiome play a big role in your vaginal odor, a foul or fishy smell can be a telltale sign of an infection like bacterial vaginosis (BV).3 

“The relationship between pH and odor is crucial,” adds Dr. Mainieri. “A higher pH allows odor-producing bacteria to thrive, while a lower pH, maintained by lactobacilli, suppresses them.”4

What Should My Vagina Smell Like?

Vaginal odor is personal, so it’s hard to pinpoint what “normal” looks (or rather, smells) like from one individual to the next. The vaginal microbiome is very sensitive to change, so there’s also subtle variation in how the same vagina can smell from one day to another. One study done way back in 1975 (up-to-date research on vaginal smells is frustratingly sparse) collected 90 vaginal discharge samples from 10 women and identified a whopping 21,000 different “mini odors” among them.5

Due to this diversity, when you get within about a foot of your vagina, you might pick up on any or all of the following odors:

  • Yeasty
  • Metallic
  • Ripe
  • Musky
  • Earthy
  • Sweet 
  • Tangy
  • Fermented
  • Sour
  • Bleachy

“Oftentimes, ‘normal’ odors are tangy, fermented, or sour,” explains Dr. Mainieri. “These are the smells from lactobacilli. Metallic may also be normal as it could be due to menstruation as blood contains iron. Sometimes a ‘bleachy’ smell could be a slight smell of urine.” 

As you can see, there’s a wide array of vaginal smells, and yours may subtly shift from one day to the next.

What Causes Changes in Vaginal Odor?

Some changes in vaginal scent are totally natural and to be expected. For example, your odor might shift with your menstrual cycle or sexual activity, as menstrual blood and semen can both temporarily alter pH and microbial growth.4,6 How you smell might fluctuate after a workout, too, because sweat can interact with the bacteria that live on the skin of your vulva, making everything a bit more “pungent.”7 These shifts might cause your vagina to take on a slightly different smell within the “normal” scent categories listed above, but they’re nothing to worry about.

However, other vaginal odors may signal an underlying issue. As for the daily practices that can throw off your vaginal microbiome and lead to bacterial imbalance and odor, douching is a major one. While you might think that douching helps freshen things up down there, it can actually do the opposite. Since it flushes out the protective bacteria in your vaginal microbiome, douching can throw your pH off balance and give harmful bacteria a chance to colonize.4 Remember: The vagina is actually a self-cleaning organ—it doesn’t need your help in that department!

Overusing antibiotics can also have a net negative impact on your vaginal microbiome. While antibiotics are effective at clearing harmful bacteria from the vagina, they disrupt beneficial bacteria in the process, potentially paving the way for follow-up infections and the odors that come with them.4,8 

Changes in hormone levels, such as those that occur during pregnancy, menopause, or after starting a new form of birth control, can also impact the composition and odor of the vaginal microbiome.9-11

What Are the Main “Bad” Odors to Be Aware of?

Disruptions to the vaginal microbiome can cause opportunistic pathogens to flourish and produce sudden unpleasant smells, including: 

  • Trimethylamine, which produces a fishy odor. This organic compound is produced by bacteria like Gardnerella vaginalis. It’s often linked to bacterial vaginosis (BV)—a common vaginal infection that is typically accompanied by abnormal gray, watery discharge.1,3
  • Cadaverine and Putrescine, which produce a “rotten” or foul smell.1 These are both linked to bacterial overgrowth in the absence of lactobacilli.12

TLDR; If your vagina suddenly smells more fishy or rotten, like bad meat, Dr. Mainieri says it could be a sign of BV, trichomoniasis (an STI), or a bacterial infection called aerobic vaginitis (AV).4,13,14 

Telling the difference between a healthy odor and an abnormal one requires keen observation and familiarity with one’s body. So the more you get acquainted with how your vagina smells normally, the easier it will be to spot when something changes. 

To Summarize

Your vagina should smell like a vagina—which can range from yeasty to musky to sweet. While subtle fluctuations in vaginal odor are normal, any drastic changes or persistently fishy, putrid, or rotten smells may signify a microbial imbalance and warrant a visit to your healthcare provider.


The lesson here is that you should trust your instincts and pay attention to your body’s signals. If something smells off, it probably is—especially if you’re experiencing any itching, burning, abnormal discharge, or discomfort along with it.

Embracing the Complexity of Vaginal Odors 

Let’s move past the myth that clean vaginas should smell like perfume or freshly laundered clothes, shall we? Instead, it’s time to accept our odors for what they are: A glimpse into the state of our ever-changing vaginal ecosystems. By embracing the complexity of vaginal smells, we can start to see them not as taboo subjects—but as the vital well-being indicators they are.


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  9. MacIntyre, D. A., Chandiramani, M., Lee, Y. S., Kindinger, L., Smith, A., Angelopoulos, N., Lehne, B., Arulkumaran, S., Brown, R., Teoh, T., Holmes, E., Nicoholson, J. K., Marchesi, J. R., & Bennett, P. R. (2015). The vaginal microbiome during pregnancy and the postpartum period in a European population. Scientific Reports, 5(1).
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  13. STD Facts – Trichomoniasis. (n.d.).
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