Vaginal Odor: What Every Woman Should Know

Woman cleaning genital area

Ah! The smell of adolescence.

There’s nothing quite like the end-of-the-day funk that wafts from a pubescent kid. Some of them (younger ones usually) have no idea they stink or they just don’t care because their friends haven’t noticed. But as kids head into middle school and beyond, body odor is a common cause for teasing, exclusion, and shaming. Besides the usual body odor from sweaty pits and stinky feet, there are also new and strong odors from their morphing private zones. For girls, in particular, those private odors often become an embarrassment and even a source of anxiety, but some reassurance about normal healthy odors and details about basic hygiene may be all they need.

First, let me stress that there’s already too much body insecurity - including vulvar paranoia - in our culture. Women’s bodies and body parts are constantly critiqued, compared, and objectified. And crude jokes about odors and “nasty bits” only heighten a girls’ self-consciousness. So for a LOT of young women, the answer to their worries is a reassurance that healthy vaginas aren’t stinky and there’s nothing dirty about their vulva.

But for younger girls who are just figuring out personal hygiene, there's a lot to learn. In my office where we see adolescent girls in the throes of puberty, we often hear sincere questions about body odors and hygiene. The most frequent prompt for a hygiene chat is a mom or girl complaining of vaginal odor and thinking there must be an infection.

For most preteen and young teen girls, vaginal infections are rare, so after some questions that eliminate my concern for a true infection (has there been any sexual contact? Is there a lot of itching/burning? Has the discharge changed color?), we usually land on “normal vaginal discharge” which is NOT a source of offensive odors. I always emphasize that vaginal discharge has an odor, but it’s not stinky… unless it sticks around too long, and we’ll get to that.

What most moms and girls believe is “vaginal odor” is actually a combination of sweat/body odor that lingers in pubic hair and vaginal secretions that stick around in the folds of the vulva. Learning to manage vulvar hygiene is simple: 1.) mild soap (or shampoo) & water, and 2.) a thorough cleaning of the crevices. I know. There’s no easier way to say it.

So, when it comes up (and that's at least daily), I find myself giving the same “hygiene lesson” over and over to address body odor in general and the “private” odors that bother a lot of my patients. The discussion seems to be welcomed by parents and appreciated by girls, especially when they understand WHY there’s an odor and HOW to manage it.

Here’s how I explain it:

Your vaginal discharge sounds totally normal, but we still need to talk about the odors that bother you (or others).

First, it helps to understand that your new body odors happen because puberty makes you sweat more than ever. It also makes your skin push out more oils that attract bacteria that create most of the stink. And this sweat and oil aren’t just happening in your armpits, it happens all over your body, and especially around your private parts and in your groin (the folds where your thighs meet your trunk).

When these new body odors happen, the smells are always attached to oils on your skin and hair – and hair really holds onto odors! Think about this… if you have grease or oil all over your hands, how do you get it off? With just water? Nope. You have to use soap! And sometimes you have to wash twice with soap if your hands are really greasy, right? The same thing is true for body odor – consider it oily, so you HAVE to use soap, sometimes twice, to remove the oils carrying the odor.

That means the first step is to wash WITH SOAP every day or at least most days. That includes your pubic hair, the outside of your vulva and your groin – AND I’m gonna go ahead and say your butt crack, too, because well, yeah. Butts get stinky and they need soap, too.

The other thing you need to know is that your vaginal discharge only causes an odor if it sticks around too long. So you have to make sure you get any dried discharge out of all the folds and creases in your vulva. You do that by opening your labia (which requires squatting or spreading your legs), and using your hand or a washcloth and warm water. It's easiest in a bathtub, but you can also get the job done in the shower. If you have a detachable showerhead, that can work, too. You DON’T need to put anything inside your vagina, but you do need to wash the outer and inner labia and the creases around them. Make sure to rinse well so you don’t leave soap on that sensitive skin.

While you’re figuring it out, you can look with a mirror after your bath or shower to make sure you got the dried up stuff out of there. I know – sounds awkward, but it’s your body, and it sounds to me like the odor has been awkward for you, too.

The last thing I want to tell you is that you might see products in the store called “feminine deodorant” or “douches” for cleaning the vagina. You DON’T EVER need to use those products! First of all, your vulva isn’t supposed to smell like a flower, so there’s no need to put perfumed sprays or washes down there. Secondly, the vagina cleans itself and squirting water or other liquids up to the vagina to “clean” it actually damages the normal healthy bacteria in there and increase the risk for vaginal infections. Your vagina is a self-cleaning organ, but your vulva is not (and you know the difference, right?)

I’ll stop now (smile). But don’t be embarrassed at all that we had this talk. You wouldn’t believe how many girls have the same issue at your age. Before now, you never had to pay much attention to washing down there, but puberty is a gamechanger – and there’s a lot to learn. But I think you’re going to get through it just fine!

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