If nobody ever told you what a healthy vagina is supposed to smell like, join the club. Knowing is incredibly important because what makes a vagina’s odor healthy – or not – has an impact on your overall health. As women, we have to understand our history to understand our present and shape our future.
From the early 1900s into the 1960s there was a prominent ad campaign that ran in newspapers and magazines. It promoted a dangerous household chemical as a way to ‘keep your man' and set the tone for what is now a $3 billion dollar industry based on making us feel unclean in our own bodies.
Want to know what I'm talking about? Read the article below the audio player, or listen in to this episode of Natural MD Radio to learn all about the deadly douche story that never should have happened, how to sort out healthy scents from problem-signaling odors, and what you can do to get your vaginal ecology in top form. Note episode has some explicit girl-talk.
How to Keep Your Man: The Dangerous History of Lysol Douching
How to Keep Your Man. Nope, it’s not a Hillary Clinton comment or line from a Tammy Wynette ballad. Actually, it’s the concept behind a shocking ad campaign for a dangerous and deadly practice that was prominently displayed in newspapers and magazines, and persisted from the early 1900s into the 1960s. It was for using a household cleaner to do exactly that – keep your man. How? By keeping your vagina smelling clean. I am not kidding.
What was this household cleaner? Lysol. Yes, that’s right. Lysol. The very same Lysol that is still used to disinfect toilets and other high microbe areas was recommended as a douche for vaginal odor from the early 1900s into the 1960s. Except the Lysol back then was far more toxic and caustic even than the one we can now purchase – and keep in mind that the version we have today can kill a child if it is consumed. The formulation available until the early 1960s was far more corrosive.
I’m not talking about Lysol being recommended as some crazy ‘home remedy,’ either. There were extensive ad campaigns in newspapers and magazines targeted at women, with copy like: “She was a jewel of a wife, with just one flaw. She was guilty of the one neglect that mars many marriages. Lysol helps avoid this.” Women were portrayed as locked in rooms or caught in cobwebs suffering from their ‘lack of dainty femininity.’ The cure? A Lysol douche. I’ve posted a few choice ads here – and you can use a Google search to find more. It’s shocking and worth 15 minutes of your time, because it helps us to understand some of the forces that have led to a what is now a multibillion dollar annual profit for companies producing feminine hygiene products – which still try to sanitize every aspect of being a woman. It’s just that now we’re told we can smell ‘garden fresh.’
By 1911, 193 cases of poisoning and death occurred as a result of its use as a douche – for whichever purpose women were using it – yet this practice was promoted into the 1950s. Despite lawsuits, the company producing Lysol managed to skirt all responsibility. When one husband tried to sue the company for the horrible vaginal blistering and damage his wife sustained as a result of this ‘treatment,’ he was informed by the company that this was the first case of problems they’d heard of.
This horrific ad campaign reeked of misogyny, and was the start of women experiencing terrible anxiety, embarrassment, shame, and confusion over what was likely most often normal vaginal odor and discharge. It put tremendous pressure on women to remain “fresh and clean” – in other words odorless – ‘down there’ to keep a man. It remains a powerful reminder of the influence of media on our health care choices, and how wrong we can be about the safety of the substances we put in our bodies. As there was also some dangerous and possibly deadly use of Lysol douche for abortion in a time when women couldn’t legally access contraceptives – douches were said to prevent pregnancy – it’s also a powerful reminder of the desperate lengths women will go for reproductive health when safer methods aren’t accessible.
As women, we have to understand our history to understand our present and shape our future.
So What Does a Healthy Vagina Smell Like?
Like you, I had the requisite 4th grade health class. And like yours probably was too, mine was useless. I learned the word ‘period,’ but that was about it. I certainly did not learn anything about vaginal odors – normal or not. Then when I was 15 I heard an old joke – “Adam and Eve go for a swim. Eve comes out of the water and God says, ‘Damn it, now I’ll never get that smell out of the fish.’ ” So is fishy a normal vaginal odor? All the time? After my period? Never? I had no idea…It took studying to be a midwife to find out! I’m going to pass along the basics so you’re in the know, too.
The bottom line is that your vagina smells like yours, and mine smells like mine, and when everything is AOK down there, that scent is unique to each of us. But there are some commonalities, and there are also specific scents – or sometimes odors – that tell you your vagina needs some attention.
Here’s how it all works. Your vagina has a garden growing in it. Your natural garden is made up of bacteria and yeasts, not roses and lavender that make you smell like the garden fresh scent promised by a douche company. (I mean that literally, as in they make douches, not as in that company is a douche as some teens might say it!) So, it’s a much earthier, sometimes even musky scent. The job of this vaginal garden is quite fascinating. The basic function is keep your pH in the right range to protect you from harmful kinds bacteria and problematic yeast overgrowth – the kind that cause Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) and yeast infections, to name a few of the types of infections we can develop.
When your vaginal ecology is disrupted, you can find yourself dealing with annoying discharge and vaginal odors, and also recurrent yeast or BV infections. In addition, the vaginal microbiome plays a surprisingly big role in the overall health of your uterus and sex hormones, and also plays an important role in protecting you from vaginal and pelvic infections, but also pelvic and uterine inflammation, and as a result, endometriosis, PCOS, chronic pelvic pain, and fertility problems. A healthy vaginal microbiome may even help protect us from the impact of environmental exposures, known to cause some of these chronic conditions.
One of the most important groups of bacteria that helps keep the natural balance in most women is Lactobacillus, though interestingly, women of different racial backgrounds have varying types of vaginal flora typically present – and it’s all still normal. Lactobacillus keeps the vaginal pH low by producing lactic acid, which in turn, prevents less-vagina friendly yeasts, bacteria, and other organisms from getting a foothold and causing problems. A decrease in Lactobacilli, for example, a common friendly microbiome member, and an increase in less-friendly bacteria has been found in women with endometriosis and is believed to play a role in hormonal imbalance in women with this condition by adversely altering hormone and immune system signaling. This can result in reduced sensitivity of the uterine lining (endometrium) to progesterone, and cause increased inflammation, problems we see with endometriosis.
Healthy vaginal flora promotes a healthy, supportive environment for conception and implantation. There are so many fascinating ways this happens, notably that the organisms hanging around in your vagina interact with your immune system to create signaling messages that say, okay, this is a safe environment, let’s do this! Gut and vaginal dysbiosis have now been directly linked to implantation problems, as well as to recurrent miscarriage. The wrong kind of gut flora can prevent conception, have been shown to reduce or even prevent IVF and embryo transfer effectiveness, can increase miscarriage risk, and can lead to preterm birth when you do get pregnant.
Members of the Lactobacillus family (there are quite a few species) also help to keep the vaginal wall healthy by promoting mucus production, thus providing a protective barrier against other bacteria, yeasts, and viruses – including HIV. It appears that we established a symbiotic relationship with these friendly organisms about 12 centuries ago when we introduced yogurt and other fermented dairy products into our diets.
But here’s an interesting fact: being grossed out or feeling disgust is a learned response, and a lot of women have this reaction about their own absolutely normal healthy vaginal scent. I don’t mean someone actually taught you to be grossed out the same way you got taught to read or ride a two-wheeler, but we internalize the messages we learn from our culture, more like racism or ageism or sexism – and being disgusted by women’s natural body processes is up there on the list of cultural revulsions that we may tacitly internalize unless taught otherwise. I’m teaching you otherwise right here and now. This is important because studies make it very clear that how we feel about our lady parts isn’t benign – it has the power to influence our entire experience of being women. Feeling badly about our bodies is associated with increased likelihood of gynecologic problems, poor self-care, and more risk-taking sexual behavior. Self-knowledge and self-love are important preventative measures in women’s health.
Vaginas aren’t supposed to smell like flowers. They are supposed to smell like vaginas. So what’s a healthy one smell like? Yours smells uniquely like yours. Mine like mine. And that’s part of the beauty of who we are.
Your Vagina Is Self-Cleaning! So What About Douches and Vaginal Steams?
Not knowing what’s normal or not can mean you self-treat with douches and vaginal steams that not only do you not need, but which can cause harm, or you don’t get treatment because you’re too embarrassed to ask your care provider about vaginal odor. (I can’t even tell you how many women have apologized to me before a pelvic exam for what is absolutely normal vaginal scent! I now always give women a pep talk before even starting on an exam and reassure her that every woman has a normal scent, and even if she doesn’t have a healthy scent, it’s okay – that’s what she’s in the office for!)
One thing your vagina never needs is douching. Your vagina is self-cleaning. That’s what the mucus, and trillions of health-promoting, pH-balancing bacteria are there for. In fact, the American Public Health Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) specifically recommend against douching because it’s associated with an increase in bacterial infections! In addition, ACOG recommends against the use of fragranced tampons and pads, as well as feminine sprays and powders, to help prevent or clear up vulvar disorders. They commonly cause allergic reactions including itching and burning, they can inflame and damage your delicate vaginal tissue, and alter your natural pH enough to cause vaginal infections like BV. Get enough irritation down there and you’re also more susceptible to picking up a sexually transmitted infection.
What about vaginal steaming? Okay, I know I’m going to burst some bubbles here and possibly piss some bloggers off, but I wouldn’t be looking out for you if I didn’t include this – and tell you the truth. While some celebrities are doing it, sometimes calling it ‘a facial for your vagina,’ and quite a few self-ordained health gurus are suggesting it for everything from menstrual cramps to migraines, vaginal steaming – though it is a traditional practice in some cultures – really isn’t necessary for vaginal health and probably doesn’t do what it’s hyped to do. While the heat, warmth, and self-care might feel great, It’s actually physiologically impossible for steam to get up into your vagina or uterus and do any healing. What it can do is cause serious burns to sensitive vulvar tissue. While I respect and incorporate many traditional practices into my work, let’s remember that female circumcision which is still done in many cultures, is a traditional practice, and the now ancient practice of foot binding fits into this category, too. Just because something is traditional doesn’t mean it has good evidence or safety behind it – and this is one example of a practice that has become a fad but doesn’t have merit. However, if you do choose to try vaginal steaming, avoiding getting too close to the steam, move away from the steam if it feels too hot, and don’t steam if you think you have signs of an infection; instead, seek guidance from a midwife, Nurse Practitioner, or MD who can help you make sure nothing more serious is going on first.
Since the fear of having an odorous state of affairs down there keeps women purchasing douches and scented tampons and pads – which all cause more problems than they solve due to the chemicals in them – and worrying, let’s clear this situation up with accurate information. Besides, it’s really good to get to know your vaginal scents. They are really fascinating from an evolutionary perspective, and knowing what’s normal for most women can help you relax about what’s likely normal for you – and knowing what to look out for can help you nip an infection in the bud.
What’s Normal and What’s Not? What Your V-Scent is Telling You
Scent is actually a fairly reliable indicator of the health of your vaginal ecology and pH balance. In fact, one of the tests we do in the medical lab is called the whiff test – it is what it sounds like. As a doctor, I get a sample of vaginal fluid on a slide, add a chemical reactant, and take a whiff. Very technical sounding I know, but there are actually specific odors that are more likely to be associated with infection. So sometimes when you get a whiff that seems a little off, it’s good to pay attention.
To get very nitty gritty, vaginal scents can range from earthy to musky to sweet like fresh-baked bread, to a weed-like fragrance due to the influence of sweat gland secretion, and yes, even slightly fishy. The musky earthy scent sounds like I’m describing some earth momma essential oil, doesn’t it? In fact, I sort of am. Scent changes with where you are in your menstrual cycle and life cycle.
What Alters Vaginal Scent
Hormonal shifts: We tend to have a more fragrant, inviting vaginal scent around ovulation – it’s nature’s way of attracting a mate while you’re fertile, like a bee to a flower. Toward your period and during it you might notice a more metallic odor; this is due to iron and other minerals in your blood. Toward the end of your period you might notice a more ‘funky” (which means earthy) odor – or even a slightly fishy or ammonia-like odor. This is due to wearing a pad or tampon which is hanging out in a dark damp place, and also probably getting some traces of urine on it (the pad more obviously, but also the tampon string). During pregnancy, increases in estrogen and with it, Lactobacillus in the vagina, lend to a more neutral vaginal scent, though if you sweat more that can change it up, and yeast infections are more common in pregnancy because you have increased discharge with a higher sugar content. As we enter into menopause, estrogen declines, as does the amount of vaginal mucus we produce, and with this, our vaginal pH goes up – we’re less acidic. That in turn leads to a decline in the numbers of Lactobacillus, and this can allow other organisms to thrive that create a different normal odor, but also increases our risk of BV, aggravated further by male-female intercourse if there’s ejaculation, as I explain below.
Sex: Semen has a high pH and can alter your vaginal scent pretty quickly after intercourse, and can vary with sexual partner. The higher pH can cause organisms associated with Bacterial vaginosis, to proliferate which can temporarily cause a slightly (or significantly) fishy vaginal odor.
Stress: If you’re nervous, this can change your ‘down there’ scents because there are a lot of sweat glands in the groin, and just like your pit-smell changes when you’re nervous, so can your vaginal scent. Ditto on sweating from exercise, especially if you’re wearing non-breathable fabrics.
What you’re wearing: Synthetic fibers trap moisture and change the climate down there, all the more when you exercise and get sweaty, in a way that can promote bacterial growth and change your v-scent to less-than-your-best; conversely, cotton and natural fibers let your vagina and vulva breathe, stay dryer, and keep your natural scent ‘fresher.’ Wearing a pad can also increase odor down there, as I mentioned above.
What you eat: Diet also changes both vaginal pH and your vaginal microbiome; a high sugar diet, which can include a high carb diet or regular alcohol consumption, because they break down into sugar too, can increase your risk of yeast infections, which cause a ‘yeast-like’ or fresh-baked bread scent, along with causing a ‘curdy’ looking yellow-white discharge. The smell of fresh baked bread might not sound so bad, but the itching isn’t fun, and yeast infections can cause vulvar pain and inflammation, too.
Gut Dysbiosis: The health of the vaginal flora – or vaginal ecology – is not only dependent on your hormone levels and what you put in your vagina, but it’s also highly dependent on the health of your gut flora. I talk about this and what you can do in my Vaginal Ecology blog and podcast which is definitely the next thing to read or listen to after this if you’re struggling with chronic vaginal infections or ‘off’ odors.
A Lost Tampon: Who’d lose a tampon up in there, you ask? It’s really common. I’ve removed more than I can count over the years from women who inadvertently forgot that last one from the end of their period up in there – and yeah, they can really pack a scent! If you can find it and pull it out yourself, that’s totally okay and if the odor goes away and you don’t have any pain, fever, or signs of infection (which are rare as a result of a lost tampon) then you’re done with that episode and don’t need to go to the doctor. If you’re not sure whether you left one up in there, can’t find the string or get hold to pull it out – it’s doctor or midwife visit time. I know it sounds really embarrassing, but I promise you, we’ve seen it all, never judge, and this is among those common things we see.
Infection: So this is where your ears might want to prick up. Vaginal infections that cause an odor usually have an obvious one that doesn’t smell pleasant and are typically accompanied by itching, burning, irritation, frequent peeing. Here’s a quick simple overview:
- Yeast infection: very yeasty odor, lots of itching, a thick curdy discharge
- Bacterial Vaginosis (BV): odor like spoiled fish, itching, redness, irritation
- Trichomoniasis: often described as a putrid odor, often accompanied by a foamy greenish discharge.
Unless there’s burning, itching, pain, or a new change in odor that’s happened that just doesn’t seem right to you, how your vagina smells is probably normal. If you have any unusual symptoms or changes in odor, fever, abdominal pain, or abnormal bleeding, see a licensed medical provider (a family doctor or OB/GYN, nurse practitioner, or nurse midwife, for example) skilled in diagnosis and treatment of women’s problems.
If your vaginal scent is troubling you, or you’re finding yourself with recurrent yeast, BV, or even urinary tract infections, head on over to my article or listen to my podcast Vaginal Ecology: What You Need to Know to Keep Things Healthy Down There.
Your Vagina Smells Like… Your Vagina!
There are so many ways our culture tries to tell us our bodies are broken, that women’s natural body processes are unclean or downright gross, and this message comes through loud and clear in the $3 billion feminine hygiene industry designed to make our vaginas smell like flowers. But vaginas aren’t supposed to smell like flowers. They are supposed to smell like vaginas. Given the millions of bacteria and yeasts hanging out down there, which alter our vaginal pH, it’s natural for your vagina to have a fragrance.
So what’s a healthy vagina smell like? Yours smells uniquely like yours. Mine like mine. And that’s part of the beauty of who we are.
- See a gallery of historic ads recommending Lysol as a douche
- Read this blog: Yeast Infections – What’s a Girl to Do? Try This Probiotic Approach
- Read this blog: Preventing & Treating Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) Naturally
- Listen to this podcast: Natural MD Radio: Bacterial Vaginosis – What’s a Gal to Do?
- Read this blog: May I Introduce You to Your Lady Parts
- Listen to this podcast: Natural MD Radio: Introducing Your Lady Parts
- Read this blog: Vaginal Ecology: What You Need to Know to Keep Things Healthy Down There
- Listen to this podcast: Natural MD Radio: Vaginal Ecology – What You Need to Know