cotton vs. synthetic fabrics for women's underwear

A female standup comic once complained about the synthetic materials used in most of Victoria’s Secret underwear, saying each pair of their panties ought to be sold with a free tube of Monistat.

My wife has said much the same thing, i.e. synthetic materials are more likely to result in a yeast infection than cotton. I’ve repeatedly heard the claim that cotton is more “breathable” or “breathes better” than synthetics.

So what’s the deal? Synthetic fabrics are still woven/knitted from thread, just like cotton fabrics, which means both materials are basically a very fine mesh, with thousands and thousands of through-holes. Is cotton factually better (in terms of female genital health), or is this some sort of old wives’ tale with no basis in reality?

You don’t have to wear women’s underwear to know that cotton is superior to most synthetics at wicking away moisture. I don’t know much about this subject, but salt and ethanol kill yeast (even though they create the ethanol themselves), so women who want to prevent yeast infection should drink a lot of Salty Dogs, though that may lead to other infections.

Earlier thread on ladies’ underwear, discussing both styles and fabrics:

Hikers and outdoorsie types that sweat a lot rave about the underwear below. They have no cotton.

I have some all synthetic jockeys that are awesome for wicking away moisture, but are now discontinued. I have two pairs of the underwear in the link on the way.

I completely disagree with this statement. Whenever I work out or go running in cotton anything, said cotton becomes a sweat-laden mess. It absorbs moisture, for sure, but it doesn’t carry it away.

That does not happen with technical fabrics, and that is what most “athletes” wear.

I also love that brand.

Actually, cotton holds moisture better than synthetics. For example, anyone who skis these days knows that cotton is a terrible base layer; it absorbs the body’s moisture and holds it against your skin, and is then chilled by whatever your outer layers couldn’t protect it from. And you’re cold for the rest of the day.

Moisture-wicking synthetics such as polyester are chemically treated to remove the moisture from your skin, keeping you warmer. That’s why all running gear, these days, are made from synthetics.

Double tap to the chest.

That was what my first ever 5K was like. I was (stupidly) wearing a cotton shirt, and had a slight bit of rain just before the race to make everything just a little damp.

Bought a real running shirt that same day.

The issue isn’t so much cotton vs synthetic, it’s cotton vs nylon. Most non-cotton women’s underwear seems to be made from a tightly woven, non-breathing nylon. Nice and silky smooth, but totally non-breathing and often bad at absorbing.

So the choice is between cotton and a nylon bag.

Bolding mine. That’s the idea. You don’t want your underwear absorbing moisture. You want it wicking it away from your skin, which nylon (and polyester) does much more effectively than cotton.

Years ago I used to go canoeing, winter and summer on rivers and canals. In the winter we always wore wool with no shirt, because even wet wool insulates and kept us warm.

SOME synthetics do it better than cotton, some do not. Today’s highly engineered fabrics are different than low-end cheap crap nylon.

Sure, micro-fiber super-tech synthetics are wonderful at wicking, but if I’m buying panties off the bargain shelf at the local big box I’ll go for the cotton because at the low end of price it’s more reliable and I’m not normally engaged in activities that require the highest performance from my clothes.

Now, if I was going to be outside in, say, -40 weather for hours at a time, or running marathons, or something of that sort I’d pay the money for the high end stuff.

Exactly. There are high-tech moisture wicking undies that are quite good. I use them when traveling to tropical climates, as they are easy to wash and dry on the go. These are expensive, specialized products, though, and generally a bit overkill for a day at the office.

Of the cheap, common underwear materials, cotton is the better choice. The cheap nylon used in most synthetic undies happens to be a great breeding ground for bacteria. Heck, even the fancy moisture wicking stuff does this- serious hikers are no stranger to their gear getting that permanent funk.

Cotton, on the other hand, is cheap, breathable enough for everyday activities, and is fairly good at keeping the bacteria under control.

Cheap non-cotton underwear doesn’t wick moisture way, it holds it in like a layer of saran wrap. [Machine Elf] is asking if non-cotton womens underwear really does this, not if good synthetic underwear is available.

Huh. I don’t wear cotton underwear…ever. Mine wicks just fine and I don’t have any issues whatsoever with yeast infections or odors. I don’t spend a lot on my underwear, either. Hanes are what I buy (in packs of 3) and, upon checking, I see that they are an 89/11% polyester/spandex blend. They also dry fast, don’t chafe or bunch and have no elastic seams that leave indentations. I spend a lot of time outdoors, but I work indoors and I have a very active job. My mileage obviously varies.

Now, I would say that a nice, expensive pair of nylon underwear would be more durable (longer-lasting) and perhaps be more comfortable than the relatively inexpensive ones I buy, but quantity over quality is more important to me for underwear and I’d rather spend more money on quality bras. For reference, I have about a dozen in rotation that last me about 6 months to a year and the side seam is usually the first thing to go. I wash them with the rest of the laundry in a gentle detergent with no fabric softeners.

ETA: I am a “serious hiker” too. No funk in my drawers though.

You know, I don’t really consider Hanes to be bottom of the barrel bargain brand. They do make good underwear.

It also has to do with the person - some people sweat and, uh, secrete more than others and that, too, is a factor along with personal susceptibility to infections of various sorts.

I still prefer cotton, but I’ll admit it’s a personal preference for the most part. At a certain point it’s like arguing between bikinis, briefs, and thongs - none of them are right or wrong it’s purely a matter of personal preference.

Another factor is dyes - it’s not a hard and fast rule, but synthetics seem to me to often be brightly colored and cotton more likely to be plain white (though very much there are exceptions to that rule). It could be some of the problems people have with one type or another is due to the dyes used rather than the fabrics.

My underwear is almost completely from VS, and even the synthetics have a cotton lining the crotch. So I never understood that…

I also don’t pay attention to a difference in sweat between one type or the other.

Fair enough. I guess I’m not familiar with bottom of the barrel bargain brands, but I do know that I’m saving a lot of money on underwear since I stopped buying it at VS and they are far more comfortable. My biggest complaint about the VS panties is the elastic used to cut across and chafe on the tendon on the inside of the thigh.

That’s why I wear nothing but synthetic. I’m a bigger gal and I move a lot at work, so I sweat pretty consistently, especially in the lumbar area. Cotton underwear just got damp early on and stayed that way. Damp cotton chafes and feels clammy to me. It just wasn’t working for me.

IME, today’s fabrics do not contribute to infection, notwithstanding biology. Since synthetics like polyester and nylon do not absorb and hold moisture, they don’t promote bacterial growth. They also don’t allow skin to remain damp the way saturated cotton does. Damp skin is obviously the key here as bacteria proliferates in that environment.

To each their own.

This is GQ, so a factual answer is required. The Merck Manual cites that “tight, nonabsorbent underwear may trap moisture, which encourages the growth of bacteria and yeast.” That’s far from conclusive and quite possibly is a holdover from the days of tightly woven, heavy denier synthetic fabrics of 20+ years ago. My experience tells me that modern synthetics fabrics, including inexpensive fabrics, do not trap moisture, but rather wick it away from skin, allowing it to evaporate more quickly than does absorbent cotton.

So my response to the OP’s question is, at this point in time, the idea that synthetic underwear is detrimental to genital health is now an old wive’s tale that may have had some kernel of truth in the past.

That may or may not be a cotton liner. Mine have a liner in the crotch, but it’s not cotton, it’s just a different type of polyester fabric. The lining in the crotch serves as a additional layer that is slightly more breathable to accelerate wicking of moisture away from the body. That fabric is unlikely to have the durability/stretchiness features of the rest of the fabric. It’s also sometimes, but not always, left undyed.