Out, out damn smell!
Heather Corinna replies:I am 23 years old and I am extremely self conscious about vaginal odor. I don't like my boyfriend to perform oral sex because I am so worried that I smell bad. I scrub and scrub my genitals in the shower but an hour later the smell is back. When I asked my OB/GYN about it he said that he would check me for STD's but never explained anything to me. I haven't had an STD ever and I have had this since I was 13, what is it? How do I know if its normal? Please help!
If you are obsessively scrubbing and scrubbing like Lady Macbeth, that in and of itself may be a big part of this issue.
The vagina is a self-cleaning organ. It's also an organ that doesn't tend to respond well to soaps, douches, and other cleansing agents, because those things can knock off the delicate balance which the vagina tries to maintain to stay healthy. This is why we see higher rates of bacterial vaginosis -- a bacterial infection of the vagina caused by imbalance of bad bacteria to the good stuff -- in women who douche. It may well be that if there is a strong or unpleasant scent present, it's due to a possible or borderline bacterial infection or imbalance because of all your compulsive washing.
So, the very first thing I'd suggest is that you cool it with the scrub-a-thons.
The way to take care of your vagina and vulva when it comes to hygiene is just to wash the external vulva -- your inner and outer labia, your mons, around your clitoral hood, perineum and anus: all the bits you can see on the outside -- very gently, either just with warm water or water and a very gentle, unfragranced soap (certainly not any kind of deoderant or antibacterial soap) no more often than you wash the rest of your body. To wash, you can either just use your fingers or a soft washcloth: you don't want to be rough with the delicate tissue there. You don't want to try and wash inside the vaginal opening at all: leave that be, as it both takes care of itself and needs to be left alone to do that.
As well, things like scented tampons -- or even tampons overall -- disposable menstrual pads (particularly those not made of unbleached, 100% cotton or with plasticky coverings), undergarments, pantyhose or other clothing not made with natural, breatheable fibers (like cotton or hemp) can amp up vaginal scent or contribute to bacterial infections or imbalances. Again, you also want to also avoid commercial douches if you've been using those: unfortunately, they're still out there on the shelves with the scented tampons and such not because companies know those things help women's health -- because they actually know full well they don't -- but because so many women are either so misinformed or so insecure about their bodies that those insecurities can make some folks a serious chunk of change.
If you don't find that after a few weeks, making a change in how you wash or also changing any of those other factors above makes a difference, if your OB/GYN has not found any kind of infection, and if this scent has been what you have smelled for years, then what's likely is that you either have a particularly sensitive sense of smell or that you're simply smelling what a normal, healthy vagina smells like, and that normal scent is something you, personally, identify as unpleasant.
When your healthcare providers make clear you're in sound vaginal health, and they don't suggest a problem, you can be pretty darn sure that everything is normal.
It's typical for the vulva to smell a little bit musty, not unlike sweat smells (and all the more if you're someone who does sweat a lot or who find that your overall body scent tends to be strong), or, around the time of your period, even a little bit metallic. If you've been sexually active with your boyfriend, you might have noticed that around his genitals there is likely also a similarly salty or musty scent. Vulvas are a part of your body, and a part that's mighty warm and often doesn't have the kind of air circulation that, say, your face gets. They don't smell like pine forests, rose gardens, or air freshener: they smell like human bodies do, and like genitals do. It's likely that why you didn't notice your scent until you were 13 is that puberty changes our vulvas and reproductive systems, and those chemical and physical changes leave us smelling differently than we did as pre-pubescent children.
Some folks just have really sensitive noses: maybe you do as well. And some folks just find that genitals or bodies overall smell strongly or unpleasant to them. However, the latter is usually less physical than psychological. In other words, a mental adjustment -- recognizing that there is nothing bad about the smell of a healthy vulva, even though it might not be your favorite smell ever, or developing a more positive body image overall -- can often make a big difference, even if it takes you a little bit of time to make that adjustment.
You might also find that if you have an interest in exploring oral sex, that letting a partner do that when they also want to and being able to see that they aren't going down there with a gas mask might help ease your mind. If you do go for that, given your worries, it might feel safest for you to voice those concerns to your partner in advance so that you're not sweating bullets, terrified he's going to say you smell as horrible as you suspect you do, throughout. But if you two have had other kinds of sex, just so you know, he's probably had a good whiff already, either on his fingers, on his penis, or just in the air of the room: when we're sexual with other people genitally, in any respect, we're going to tend to find that it can leave a bit of a scent in the room now and then.
By the way? A good healthcare provider doesn't leave us in the dark. They engage us in a conversation about our concerns, and when we leave their office, we should feel like our questions have been answered, and answered in plain language we, as patients, can understand. If you have a gynecologist who doesn't answer your questions, explain what's what, and give you extra information when you need it, then I'd suggest seeing if you can't switch to someone who provides better care.
Here are a few more links for you to look at:
- Innies and Outies: The Vagina, Clitoris, Uterus, and More
- Honorably Discharged: A Guide to Vaginal Secretions
- 10 of the Best Things You Can Do for Your Sexual Self (at Any Age)
- The STI Files: Bacterial Vaginosis
- Eight Myths About Washable Menstrual Pads Dispelled
- But they wouldn't sell douches if they were bad, right?