Humankind has been trying to cover up its natural odor ever since we crawled out of the cave. Maybe this made sense when bathing was considered dangerous and soap was made from animal fat and wood ash. But in our obsessively hygienic and more enlightened time, why all the fuss about odor, specifically that of our nether regions? And why all the products meant to make our bottoms smell like a spring breeze, whatever that means? (Watch this Saturday Night Live clip for a hilarious take on the topic.)
As far as I can tell, these products follow a long, inglorious line of more or less successfully convincing women that they stink. In a 1930s ad, the “Love Quiz” asks why her man is avoiding his lovely wife’s embrace. The answer is that he’s no longer happy in the marriage because she’s neglected “proper feminine hygiene.”
The solution? “Every wife can hold her lovable charm simply by using ‘Lysol’ disinfectant as an effective douche.” Yeah, that Lysol.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Eighty-odd years later, have we really come such a long way? We may not be squirting floor cleaner up our yoni, but there are no lack of products on the market to camouflage our natural odor. Now, just as back in the day, the intent is to make us feel self-conscious and embarrassed about ourselves. To shame us into buying products we don’t need and that sometimes aren’t good for us.
Our vaginas don’t smell like a spring breeze, nor should they. Our vaginal smell comes from a delicate balance of certain bacteria called lactobacill—the same bacteria found in yogurt. When you think about it, a natural vaginal odor has that same slight pungency. In the vagina, lactobacilli produce lactic acid and hydrogen peroxide, to give us a slightly acidic garden that works with our bodily ecosystem to keep out bad bacteria and the fungi (yeast) that produce the really smelly stuff, sometimes accompanied by a ferocious, burning itch.
While our vaginas are quite resilient, if enough lactobacilli are killed off by medication, those nice-smelling douches, excessive sugar in our diet (encouraging sugar-loving yeast), trapped moisture in our crotch, or even blood or semen, which are fairly alkaline, the resulting bacterial mash-up can cause both odor (fishy or foul) and itch.
In that case, your doctor may advise treating the bacterial or fungal infection or using an over-the-counter product, like Balance Moisturizing Personal Wash, to restore the natural pH balance in your vagina.
Vaginal smell can also be affected by:
- Sweat glands. We have a lot of them in the crotch area—the same kind as those in our armpits. Just so you know, sweat is basically odorless, but the bacteria living on our skin like our sweaty selves and produce yet another substance that gives sweat its distinctive odor. Wear cotton panties, take a shower, and change underwear after a workout. Let your crotch breathe—don’t wear tight clothes or pantyhose; go pantless when you can.
- Medications. Obviously, antibiotics can change vaginal flora. If you take antibiotics, ask your doctor about replacing vaginal (and gut) flora with probiotics, yogurt, or RepHresh. Antihistamines can dry the vagina. Some herbal therapies can change vaginal odor.
- Foods. If certain foods, such as asparagus, garlic, or curry, make your urine smell, they could also affect vaginal smell. No reason not to eat them, they just create a temporary odor.
- Hormonal changes. The vagina is exceptionally sensitive to hormonal changes, as you probably know all too well. Menstruation, hormone therapies, birth control, even sex can change the bacterial garden. Loss of estrogen during menopause makes vaginal tissue thin and dry, thus more susceptible to bacterial and yeast infection. With menopause, we may have to adjust our vaginal housekeeping somewhat with regular use of vaginal moisturizers, topical estrogen, and sexual lubricants.
Left to its own devices, our vaginas are hardy and self-sufficient. They wash away dead cells and grow new ones. They don’t require special hygienic measures—just the normal shower wash of the external parts with warm water and a gentle soap. Just make sure the soap is fragrance-free and not antibacterial.
I’m betting that by now most of us have grown comfortable enough in our own skins and with our own natural smells not to be overly influenced by commercial messaging. Not that it is any less relentless, nor is there any lack of products and procedures to alter our appearance. By and large, we’ve just become wiser and less susceptible to the barrage. So maybe pass along the message to our younger sisters that they are beautiful and smell fine just the way they are.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.