Chocolate versus vanilla. Coke versus Pepsi. PCs versus Macs. At various points in our lives, we all pledge allegiance to one flavor, brand, or model over another. That’s equally true in the lingerie department, where women must decide between two camps of the underwear world: thongs versus, well, everything else. In fact, ask most women where they stand, and you’ll find that they’re either vehemently pro- or vehemently anti-thong. Thong enthusiasts will say that there’s no other surefire way to prevent the dreaded VPL (visible panty line … I shudder to even type it out). But haters argue that aside from being uncomfortable (read: feeling like you’ve got a permanent wedgie), thongs make women more susceptible to infections and a host of other nasty conditions.
If you’ve ever had a urinary tract infection (UTI)—which anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of women experience at least once—or similar issue in the genital area, you’ve no doubt heard from doctors or medical guides to avoid thongs. But does this particular type of underwear actually increase the risk of certain health problems?
A Potential for Problems
There’s a reason why thongs seem to be likely candidates as harbingers of bacteria. For one, just look at where they’re placed! Like all underwear, thongs are meant to shield a highly sensitive area from the rough material of exterior clothing. But thongs are merely thin strips of fabric that get all up in your business more than they bar anything from it. So if they move around, such as when we’re walking, it’s possible that the thongs will become convenient transportation devices for bacteria from the anus (like E. coli, a frequent culprit behind UTIs) to the vaginal region, where it could move into the urethra, bladder, and even farther if left untreated.
Aside from being potential vehicles for infectious bacteria, thongs are made of material that might itself irritate the delicate tissues in the vagina and anus if it rubs up against them too much, which could lead to inflammation and eventually infection if there’s an open wound. Thongs are also anecdotally linked to yeast infections for the same bacteria-encouraging reason, as well as to external hemorrhoids, due to the possible chafing of anal tissues. But the key term here is anecdotally—because none of these health risks, including the oft-cited UTI, are scientifically proven to be caused by thong underwear.
The Real Deal About the Risk
There’ve been a few studies throughout the years investigating the supposed connection between infections and behavioral factors like tight pants, thongs, and other fashion trends that often come with dire warnings. The American Journal of Epidemiology published a study in 1987 that could only find an association between UTIs, frequent sexual intercourse, and the use of diaphragms. According to the researchers, their findings didn’t show any indication that clothing type affects infection incidents one way or the other.
Similarly, a study out of Japan’s Nara Women’s University in 1994 actually suggested that there’s no real difference between cotton and acrylic underwear when it comes to sweat in the genital area. Cotton underwear is usually recommended over other synthetic materials because it’s supposed to be more breathable, but this study showed that female participants wearing either cotton or acrylic underwear had the same skin and clothing temperatures when resting or lightly exercising. The sole contrast between the two came when the participants sweated excessively—cotton absorbed much more sweat than acrylic.
Wear What Feels Best
Basically, thongs themselves don’t put an otherwise healthy woman at greater risk for infections or other, related health issues. But if you’re prone to UTIs or yeast infections, or if you find that thongs do irritate your nether regions, you should probably at least limit how often you wear them, as they might serve as conduits for bacteria. If that’s the case, it’s best to speak with your doctor and find out whether your particular risk factor should affect choices in undergarments. Otherwise, wearing thongs from time to time shouldn’t really affect our health much, if at all.
So for all you thong wearers out there who fear that you’re harming your body, rest assured that your preferred underwear style in and of itself doesn’t predispose you to certain health problems. As for the comfort-level argument, well, there’s no real defense against that—wearing a thong does occasionally feel akin to having a wedgie. Sometimes that’s just the price you have to pay to avoid walking around with panty lines on display.