Help! My vagina smells like a... vagina?
Often, the healthcare-related questions we ask do not have simple answers. What happens
during my period? Should I do a breast self-exam? What causes PMS?
However, in the case of cleaning your vulva and vagina, the answer could not be easier. To clean your vulva, all you need is warm water and to clean your vagina, you need absolutely nothing. I know… sounds too easy! But it’s true, both during your period and otherwise!
First, a quick note on anatomy. The vulva is the external sexual & reproductive anatomy for those assigned female at birth (1). This is the part of your genitals that touches your clothing. It includes the mons pubis, labia minora, labia majora, clitoris, urethral and vaginal opening, and perineum. The vagina is the internal passageway that extends from the vaginal opening to the cervix (2). The vagina is a component of the internal sexual & reproductive anatomy for those assigned female at birth.
There is nothing inherently “dirty” or “smelly” about your vagina, vulva, or your period. The smell of your vagina and vulva is completely normal. During your period, your vagina doesn’t have a “funky odour.” It smells exactly like it is supposed to – your vulva and vagina shouldn’t smell like Hawaiian Breeze or Vanilla Clementine or taste like a Cherry Creamsicle to be considered clean, healthy, or desirable. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, the problem is with them not you.
If you are ever concerned about vulvar or vaginal odour, this is something you should discuss with a medical professional, and not something you should try to “fix” with scented products.
The Vagina: Leave It Alone!
To put it simply, you should not be using anything to clean your vagina. Nothing that claims to clean your vagina, no matter how enticing and scientific the product description sounds, works. Your vagina is self-cleaning both during your period and otherwise.
In the vagina, there are vaginal flora which are essentially healthy bacteria that live in the vagina (3). These bacteria are the first line of defense against vaginal infection; they either directly kill harmful bacteria or outnumber them significantly so harmful bacteria cannot survive. When you put anything inside the vagina which supposedly “cleans” the vagina, it disrupts the flora that are living there. Douching, which is “cleaning” out the vaginal canal with water and other fluids (such as vinegar and baking soda), is an example of a process that can severely disrupt these healthy bacteria (4). This leads to an increased risk of infections as you’ve essentially killed off or impaired your first line of defense. An example infection is bacterial vaginosis.
You may notice a clear or slightly milky discharge in your underwear or on toilet paper after you wipe – this discharge is coming from the vagina and it’s your vagina’s way of getting rid of old cells and fluids (5). This is another way your vagina keeps itself clean and healthy! Vaginal discharge is completely normal when it is odourless or has a mild odour. If the odour smells distinctly “fishy” or if you are worried about the odour of your discharge, it’s a good idea to speak to a medical professional. It is not a good idea to try to mask the smell by using vaginal/vulvar perfumes, deodorants, or scented wipes/sprays. These products can irritate the skin of the vulva and can disrupt the vaginal flora.
The Vulva: All You Need is Water!
Keeping your vulva clean is also super easy, both during your period and otherwise. All you need is warm water to rinse the vulva (6). It’s best to wash with only your hands, as washcloths and loofahs can be harsh on the skin. During your period, you do not need to do anything extra to keep your vulva clean and healthy. If you feel uncomfortable or if there is dried blood on the vulva, you can rinse with warm water more often.
Wipes, sprays, deodorants, or perfumes do not clean your vulva any better than water. In fact, these products often have ingredients that irritate the skin of the vulva. This is especially true for scented products as fragrances are commonly abrasive on the skin. A survey of 1435 Canadians (98.6% cisgender women, 0.1% transgender women, 0.6% transgender men, and 0.8% provided no gender information) found that respondents who used a vaginal/genital hygiene product had 3 times higher odds of reporting a history of bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, urinary tract infections, or sexually transmitted infections (7).
If you regularly use wipes, sprays, deodorants and other such products, we know it can be really hard to stop using these products right away. You can try slowly decreasing your frequency of use from every day, to every couple days, to once a week, until you feel comfortable not using them at all. In the meantime, you can wash your vulvar area with warm water a couple to multiple times a day if it makes your transition away from harmful products easier. Although it is not strictly necessary, you can also use a gentle, unscented soap on the vulva (always keeping an eye out for allergic reactions or skin irritation).
Vagisil, Summer’s Eve: We see you and we don’t like what we see
Despite the fact that water is all you need to clean your vulva and although you need literally nothing to clean your vagina, there is an entire industry claiming to address this need. A plethora of products out there are designed to supposedly “clean” your vulva and vagina, and entice vagina owners using false claims and targeted branding.
Importantly, this industry depends on a historical script – the vagina and vulva are inherently dirty and shameful. This became very apparent when Vagisil launched a new line of products called “OMV!” which is presumably a play on “hip” acronyms like “OMG” that young people use. This new line of products, which include a wash, no-sweat wipes, and an anti-itch serum, are designed specifically for teens. All I can think is... “OMG why does this exist?”
Doctors, especially OB/GYNs, were not at all impressed with Vagisil targeting teens with these unnecessary products (8). Dr. Jen Gunter led a Twitter takedown of Vagisil and the OMV! line. She specifically called out their marketing messages, which aimed to get rid of “period funk” and not let “bikini itch get in your way.” Using messaging which says your vagina and vulva need a “glow up” sends a very clear message that these areas are inherently dirty and unclean.
Importantly, a problem like “bikini itch” is something you should talk about with your doctor, not something that should be covered up with a cream. Not only will these products likely cause further irritation, but they also cover up what could be a more serious problem. According to Dr. Tanouye, “fragrance is the #1 cause of allergic contact dermatitis” which means that these products are likely causing your itch rather than curing it (8).
Also, caution: just because products say they are gynaecologist-tested, that doesn’t mean they are gynaecologist-approved or -recommended, and it most definitely doesn’t mean that you need them (8). For example, a company could have had one gynaecologist test the product and report that it caused irritation in their patients, and that product could still be labelled as “gynaecologist-tested.” These labels are created to show scientific validity which doesn’t exist. If you are ever curious about a product, it’s best to talk to your family doctor or gynaecologist directly.
While Vagisil claims they created OMV! because teens and moms wanted personal care products designed for their needs, Dr. Jones suggests a more insidious reason in her Youtube video about the line. “[These products] catch [teens] early where it becomes something they think they inherently need for the rest of their lives” (8). While the OMV! products were (according to Vagisil) created in collaboration with teens and moms, that doesn’t mean Vagisil tried to inform these teens and moms that such products are unnecessary. Instead, they capitalized on insecurities that those with vulvas and vaginas commonly have about what is normal and hygenic.
This Summer’s Eve commercial claims that “feminine hygiene” is the “elephant in our bathroom” and then says, “some women think they don’t need it.” If you are that person, you are absolutely right. No matter how much they claim their product is “pH balanced” and “safe to use everyday,” the fact remains that you don’t need it. Your vagina and vulva are naturally pH balanced (the healthy bacteria in your vagina are doing the work for you!) so these products are literally attempting to fix a problem that doesn’t exist, and probably causing that exact problem in the process.
Also, the health of our vaginas and vulvas are never the elephant in the bathroom (or any room) and we should never feel ashamed to talk about these issues. The only elephant in the room here is the insidious “feminine hygiene” industry that preys on our insecurities and tells us what our vaginas and vulvas should look, smell, and feel like (which is basically impossible to achieve without using their products). The commercial finishes off by asking us to use their products for one week… no thanks, Summer’s Eve, that’s one week too long.
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Goodman H, Cunningham L. Anatomy of the Vulva. University of Rochester Medical Centre. Available from: https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=34&contentid=19522-1. [Accessed 25 May 2021].
Tsili AC. Vagina and Vulva. In: Forstner R, Cunha Tm, Hamm B. (eds.) MRI and CT of the Female Pelvis. Medical Radiology. Springer, Cham; 2017, p.343-368. https://doi.org/10.1007/174_2017_44.
Lewis FMT, Bernstein KT, Aral SO. Vaginal microbiome and its relationship to behavior, sexual health, and sexually transmitted diseases. Obstetrics & gynecology; 2019, 129(4), 643-654. Available from: https://www.doi.org/10.1097/AOG.0000000000001932.
Cottrell, BH. Vaginal douching. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing; 2003, 32(1): 12-18. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1177/0884217502239796.
Vaginal discharge. American Family Physician; 2004, 69(9), 2191-2192. Available from: https://www.aafp.org/afp/2004/0501/p2191.html.
Vulvar care. Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health; 2012, 57(3): 311-312. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1542-2011.2012.00183.x.
Crann SE, Cunningham S, Albert A, Money DM, & O’Doherty KC. Vaginal health and hygiene practices and product use in Canada: A national cross-sectional survey. BMC Women’s Health; 2018, 18(52). Available from: https://doi.org/10.1186/s12905-018-0543-y.
Blum D. When Vagisil Targeted Teens, the Backlash was swift. The New York Times; 2021 Feb 18. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/18/well/vagisil-omv-teens.html.