It might seem like a silly revelation- of course vaginas should smell like vaginas, right? But it’s not that simple. Most folx with vaginas have experienced their fair share of shame and confusion around vaginal odor and what it means for a vagina to be “clean,” due in large part to the long, troubling history of what we know today as douching. Originally marketed as a (very flawed) form of post-sex contraception in the mid-19th century, anti-bacterial vaginal douches, wipes, washes, and otherwise chemical-based products have lasted on pharmacy shelves since despite a new wave of expert agreement that douching is unnecessary and even harmful, proven to leave those who use them at higher vulnerability to STDs, vaginal infections, and even fertility issues. Douching is also most prevalent in BIPOC communities, therefore BIPOC individuals- most notably black womxn- are most likely to experience adverse health effects as a result.
The persistence of douches and other vaginal cleansers is partially because of its century-plus of existence in the culture. I mean think about shampoo; a less potentially harmful ritual, sure, but a lot of us grew up thinking we needed to wash our hair everyday, and now we know that a more hands-off, oil-training approach is probably better, because hair mostly self-regulates. Wild!
But there’s a deeper (and frankly, infuriating) reason for this practice’s staying power. Yes, it’s been around for a long time, but the big question is why, and the answer isn’t fun. The success of vaginal cleansers is more ideological, rooted in two falsehoods. One, that vaginas need cleaning. Which means that two, vaginas on their own are unclean, smelly, and therefore unattractive and unworthy.
Plot twist: none of this is true. At all. We promise. And the bonus? Most vaginas are self cleansing.
Your body is a bustling metropolis of microbes, home to trillions of bacteria. And, like any major city, there are countless mini-ecosystems within it, bustling neighborhoods that maintain their own status quo but are influenced by the communities around them. Your vagina is one of these neighborhoods, if you will, containing within it a vibrant collection of bacteria that maintain its homeostasis, which includes balancing vaginal pH. This bacteria is what gives off an odor. A healthy scent is a sign of a well-run ecosystem, naturally cleansed via vaginal discharge and effectively managed by our talented microbial friends. Vaginal flora is also the reason why we urge you to put down the vaginal equivalent of Lysol (and by the way, Lysol, yes, THAT Lysol, was once marketed as a contraceptive and vaginal cleanser). It’s impossible to grow a healthy, functioning garden if you don’t let the plants actually grow.
Further, many smells that might arise, if not most, are actually by way of the vulva rather than the vagina. Odors commonly occur when accumulated sweat mixes with unwanted bacteria living on the vulva. The bacteria breaks the sweat down, resulting in an odorous waste. We do encourage rinsing your vulva, AKA your outer genitals, with water and/or a natural probiotic wash as needed- your garden doesn’t need RoundUp, but supportive watering here and there can prove to be a helpful hand.
A good rule of thumb is mild and musky. And if you notice subtle shifts here and there, don’t worry; these minor changes result from a variety of factors, your menstrual cycle, sex, diet and lifestyle, water intake, and stress levels all included. You might notice a metallic scent from high iron levels during your period, for example, or a fermented smell from light acidity. Our days are never the same and our body reflects this in an endless number of ways, vaginal smell included.
Of course, there are normal and abnormal scents, and the latter is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, especially as most vaginal scents are normal; scent is part of your vagina’s messaging system, a way of telling you that either everything is perfectly fine or something’s up and you might need to take a peek under the hood. If an off-feeling scent is accompanied by any itching, burning, or pain, it might be helpful to consult your health practitioner.
It’s necessary to note the lack of research that exists regarding neovaginas and vulvas, a topic that is gravely understudied within the medical establishment. While some folx who have experienced female gender reassignment surgery experience self-lubrication, odor, and infection, others do not, and the reasons are mostly unknown. As Alex Pearlman writes for Neo-Life:
“Some [neovaginas and vulvas] self-lubricate, some don’t. Some use only penile and scrotal tissue, while others also use tissue borrowed from the colon. Some often have vaginal odor, some never do. Some are prone to infection, some aren’t. But unlike the vaginas of cis women, which also differ widely but have a plethora of research studies directed at them, the vaginas of trans women are often a mystery to those women themselves—and to the medical establishment. There have only been three studies as of mid-2021 that looked specifically at the microbial makeup of neovaginas.”
We want to reiterate, because we want everyone to know we mean it: your vagina isn’t supposed to smell like roses. Information telling you it should is outdated and potentially harmful, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Vaginas should simply smell like themselves, and that’s a beautiful thing.
This article is by Maggie Harrison-- a rural Pennsylvania-raised, currently New Orleans-based writer and creative whose work covers everything from wellness to social media to grief and loss. Head to her website to learn more about her work, or follow along on Instagram or Twitter.
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