Most of my underwear is from Duane Reade (a Walgreens-owned drug store that exists mainly in the New York metropolitan area). Time and time again, I’ve made a bee-line to the back of the drug store, plucked a couple $5 three-packs off their hooks, and quickly headed home to remedy my commando situation.
See, I don’t like to do laundry a lot. And besides my workout clothes (*she writes as if she ever works out*), most of my wardrobe items don’t start to smell for several wears. Except for my underwear. This means I need as many pairs of underwear as there are days in my laundry cycle. That’s at least 30 pairs, and almost certainly more.
Bras, on the other hand, are a completely different story. I haven’t purchased a new bra in — pause for two minutes of recollection — three years? I’m too embarrassed to disclose how many times they’ve been washed since then. I mean, my boobs aren’t really growing, except for when I’m on or about to get my period, but that time (approximately half of my life) is when I wear my bigger bra, or my sports bra, or no bra at all because I don’t leave the house and instead become a bed gremlin who subsists solely on old Girl Scout cookies and Advil.
These questions, along with several others concerning underwear — How long is too long to own a pair of period-stained panties that smell just fine? Can I avoid washing my bras indefinitely? If I never buy new bras will I develop some kind of boob rash? — have been on my mind for a while now. So I decided to poll some friends and do my research, because these questions are not only extremely important, but also spark some potential health concerns.
When is it time to buy new underwear?
“When is it time to buy new underwear?” my friend F* responded. She genuinely wanted to know the answer, which I didn’t have for her yet. She was the first person I’d asked.
F then disclosed something to me she’d never told anyone outside her family before: She has several pairs of her mom’s old underwear and wears them regularly. It’s not like her mom’s old underwear — more like pairs her mother purchased, wore once, and found rode too low on her, so she passed them along to her daughter to wear and keep. Assuming they were washed in between, that seems just fine to me.
“I buy new underwear when the crotch holes get too big,” said my friend S. I ended up hearing a variation on this sentiment from many whom I asked about buying new undergarments. Besides that, other friends cited mostly growth and even itchiness as the impetus to go panty shopping.
“I wear a lot of tight, high-waisted pants, and I have a juicy booty, so I am always trying to find underwear that is comfortable but doesn’t show,” said M. “That is all I think about when buying underwear [which she does about once a year], and it’s almost exclusively at Target. I don’t have that many thongs, but I end up wearing them kind of often and going through them more quickly because they are lacy and nasty, so I think I most often buy thongs.”
How about getting rid of old panties? Period-stained panties??
“I throw old underwear out like never,” M continued. “I still have underwear from college that I wear a lot even though the crotches have been bleached by years of discharge. I throw lacy stuff out more often because it rips.”
Most people I know, myself included, rarely dispose of our old panties until the situation has grown dire. Even cheap underwear isn’t that cheap, and a shadow of old period blood isn’t going to smell bad or really look bad. Most of us have enough other underwear that we can wear non-stained pairs on special occasions, like weddings attended while single or third — okay, who am I kidding, first — dates.
“As long as it’s not holey and you actually wear them every month on your period, then I say keep them,” my wise friend L chimed in re: period panties. “If you don’t actually wear them, trash them!”
I wear them. I’m keeping them. Unless they’re that pair I was wearing the last time my period took me by surprise. I guess my rule is if the crotch is more red (or pink, or brown) than the original underwear color, get rid of ‘em.
Health-wise, underwear with old period stains isn’t going to hurt you, so long as you’ve washed them. (Side note: Fresh period spots are easy to remove with just some bar soap, water, and scrubbing.) According to experts (other than my own gynecologist, who disappointingly did not call me back for this piece), the most important aspects of your underwear are that they let you breathe (cotton’s a safe bet) and that you change/wash them regularly, which I’d bet most people reading this already do.
“Underwear can trap moisture,” Dr. Melissa Goist, an ob/gyn at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, told Health. This creates a breeding ground for bacteria and fungi like candida, the root of dreaded yeast infections. So basically, change your underwear after you work out or if you’re discharging particularly heavily, and avoid regularly wearing materials like nylon. Dr. Goist also encourages women to pay attention to the discharge stains in their underwear. Knowing what looks normal for you and what… doesn’t will help you make decisions even more pressing than whether to buy new panties — like whether it’s time to check in with your gynecologist.
Lastly, if your underwear is giving you rashes, it should obviously go. According to Dr. Melissa Piliang, a Cleveland-based dermatologist, elastic failure, which happens after underwear stretches from repeated use, can cause rashes because it’s “not staying in place and causing extra rubbing and shifting around.”
How often do you buy new bras?
“I wait for like four years until they’ve completely deteriorated,” said L. “This is also because I have a harder time finding bras that feel good.”
Same, girl. Same. Bra shopping is such a thankless task that I avoid it at all costs. The second some nice old lady at the bra store finds my perfect size and walks away, that size seems to shift again. Nothing ever fits quite right. There’s either too much space in the front while my boobs are sticking out the sides, or the cups fit perfectly but the straps are too loose, or — the uncomfortable combinations are endless.
“I can’t remember the last time I bought a bra,” said my friend B.
“I buy cheap sports bras on eBay in bulk,” said S. “Mostly replace them when the bands get stretched out.”
All of these solutions work — in my extensive digital research, the only downsides of not buying new bras all that regularly (as long as you wash them when they start to smell/get itchy because they’re covered in dust and hairs — just me?) are potential boob rashes. Yes, rashes again. And again, it all comes down to moisture and rubbing (hot).
When you get a rash under or around your breasts, it’s probably intertrigo, which occurs when skin traps moisture between and rubs against other skin. Usually, affected areas will look reddish, raw, cracked, and/or feel itchy. The rash may or may not smell bad. According to the UK-based organization Breast Cancer Care, wearing bras that fit well, provide adequate support, and are made of breathable materials like cotton can help you avoid intertrigo. So can changing your bra everyday. Oops. (But, to be fair, I haven’t gotten any kind of rash like that since I was 14 and perennially damp at summer camp.)
So really, when is it time to buy new underwear?
When you wake up one morning and discover that all of your underwear is damp, made of nylon, and too lose to stay put on your body.
*Names changed because none of my friends wanted to advertise to strangers how infrequently they buy new underwear.
Header Image via Julia Veldmanc on giphy.