Can your swimsuit cause harm to your vaginal health?

 

Let's get straight to the point - nope, your summer bathing suit won’t impact your vagina (which is inside your body). 

Does your bathing suit cause harm to your vaginal health?

Almost all of us have been told at least once (and often more than once) not to sit around in wet swimwear as doing so might cause harm by changing the vaginal pH, irritating the vagina, or even leading to vaginal infections. Sound familiar?

Well, we have some news for you. The vagina is a lot tougher than you might think. It has literally evolved over millions of years to accommodate for menstrual blood, ejaculate, a baby and more (1). So, to think that wet swimwear, which actually dries relatively quickly (we might add), might cause such vaginal mayhem is far from logical (2). When we look back historically, even thongs were demonized as being so-called “bad” for your vaginal health and risk of vaginal infections. In recent years, however, research has shown this is simply not the case (3). Clearly, we can’t believe everything we've heard about vaginal health.  

Where do these myths come from? What really causes vaginal infections?

It is likely that many of these myths started well before we knew about the vaginal ecosystem or the biology of vaginal infections. Today, there remains a lot of what we regard as the “well, it can’t hurt” phenomenon. For example, a doctor telling a patient not to sit around in their wet swimwear because, well, no harm done, right? These recommendations, however, are often based on little high-quality evidence and only promote a sense of worry and hypervigilance amongst vulva owners. A variety of risk factors have been established for vaginal infections, including feminine hygiene products, genetics, sexual activity, antibiotic use, increased estrogen levels, uncontrolled diabetes, and an impaired immune system (to name a few) (4, 5). 

What do we know about sitting in wet swimwear? 

Unsurprisingly, there is very little funding and studies on exploring the impacts of swimwear on the vaginal environment. Some small studies have investigated the association between vaginal infections and certain genital hygiene practices (such as the effects of different underwear styles and fabrics) (6, 7). We can conclude from this that if you are wearing tight or wet clothes, you may experience vulvar skin irritation or some chafing, but one’s clothing or bathing suit choice certainly does not alter the internal vaginal environment (2, 8). As renowned Ob/Gyn Dr. Jen Gunter states, “A wet bathing suit cannot change your vaginal pH” so “wear what pleases you”. 

Should you be avoiding moist and warm environments?

According to some, bathing suits provide a moist and warm environment where infections thrive. However, we must remember here that the vagina is normally moist and warm, therefore if this alone were to cause infection, it would be a serious design flaw. Aside from that, most swimsuits are designed to dry relatively fast, so sitting around in a wet environment really shouldn’t be a concern. Perhaps if you are sitting in soaking wet clothing for hourrrrs you could develop some skin irritation or superficial skin injury, but most people are inclined to change before this occurs. The vaginal pH is in fact maintained by estrogen, good bacteria (lactobacilli), and glycogen (a storage sugar), none of which are affected by a wet bathing suit (9). If a little water and moisture caused harm to our vaginas, we would likely be having far more regular vaginal infections (the vagina is indeed, very adaptable (10).  

Recommendations:

Your vagina is resilient and functions all season round (11), meaning you don’t have to fear pulling out that bathing suit this summer. Remind yourself that a wet bathing suit does not cause pH imbalances or vaginal infections, that would require an inside job. Your vagina has indeed evolved to handle far worse. So, we suggest that you wear your bathing suit this summer, worry-free. 

Zoe Sever is Unfabled's Clinical Lead. Zoe brings a wealth of knowledge from her broad spanning background, having started her career in Nursing and transitioning to Sexology and Research. She holds a Master’s in Sexual and Reproductive Health and is currently pursuing a PhD in Women’s and Reproductive Health at Oxford University. On a mission to empower individuals with cycles to better understand their bodies, Zoe is helping us to banish shame, stigma and demystify reproductive health.

References:

  1. Gross RE. Vagina Obscura: An Anatomical Voyage: W. W. Norton, Incorporated; 2022.
  2. Gunter J. The Vagina Bible: The Vulva and the Vagina -- Separating the Myth from the Medicine: Citadel Press; 2019.
  3. Hamlin A, Sheeder J, Muffly T. Brief vs Thong Hygiene in Obstetrics and Gynecology (B-THONG): A Survey Study [1J]. Obstetrics & Gynecology. 2018;131.
  4. Fethers KA, Fairley CK, Hocking JS, Gurrin LC, Bradshaw CS. Sexual Risk Factors and Bacterial Vaginosis: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Clinical Infectious Diseases. 2008;47(11):1426-35.
  5. Low N, Broutet N, Adu-Sarkodie Y, Barton P, Hossain M, Hawkes S. Global control of sexually transmitted infections. Lancet. 2006;368(9551):2001-16.
  6. Heidrich F, Berg A, Bergman J. Clothing factors and vaginitis. The Journal of family practice. 1984;19:491-4.
  7. Runeman B, Rybo G, Forsgren-Brusk U, Larkö O, Larsson P, Faergemann J. The Vulvar Skin Microenvironment: Impact of Tight‐fitting Underwear on Microclimate, pH and Microflora. Acta dermato-venereologica. 2005;85:118-22.
  8. Zhong W, Xing MM, Pan N, Maibach HI. Textiles and human skin, microclimate, cutaneous reactions: an overview. Cutan Ocul Toxicol. 2006;25(1):23-39.
  9. Lin YP, Chen WC, Cheng CM, Shen CJ. Vaginal pH Value for Clinical Diagnosis and Treatment of Common Vaginitis. Diagnostics (Basel). 2021;11(11).
  10. Smith SB, Ravel J. The vaginal microbiota, host defence and reproductive physiology. J Physiol. 2017;595(2):451-63.
  11. Hickey RJ, Zhou X, Pierson JD, Ravel J, Forney LJ. Understanding vaginal microbiome complexity from an ecological perspective. Transl Res. 2012;160(4):267-82.

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