They work wonders for panty lines, but sometimes we get the feeling that our thongs are bad for us. Sometimes they're too tight, sometimes they rub the wrong way and sometimes they just don't feel all that clean.
But is the skimpy underwear really bad for our health? We called up Dr. Jill M. Rabin, an Associate Professor of Clinical Obstetrics & Gynecology and Women's Health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Dr. Shieva Ghofrany, an OB/GYN with Stamford Hospital, in Conn., to get the lowdown on those garments we wear low down. What are our undies really doing to us down there?
Thongs aren't necessarily bad for you.
It really depends on your propensity for infections, Dr. Rabin says. "If somebody's healthy, there aren't really any dangers," she tells us. "The issue is if you have a predisposition to getting infections, either urinary or vaginal, it may be harder to get rid of it if you're wearing a thong."
But there are several features of thongs that put you at risk for health issues.
Many thongs, particularly the sexy lacy kinds, are made of non-breathable materials, as opposed to cotton. "We should all always be wearing all cotton underwear," Dr. Ghofrany advises. This includes the material of the entire panty, not just the fabric at the crotch. "When patients say [to me], 'But the crotch is cotton,' my response is that the layer outside the crotch is not, thus making the cotton less breathable and thus allowing more moisture to be trapped and more possible imbalance leading to infections."
Plus, even if the entire garment is cotton, the skinny shape creates an inherent risk. "The patient's vulva is much more 'exposed' to whatever they're wearing," Dr. Ghofrany explains, "and given the increase in leggings and 'skinny' jeans, all of which have Lycra, Spandex, etc., there again is trapped moisture."
Lastly, the thin band of material at the crotch tends to move around, possibly transferring bacteria from one spot to another. As Dr. Rabin tells, us, "If you have a little bacteria -- E. coli is the most common bacteria in the colon -- in the back part of the fabric and you're physically active, that material may move. All it has to do is move an inch or two and it's next to the vagina or urethra. That thong may be depositing colonic bacteria into your vagina or urethra." Yikes.
The main health risks we're taking when we wear thongs: infection and irritation.
Infections can occur when the balance of the vaginal environment, including the moisture levels from vaginal secretions, is thrown off, says Dr. Ghofrany. The most common? Yeast infections and bacterial infections, mainly bacterial vaginosis. The extra bacteria usually manifests with increased discharge, which leads to what Dr. Ghofrany calls the "vicious cycle of thong use": the increase in discharge leads to an increased use of panty liners, which leads to even more trapped moisture, which leads to more infections and more discharge.
Thongs also carry the risk of external irritation. "I see more patients with skin tags on their vulva and near their rectum, in the exact distribution of the thongs," Dr. Ghofrany tells us. "I sometimes will be mid-pap and ask a patient, 'So you wear thongs a lot?' And their response is always 'Ya! How can you tell?' And it's because of the skin tags, small 'piles' of soft tissue that occur from the skin being constantly rubbed in the same spot. These happen traditionally at bra lines and neck lines, and now increasingly at thong lines!"
As for other dangerous medical risks, such as hemorrhoids? Dr. Ghofrany assures us that thongs won't actually cause hemorrhoids, but they can exacerbate them. "If the thong is kind of 'hiked up' in there, it can irritate the rectum and further inflame hemorrhoids," she says. But hemorrhoids can't actually be blamed on thongs.
Wearing a thong while you're on your period may slightly increase those risks.
If you're already prone to infections, Dr. Rabin says, your period is a particularly vulnerable time. "The pH of the vagina is normally acid pH, and blood raises your pH. So when your pH goes up, that's when bacteria has a better chance of growing," she tells us. But if you don't have a history of infection issues, you should be fine to wear thongs during that time of the month, she says: "If you have had no infections and no symptoms of an infection, I don’t see any reason why not."
But while they come with risks, thongs are generally safe... you've just got to be vigilant.
"If somebody’s healthy, there aren’t really any dangers," Dr. Rabin says. If you're prone to infections, thongs certainly heighten the risk. But if you buy cotton thongs, wash them often and maintain your own hygiene down there, you can usually avoid any major issues.
Dare to wear them? Here are a few we like: