A yeast infection, or vaginal candidiasis, is an incredibly common—not to mention majorly uncomfortable—vaginal health issue impacting up to three out of every four women at some point in their life. In fact, most women experience at least two, according to The Mayo Clinic.
While it is relatively common knowledge (and scientifically proven!) that wearing cotton underwear can reduce your chances of developing the itchy, irritating, and sometimes burning infection in the vaginal area, you may have also heard that some types of compressive workout pants can also cause the condition to develop. Is there any truth to this? We asked two of the top OB/GYNs in the country—Kathryn McKenney, MD and Mary Jane Minkin, MD—to weigh in.
Meet the Expert
The Link Between Yeast Infections and Workout Leggings
To understand the potential link between tight workout pants and yeast infections, McKenney first explains to Byrdie exactly what the medical condition is, an infection with Candida, a yeast species. “Yeast are single-celled organisms that are members of the fungus kingdom,” she says. For many women (some studies suggest around 10%), these yeast are an ordinary part of their microbiologic ' flora'—the organisms that live on their skin day in and day out in a commensal relationship.
However, she explains that candida thrives in a moist environment. “Candidal infection occurs most commonly in the genital region, sometimes with spread to groin/buttocks, in the mouth (thrush), esophagus (in people with suppressed immune systems), around the nipple during breastfeeding,” she says. Leggings sit close to the skin, holding more moisture in the vulvar region than looser clothing might—hence the belief that they can create the perfect environment for a yeast infection.
Do Tight Leggings Actually Cause Yeast Infections?
McKenny explains that there is no medical evidence supporting the claim that compression leggings can cause yeast infections, probably because “clothing is not usually thought of as a 'medical intervention' and it would be challenging to perform a randomized study of what people wear.” However, clothing has been assessed as a risk factor for yeast infections. “A recent study by Hamlin et al. found that wearing underwear without a cotton 'crotch' or gusset was associated with twice as many yeast infections compared to wearing cotton-gusset underwear,” she explains.
“Leggings are just a means of having the woman sweat more, and keep the sweat close by her vagina,” adds Minkin. And while the organisms that actually cause the yeast infection-the yeast themselves are part of a woman’s vaginal flora, “the warm, sweaty environment promotes their growth.”
How to Avoid Yeast Infections From Workout Leggings
While you don’t necessarily have to avoid non-synthetic workout wear, Minkin suggests you can wear white cotton underwear with them, as they are the least irritating and quick-drying fabric on the market. Alternatively, you can look for leggings made out of sweat-wicking fabrics—nylon, micro modal, polyester, and polypropylene included or newer, brand-specific moisture-wicking materials, like Nulux and Everlux from Lululemon and Velocitek and Pilayo from Athleta. And, you can also consider sticking with non-synthetic, all-cotton breathable workout wear.
But more important than the type of fabric is how long you wear your workout clothes. “Indeed, most gynecologists recommend getting out of sweaty workout clothes (or wet bathing suits, too, for that matter) to try to make the environment less friendly for yeast-change into something dry,” Minkin continues.
McKenny adds that chafing (irritation that comes from skin rubbing against the skin) and contact irritation from sweat, laundry detergents, fabric softeners, and soaps can also cause itchiness or irritation to the vulvar region that might mimic a yeast infection. She also suggests quickly changing out of your sweaty or wet exercise clothes, “and washing promptly after exercise, as well as using fragrance-free and dye-free detergents and soaps on the vulva and on clothing that might contact the genital region, are simple interventions that can reduce the likelihood of these itchy issues!”
There are other things you can do to generally promote a good vaginal flora-to minimize both bacterial and yeast infections, Minkin points out. “A product like ProB, which is an oral product which contains the ‘good guy’ lactobacilli of the vagina, will help promote a good lactobacillus environment, which keeps the vagina healthily acidic—yes, the acid in the vagina is good, not bad!” she says.
“Another way to directly acidify the vagina is to use a vaginal gel, available over the counter, called RepHresh (yes, you see the pH right in the name), which will help balance out the vaginal state to a more acidic one, and discourage an environment for bacterial and yeast infections.”
There is no scientific study linking compression leggings to yeast infections. However, since any tight, non-breathable fabric holding in sweat or moisture in the vaginal area offers a hospitable environment for Candida to thrive, there is definite potential. However, instead of avoiding compression leggings altogether, your best bet is simply changing out of them ASAP post-sweat session to avoid any potential infections or irritations—yeast infections included—down there.
Mayo Clinic. Yeast Infection (Vaginal).
Zeng X, Zhang Y, Zhang T, Xue Y, Xu H, An R. Risk Factors of Vulvovaginal Candidiasis among Women of Reproductive Age in Xi'an: A Cross-Sectional Study. Biomed Res Int. 2018;2018:9703754. doi:10.1155/2018/9703754