All vaginas have a scent—and no, it's not a bouquet of roses. Here's how to tell when something is off down below.

By Claire Gillespie
January 21, 2020
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You can always count on Gwyneth Paltrow to introduce bizarre new products and treatments, like vampire repellent spray and vagina steaming. She’s continued the tradition in 2020 with a very unconventional way to add scent to your home: Goop’s “This Smells Like My Vagina” candle. 

According to the listing, the cheekily named product, made by artisanal fragrance brand Heretic, “started as a joke” between Paltrow and perfumer Douglas Little. During a testing session, 47-year-old Paltrow reportedly said, “Uhhh.. this smells like a vagina.” From that, yet another unique Goop product was born. 

Wondering what vaginas smell like in Paltrow’s world? They’re “funny, gorgeous, sexy, and beautifully unexpected.” Or to be more specific, a “blend of geranium, citrusy bergamot, and cedar absolutes juxtaposed with Damask rose and ambrette seed.” 

If you’re panicking because your vagina doesn’t smell of flowers and fruity substances, stop it right now. “The vagina is not meant to smell like a rose garden,” Sherry Ross, MD, ob-gyn and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women's Intimate Health. Period, tells Health. “However, the vagina has a familiar scent, which many do enjoy. Depending on the time of the month, vaginal discharge can change in smell (as well as consistency).” 

What is normal vaginal odor, anyway?

It’s hard to exactly pinpoint what a healthy vagina smells like, because every woman has a different scent, says Dr. Ross. But some women use words like earthy, ripe, or even pungent or slightly sour to describe their normal vaginal odor. 

The key is to know what your ‘normal’ smell is,” she says. “All of us with a vagina usually know that awkward feeling if a new and strange smell comes our way. The vagina is especially sensitive to different changes in your daily environment, so anything that affects this delicate balance will affect the smell as well as the type of discharge and its consistency.” 

What causes changes in vaginal odor?

Factors that affect the odor of the vagina include antibiotic use, douching, spermicide, new sexual partners, and frequency of sex, says Dr. Ross. Changes in hormone levels caused by pregnancy, breastfeeding, or menopause can also alter your scent. Vaginal infections including yeast, bacteria, and sexually transmitted infections will change your smell down below, as will a forgotten tampon (due to the bacteria that set up shop there).

“These factors can not only cause a weird odor but can also create other uncomfortable symptoms,” says Dr. Ross. In fact, if something is up with your vagina, it’s likely that you’ll experience other symptoms beyond a change in odor. 

How will I know when a change in vaginal odor is a sign of a health issue?

A vaginal infection typically includes vulvar itching, burning, redness, and swelling as well as a change of odor—especially if it's a strong, fishy smell, which might signal bacterial vaginosis or the STI trichomoniasis. If you think you might have a vaginal infection, it’s important to see your doctor for tests and the right treatment.

Switching up your diet might also make your vagina smell different. Certain foods disrupt the vagina’s delicate pH balance, which could lead to an odor that might be off-putting. According to Dr. Ross, the worst offenders include garlic, onions, mint, turmeric, blue cheese, cabbage, cauliflower, asparagus, red meat, and vinegar. Smoking, alcohol, and not drinking enough water can also change things up down below, she says. 

Hygiene habits also affect vaginal scent. Remember, your vagina is like any other part of your body—it needs to be kept clean. “The vagina has sweat glands and hair follicles, which can attract bacteria and contribute to strong odor,"says Dr. Ross. Also, the vagina's location near the anus makes is crucial that you keep the area clean, to avoid bacteria buildup that can lead to foul odors, she adds.

No matter how clean and healthy your vagina is, it will probably never naturally smell like “citrusy bergamot and cedar absolutes.” But that doesn’t mean it can’t smell just as good, in its own unique way. 

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