Last week, Rewire began examining the research of economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, who recently analyzed Google data to gain insights about what Americans are really thinking about sex. His results, which he reviewed in a piece for the New York Times, suggest that people in the United States have some real anxiety about our genitals.
As we discussed last week, users identified as men seem to be focused on whether their penises are big enough. When it comes to female genitalia, however, the issue isn’t the size—it’s the scent. According to Stephens-Davidowitz, most inquiries into vaginas seem to be related to health issues, but about 30 percent focus on how to shave them, tighten them, and make them taste better. And then there are the questions about how they smell: “Women are most frequently concerned that their vaginas smell like fish, followed by vinegar, onions, ammonia, garlic, cheese, body odor, urine, bread, bleach, feces, sweat, metal, feet, garbage, and rotten meat.” Although male-identified users don’t ask Google all that many questions about female genitalia, when they do, odor is usually the issue. In fact, Stephens-Davidowitz reports that the most frequent search attributed to men on this subject is about how to tell a woman that she doesn’t smell all that good. (My answer to that, by the way, would be: “Don’t.”)
Part Two of this series will focus on allaying those concerns: Most often, vulvas and vaginas smell like, well, vulvas and vaginas.
Before We Talk Scent, Let’s Talk Name
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In his research Stephens-Davidowitz looked at Google searches for the word “vagina,” which is not surprising: Most people—those who don’t default to “hoo-ha” or “va-jay-jay,” anyway—tend to use “vagina” to refer to female genitalia as a whole. Unfortunately, this isn’t really accurate and can cause some confusion. The vagina is actually on the inside: It is the muscle that connects the uterus to the outside of a person’s body. Though some think of it as an eternally open tunnel, most of the time, the walls of the vagina are touching. If a penis or tampon goes in, or a baby comes out, the vagina stretches to the necessary size. (It doesn’t stay stretched, however: The muscle is very elastic.)
Instead, the parts that most people are probably asking about are the external parts of female genitals, collectively called the vulva. Essentially, the vulva is made up of everything one can see—and most likely smell—between a person’s legs, which includes the mons pubis (the fatty tissue that covers the pubic bone); the labia majora and labia minora (the outer and inner lips); the clitoral hood (which protects the clitoris); the clitoris (the only human body part that has no other function than pleasure); urethral opening (the hole where urine comes out); and the opening to the vagina.
So What Should Vulvas Smell Like?
This is a hard question to answer, because every person’s vulva smells different and everyone’s nose has its own opinion. In their book Read My Lips, experts Debby Herbenick and Vanessa Schick suggest that vulvas smell like salt, yeast, or slightly sour milk. I’ve heard other people relate the smell to foods like fish or onions, which arose in Stephens-Davidowitz’s research—as did sweat, which makes sense, given that vulvas have a lot of sweat glands to help cool them and the body down. The word that comes to my mind most is “musky.”
All of these variations are perfectly normal. And it’s also normal for the smell to vary a little bit depending on where people are in their cycle, what soap they used, what laundry detergent they washed their underwear with, and if they just had sex. There is also some evidence that someone’s diet can impact their scent. Research from Oregon State University has suggested that eating foods with strong scents of their own—such as coffee, onions, or garlic—as well as consuming excessive meat, dairy, or alcohol could make for a stronger-smelling vulva. (To be clear, it’s not a direct connection; you won’t end up with latte-scented genitals if you hit up Starbucks too many times.) The researchers suggested that avoiding these foods and eating a lot of whole grains, fruits, and veggies could lead to a milder-smelling vulva. That said, any changes caused by diet are likely minor, and it seems silly to forgo your favorite garlic bread or medium-rare hamburger for this reason alone.
People should know what their own vulvas generally smell like, though, because some infections can change that normal scent. If you notice anything radically different, get it checked out by a health-care provider. Otherwise, don’t worry, and remember that some people find the scent of a vulva to be an integral part of sexual experiences.
Taking Care of Your Vulva Is Easy (Do Almost Nothing)
Some of the other Google searches Stephens-Davidowitz found suggested that vulvas smelled like urine or feces. This makes some sense: The urethral opening is part of the vulva and the rectum is not that far away. By the end of the day, some smells may be shared. All I can say here is that some basic maintenance—wipe carefully from front-to-back every time you go to the bathroom, so as not to get germs from feces on one’s vulva—will go a long way. Regular showers are also a given.
There are lots of companies that would like you to believe you need special body washes and perfumes for “down there,” but I have to call foul on that. Washing one’s vulva with normal body soap should work fine, unless the area is particularly sensitive, in which case unscented or delicate soaps will do the trick. And don’t bother with the fragrances, as they can be irritating.
As for the vagina itself, no cleaning is necessary. The internal organ cleans itself through secretions. Douching—the practice of forcing water or chemicals into the vagina to clean it—has been found to be harmful. It can increase the risk of some sexually transmitted infections, as well as a common infection called bacterial vaginosis (BV), which happens when the delicate balance of “healthy bacteria” to “unhealthy bacteria” is thrown off. BV (which isn’t considered an STI) is more annoying than it is dangerous, but it can increase the risk of contracting STIs; pregnant people with BV are more likely to deliver early and have low birth-weight babies.
And, here’s something I never thought I’d have to say—don’t steam-clean your vagina. This hopefully rare practice made news a few weeks ago when Gwyneth Paltrow, actress and proprietor of the lifestyle website goop.com, described a spa treatment she had recently had: “The real golden ticket here is the Mugworth V-Steam: You sit on what is essentially a mini-throne, and a combination of infrared and mugwort steam cleanses your uterus, et al.”
As many doctors have written about since, there is no scientific evidence that V-steaming is helpful and there is no reason to clean your uterus—it does that itself every month by shedding the inner lining during menstruation. It is also unlikely that without forcing it up there (which could be really dangerous), the steam is getting anywhere near the uterus. Most of the time the cervical opening to the uterus, called the os, is only open wide enough for sperm to get in or menses to get out. It is only during childbirth that the cervix would dilate enough for anything like steam to get through.
Whether or not the steam gets all the way up there is irrelevant, though, because it can harm the vagina along the way by throwing off the balance of bacteria, like douching does. Unlike douching, however, there is also the potential for burns—clearly something no one wants.
It’s Your Smell
If your or your partner’s vulva smells pretty much like it did yesterday, last week, or the last time you had sex, then that’s its natural, normal smell. It’s part of you or part of them. Though Google will probably point to a lot of advice on this subject, no search is going to come up with a safe or proven way to change it. If there really is too much of a urine or sweat scent for you or your partner to be comfortable, consider adding a shower and some soapy loving as a prelude to whatever else you had planned for the night. But don’t resort to special soaps, perfumes, douches, or steams. The best thing to do is get used to the scent and learn to love it.