Sour. Sweet. Fishy. Yeasty. When it comes to how your vagina smells, everyone has their own particular eau de “down there.” That scent can shift due to changing hormones, lifestyle changes, or illness—and can even change from one hour to the next.
“Everyone has a different smell and what might be normal for one person may not be normal for another,” says psychologist and sex therapist Tatyana Dyachenko. “Inside your vagina there are billions of bacteria, and the makeup of that bacteria can change on a daily basis. Your menstrual cycle, how much you have washed recently, and even the time of day or month can all impact its smell.”
Most of these changes are perfectly normal, and becoming attuned to them can help you identify when something decidedly isn’t. Some smells in particular can indicate a bigger problem that needs a doctor’s attention or an issue that can be addressed by making a few tweaks to your hygiene routine. We spoke to a few experts to find out what’s normal, what’s not, and what you can do about it.
If your vagina smells like bread, yogurt or cookies …
That familiar tangy or sour smell is typically the most common vaginal scent due to the presence of the healthy bacteria Lactobacilli. This is why it sometimes smells like yogurt or bread dough, since those food products contain the same type of healthy microbes.
Lactobacilli helps protect the vagina by inhibiting the growth of other bacteria and preventing infection, so the best thing to do about this scent is nothing at all—even if commercials for feminine products would have you believe otherwise.
“Vaginal odors are one of the most common issues I get asked about,” said Sydney Harris, sex educator and founder of Clitoriscious. “A lot of folks feel like they need to do something about the smell of their vagina, even if it has a normal scent, because society tells us that our vulvas are supposed to smell good or else we will be seen as undesirable. But a vulva is not supposed to smell like flowers! Cookies, maybe, because of the normal fluctuating sweet scent of bacteria, but not flowery scents.”
Read More: Can Sex Lead to a Dislodged IUD?
If your vagina smells like potent body odor …
Stress is the most common culprit of this scent, thanks to a special set of glands in your groins called the apocrine glands. These unique sweat glands, mostly located in regions with more hair (like the scalp, armpits, and groin), are similar to the salt-producing sweat glands that cool your skin—but they aren’t activated until puberty, which is why kids can sweat without smelling. Unfortunately for adults, excess sweat also tends to come with a bunch more B.O., which can be especially strong in the pubic region.
“When you get stressed, the apocrine glands start to produce a milky fluid which is normally odorless,” said Dyachenko. “But when mixed with vaginal bacteria it can produce a very strong smell.”
This tends to be nothing to worry about physiologically speaking. That said, addressing the core causes of stress can help reduce activation of this gland—and the less-than-pleasant scent. Wearing cotton underwear and changing them frequently can also help reduce how long the scent sticks around.
If your vagina smells like rust, metal, or copper…
That metallic smell usually accompanies blood: The high iron content in blood reacts to oils on the skin, producing that familiar coppery smell.
This smell is, of course, most common during, right before, or after your menstrual cycle, meaning there’s nothing to worry about. But if you’re getting the scent more frequently after sex, you may want to adjust your pre-love routine.
“Sex can cause light bleeding for some women which may also make the vagina smell coppery,” says Dyachenko. “To avoid this, use lots of lube, as bleeding after sex is generally due to vaginal dryness.”
If your vagina smells like bleach or chemicals…
If you’re smelling window cleaner or an ammonium-like scent, it can mean the typically acidic pH of your vagina has become more basic (higher on the pH scale), which can occur due to a number of reasons.
Semen actually has a relatively high pH (measuring about 7.2 to 8.0 compared to the vagina’s typical 3.8 to 4.5 for pre-menopausal women and 4.5 to 6 for menopausal women), so if you’ve recently had unprotected sex, a temporary change in smell can be perfectly normal. The ammonia scent can also be caused by urine and not the vagina at all, so a quick wash with soap and water should quickly clear it up.
That said, if the scent lasts and it’s accompanied by a gray or off-white discharge, it may indicate a common condition called bacterial vaginosis (BV), which is an overgrowth of certain bacteria in the vagina. While some women can have no symptoms, some women experience it with an ammonia smell or a strong, fishy odor. Either way, seeing a doctor can confirm the diagnosis and get it cleared up with a dose of antibiotics.
If your vagina smells like rotten meat or musky zoo
If the scent is truly terrible, a forgotten tampon can be to blame. The mixture of dried blood plus the build-up of bacteria can lead to a cocktail of pungent odors that should drive you straight to the doctor’s office for removal if you can’t easily find it or get it out yourself. Don’t be embarrassed—gynos say the problem is much more common than you might assume.