Vaginal Odor Doesn’t Need ‘Fixing,’ Unlike What Beauty Brands Continue to Say
Breaking news: Vaginas smell… and not like a bouquet of freshly plucked flowers.
Breaking news: Vaginas smell… and not like a bouquet of freshly plucked flowers. Vaginas are self-cleaning organs with unique smells — none of them “fresh” or “pretty.” News of this stunning revelation, however, may not have entered the corridors of beauty mags that are churning out listicles on ways to get rid of vaginal odor. It also appears to have evaded feminine hygiene brands that insist their products are going to make vaginas smell like lavender, bergamot, and every other scent one generally associates with candles and perfumes. And so, despite vaginal odor being a completely normal and natural occurrence, the beauty industry is on a mission to sell products to “treat” it. Because, let’s face it, why embrace the body’s natural functions when one can be coaxed into spending their hard-earned money on unnecessary products that perpetuate shame and insecurity?
Natural vaginal odor can be attributed to vaginal liquids and the bacteria that help to maintain a degree of acidity in the vaginal ecosystem — with its pH ranging from 3.8 to 5.0 — helping the owner of the vagina prevent a number of infections. A variety of factors — like the menstrual cycle, sexual activity, hygiene habits, and hormonal changes — can cause the vaginal pH to fluctuate, triggering changes in its smell. Even small changes in one’s diet — involving the consumption of vinegar, garlic and onions, pineapple, turmeric, blue cheese, citrus fruits, cabbage and cauliflower, red meat, and alcohol — can cause the vagina to smell different. And this is absolutely normal.
Not all vaginal odors are a cause for concern. “The key is to know what your ‘normal’ smell is,” explains Dr. Sherry Ross, a gynecologist. “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.”
But “normal” doesn’t make money. And so, perpetuating the notion that women must do their best to satisfy their male partners sexually — including “smelling good down there” — is something the beauty industry has capitalized on, creating countless products aimed at eliminating vaginal odor. The most common among these are feminine washes. Sounds harmless, right? As in, sure, it might not help, but cleanliness is never a bad idea. The latter bit is true: maintaining cleanliness, indeed, is important when it comes to our genitals. Not doing so is precisely what leads to UTIs — also known as the “honeymoon syndrome.” Nonetheless, feminine washes are far from being healthy — let alone desirable — when it comes to vaginal cleanliness.
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Research suggests that douching — yet another practice promoted among the foremost ways to keep one’s vagina “clean” and “fresh” — can significantly increase one’s risk of developing yeast infections, chlamydia, pelvic inflammatory disease, bacterial vaginosis, trichomoniasis, and even cervical cancer. As gynecologist Jean Anderson said, “There is no good reason to douche and many good reasons not to.”
The vagina is a self-cleaning organ. Using these products, however, can disrupt the natural balance of bacteria in the area — not only leading to infections and other medical conditions, but worsening vaginal odor itself by upsetting one’s vaginal pH. “It’s a myth that the vagina needs extensive cleaning with perfumed soaps or feminine hygiene products,” explains Vanessa Mackay, consultant gynecologist. “It’s a good idea to avoid perfumed soaps, gels and antiseptics, as these can affect the healthy balance of bacteria and pH levels in the vagina and cause irritation. Women are advised to use plain, unperfumed soaps to wash the area around the vagina (the vulva) — not inside it — gently every day.”
Yet, the beauty industry refuses to retire its endeavors to make vaginas smell alluring, exquisite, pleasing… what have you! And so, they didn’t stop at selling douches and washes. Their contribution to women’s sexual health — or the opposite of it, rather — includes vaginal deodorants and perfumes, too, designed to make women feel “more confident” down there, whatever that means.
“Of course, we all like to feel fresh and clean… But for decades what is called the “feminine hygiene” industry has worked hard to increase our fears that we are not… Show me a sanitary pad or a tampon campaign that does not use the word ‘fresh’ and I will swallow a bottle of vinegar douche. For every mention of ‘fresh’, look for the fear at which it is aiming: fear that we smell of period blood or are leaking; fear that we smell in general; fear that our sexual partners will mock or reject us because of what our vaginas and vulvas look or smell like,” British journalist Rose George wrote in The Guardian, adding: “The odds are your vagina and vulva look and smell normal, because, when it comes to genitalia, normal is a very big category.
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At first glance, then, the vagina-scented candle promoted by Gwyneth Paltrow seems subversive, and makes one wonder in disbelief: are we finally owning vaginal odor? Or, are we taking this a bit too far? It’s neither. The candle, in question — called “This Smells Like My Vagina” and priced only at USD 75 (about Rs. 6,000) — supposedly has notes of citrus, geranium, and roses, perpetuating ridiculous notions of how vaginas are supposed to smell.
This isn’t to say that we should never be the least bit concerned about our vaginas smelling funkier than usual. This is where Dr. Ross’ advice of having an idea about what our specific, individual vaginas smell like on a day-to-day basis, comes handy. If the odor is suddenly strong and unpleasant, it could point to an infection; a fishy odor, for instance, result from bacterial vaginosis or trichomoniasis. But the way to remedy that isn’t dousing one’s vagina with perfume. The only way to truly address shifts in one’s vaginal odor is by consulting a doctor — preferably, without wasting too much time reading the aforementioned listicles by beauty mags.
“Certain untreated infections can spread into the uterus and fallopian tubes, which can cause long-term issues, including fertility problems,” warns Dr. Jennifer Wider, a leading women’s health expert in the U.S. “You should never be embarrassed to speak to your healthcare provider. Vaginal issues are one of the more common reasons that women visit their doctor, so you are certainly not alone… An open and honest relationship with your doctor is vital for your overall health and wellbeing.”
In other words, better safe than sorry. But still, no matter what the n-th Instagram ad by the n-th feminine hygiene brand will tell us, our vaginas are never going to smell like scented candles. As Professor Ronnie Lamont from the University of Southern Denmark once said: “If nature had intended the vagina to smell like roses or lavender, it would have made the vagina smell like roses or lavender.”
Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, a painter by shaukh, and autistic by birth. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.