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“Vaginas are supposed to smell like vaginas,” says Jennifer Lincoln, a board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist in Portland, Ore. “It’s not going to smell like a piña colada, nor should it.”
Yet, the feminine hygiene aisle is filled with flowery, fruity and “fresh” scented products to help mask “womanly” aromas. And while direct-to-consumer brands, such as Lume, aren’t available in walk-in stores, they are ubiquitous on social media.
Whether the deodorant is marketed specifically for your private parts or elsewhere, is it ever a good idea to put it on these sensitive areas?
Lincoln, who wrote the book “Let’s Talk About Down There: An OB/GYN Answers All Your Burning Questions … Without Making You Feel Embarrassed for Asking,” talked with us about how safe these products are and whether people really need them.
Dealing with odor
“When people come to me with concerns about controlling vaginal odor, the first question I ask is, ‘Why do you feel that you need to?’ ” Lincoln says. “We want to get to the root of who or what is making you feel bad. It could be that you’re self-conscious because it’s been normalized for women to think this, but there’s actually no odor beyond your normal scent.”
So what should a vagina smell like? “Some describe it as a light musty odor,” Lincoln says. “Like any body part that has discharge, it’s certainly not supposed to smell like nothing.”
When you should be concerned is when it’s clearly a foul-smelling odor that’s different from your usual scent. An infection might cause a very strong or fishy smell, Lincoln says. Often, but not always, it’s accompanied by other symptoms, such as itching, burning, painful discharge or sores.
“If you’re concerned that you have an infection, go see the doctor before any self-treatment, whether it’s using a deodorant or taking over-the-counter meds,” Lincoln says. “If there really is a problem and you’re self-treating it with something that’s totally inappropriate, it’s just going to make it worse.”
The problem with deodorants
It’s not only the ingredients but also the marketing. Some “natural” brands use fear-based tactics to get people to pay a premium for their products while some brands use shame-based tactics to convince women they should be embarrassed by the way they smell.
Natural isn’t necessarily better. The purpose of deodorant — for armpits or other parts — is to fight odor by inhibiting the odor-causing bacteria in your sweat. Some deodorants marketed as “natural” use ingredients such as baking soda, activated charcoal and tea tree oil for their antimicrobial and deodorizing properties. And manufacturers claim these products are safer because of the lack of controversial ingredients, such as aluminum, artificial fragrances, sulfates and parabens.
“This list represents a lot of the flawed logic behind ‘clean beauty,’ ” says Ranella Hirsch, a dermatologist based in Cambridge, Mass. Natural product brands stoke people’s fears to sell alternatives that are often more expensive but not always gentler on the body, Hirsch says. Baking soda and natural fragrances, like essential oils, seem innocent enough, but Hirsch says they are frequent causes of dermatological irritation.
Feeding off consumer insecurities. Deodorants marketed for use in genital areas are especially problematic because while armpit deodorants are sold to all, most products geared for private parts target women.
“Whenever you introduce shame-based marketing into something that has to do with feminine hygiene, you’re in a whole different arena, and you really have the ability to do much more harm,” Lincoln says. “We already have patients who come in embarrassed of their labia, hair and scent. These products take advantage of those insecurities because if we feel bad, dirty and shameful, we’re going to spend money to buy these things.”
What to wear down there
If you are concerned about groin-area odors and really want to use a deodorant, an unscented solid deodorant can be safe to use.
Keyword one: solid. Studies have shown that deodorant sprays and vaginal powders may increase women’s susceptibility to urinary tract infections, bacterial vaginosis and sexually transmitted infections, and may be linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
Keyword two: unscented. “Never ever put anything with fragrance on or near the vulva,” Lincoln says. “You’re just asking for a skin reaction.” Any fragrances, including those marketed as skin-safe or natural, can break down sensitive skin and cause infection.
Make sure the product doesn’t contain baking soda, tea tree oil or peppermint — which can cause irritation and unpleasant tingling.
Apply the deodorant in the groin fold. If you use it on your vulva, use as little as possible and keep it on the outside part only, never on the inner lips, Lincoln says. And never put any deodorizing or cleansing product (a.k.a. douches) inside your vagina.
Douches mess up the vagina’s microbiome and can increase the risks of contracting human papillomavirus infection (HPV) and upper genital tract infections.
Lincoln also says to continually keep an eye out for irritation because you could be using deodorant for months with no issue and then all of a sudden have a reaction. “If that happens, stop use immediately,” she says. “And if you’re worried, get it checked out.”
Lincoln has tips for dealing with smelly situations without putting money back into the machine that churns out harmful marketing toward women. “There’s not a whole lot to it,” she says. “Less is more.”
Stop wearing synthetic skivvies. Wear breathable cotton underwear instead of synthetics, which trap moisture and cause more bacteria to grow, leading to more discharge and more scent.
Use unscented body wash and soap. Scented products and washes can be irritating and cause more discharge. Instead, use unscented soap or just plain water to wash the external genitalia.
Don’t wear panty liners. Some people use panty liners to battle odor, but they actually trap discharge, making you smell more.
Sprinkle on some cornstarch. It’s really great for absorbing odors. Pat it in the groin area — again only on the outside parts — before you get dressed.
Take it off. Try not wearing underwear when you go to bed. And try changing your underwear during the day.
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