It seems that allergies are all around us these days but is it really possible to be allergic to your underwear? We take a look at whether underwear really can cause allergies and whether allergy-free options can be the answer.
Is it possible to be allergic to your underwear?
I’m itching, have a rash, hives, swelling in my intimate area or am just plain uncomfortable. Is it my underwear?
While not the most common type of allergy, underwear allergies do exist. Common reasons include allergies to synthetic materials, elastic or nickel, and the dyes and chemicals used in processing, finishing and washing many fabrics.
Allergies to synthetic materials
Synthetic materials such as polyester, nylon, and lycra/elastane are highly processed fabrics made from chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and carbon disulphide, taken from petrochemicals oil, coal and gas.
An allergic response to synthetic fabrics like these is a form of “textile contact dermatitis” which affects up to 20% of people.
Can I be allergic to the elastic or elastane in my underwear?
As well as an allergy to polyester, some people are allergic to elastic. This is commonly found in the waistband of underwear, or in the leg openings. Elastic can be made of latex, rubber or a combination of synthetic materials.
Latex allergy symptoms include coughing, sneezing, a runny nose and itchy throat and eyes, almost like a bad case of hay fever. In very severe cases it can cause difficulty breathing and anaphylaxis, however this is rare.
Not to be confused with elastic, elastane (or lycra or spandex) also contains synthetic materials, specifically polyurethane, which can also cause skin irritations, and has even been known to be carcinogenic.
Allergies to chemicals and dyes
In addition to synthetic materials, many other fabrics, even natural ones such as cotton, are highly processed with often toxic chemicals. Chemicals can be used for a host of reasons on fabrics such as:
- to make them colourfast
- to make them wrinkle, fire, water or stain proof
- to make them softer, and even:
- to preserve them against mold and damp while in transit!
Examples of chemicals used in underwear
One example is formaldehyde resin, a chemical used to make dyes hold and also to make clothes wrinkle-free. This has been known to cause allergic contact dermatitis among other things. Symptoms include rashes, dry and itchy skin and even blisters.
Thiuram is another chemical that can commonly trigger allergies. This is often found in rubber and neoprene so can be hidden in underwear.
Allergy to nickel
Apart from the fabric of our underwear, nickel is an allergen that is often used in bra hooks and fastenings. Much like the allergens above, symptoms can include redness, rashes and swelling.
Other causes of allergic symptoms in sensitive areas
Apart from the underwear itself, the laundry detergent or fabric softeners and conditioners that you use can cause irritant dermatitis. This is a type of dermatitis brought on immediately by certain chemicals. Scented laundry detergents are particularly bad so look out for perfume-free varieties that are much better for sensitive skin.
Poor hygiene can also cause some of the symptoms mentioned here. Make sure you are washing regularly, preferably with mild soaps or gels, or even just water alone.
What is textile dermatitis and what does it look like?
Textile contact dermatitis or clothing dermatitis is caused by the skin being brought into contact with certain fabrics, latex, rubber or nickel among other things. It takes longer to manifest than irritant dermatitis and symptoms include skin problems like an itchy rash, redness or blisters and bumps.
Textile dermatitis is different from atopic dermatitis, otherwise known as eczema.
How do I know if I’m allergic to my underwear?
If you are experiencing the symptoms of an allergic reaction, it can be hard to know exactly what caused it. This is especially the case for contact dermatitis which can take time to show up.
A good first step is to see your healthcare provider who can do an allergy test. While the test for latex is a skin prick test, patch testing can be done for a host of other allergies such as nickel or polyester.
Why does my underwear irritate my skin?
Sensitive skin may be more prone to these allergies and skin conditions and it affects more people than you may think.
A report published by Frontiers in Medicine analysed various surveys and found that 60-70% of women and 50-60% of men have some kind of sensitive skin.
Women can also be more prone to sensitive skin around the time of menopause, even if they’ve never suffered from it before. The types of materials used for underwear and how it has been processed can become particularly important at this time.
How do I stop my underwear from irritating me?
Having got this far you may think that it’s impossible to avoid underwear allergies if you have any type of sensitive skin. Thankfully that’s not the case!
Looking out for natural and organic fibres treated with low-impact or natural dyes is a good idea. This will help you to avoid many of the problems associated with highly treated fabrics such as polyester, nylon or even conventional cotton.
Not only are these fabrics more breathable but organic fabrics, such as organic cotton, will not have been treated with some of the highly toxic chemicals mentioned here. Organic cotton also beats conventional cotton hands down by simply not relying on the copious amounts of insecticides and pesticides that conventional cotton does.
Where can I find allergy-free underwear?
Luckily for allergy sufferers, there is now one underwear brand catering specifically to them. Fair trade and eco friendly brand Julie May Lingerie is the only brand certified by Allergy UK to be suitable for people with “allergic reactions to synthetic fibres and sensitive skins”.
Allergy-free, anti-bacterial and odour-resistant, Julie May uses GOTS-accredited organic pima cotton and ethically sourced peace silk to hand-make its comfortable yet sexy lingerie pieces. Pima cotton has extra long luxurious fibres so is softer and smoother to the touch. Perfect for those sensitive intimate areas.
And to avoid the itchy label effect, they don’t use them, printing the information directly on the underwear instead!
Their underwear and sleepwear is completely free from nasty chemicals, nickel and latex and has no exposed elastic. A host of awards back up their claims including the London & South East Prestige Awards naming them Best Lingerie Brand of the Year in 2022.
They give back too, supporting various initiatives such as the Eden Reforestation Projects. So you know your money will be supporting a good cause when you buy from this ethical brand.
Bag yourself one of their most popular designs such as:
A comfortable and toxic free future
Whether you’ve always had sensitive skin or whether menopause has suddenly brought it on, you don’t need to suffer with uncomfortable and irritating underwear. Brands like Julie May are showing that nasty chemicals and toxins in our clothes can be a thing of the past. And the sooner the better.
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