Many years ago, I was invited to be on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. Arriving at her studio, I was escorted down a hallway of closed doors, passed Charlie Sheen, and corralled into my very own “green room.” Once inside, I spied the show’s signature appearance gift – a pair of black men’s briefs sans a
working fly with “ellen” silk-screened several times across its waistband. They were made by Jockey in a thick 100% cotton knit. I still have them and adore them for sentimental reasons, but whenever I wear them, I’m reminded of the pros and cons of wearing cotton underwear
Widely Distributed Myths About Cotton Underwear
Haven’t we all heard at some point that underwear, especially underpants, made in 100% cotton are the best and healthiest choice? Anyone who’s had surgery has been told to arrive in 100% cotton underwear, only! Family members, manufacturers, and cotton associations have convinced us it’s “the fabric of our lives!” But is there any sound research to justify this? What is the origin of all this cotton underwear advice? I went looking.
My investigation found that many gynecologists recommend cotton underwear for women, but without any research reference to back it up. It was like their recommendation was forged in deduction rather than science. Cotton absorbs plus moisture “down there”, so put the two together and problem solved. I did find a small bit of research that concluded that women who wear synthetic underwear are no more likely to be colonized with yeast than women who make other underwear choices. But eventually, I came upon this rather witty summation on the subject by New York Times Expert and gynecologist, Dr. Jen Gunter, who wrote: “Medical mythology and societal lore wants you to think your vulva and vagina are delicate and pure and can only be swathed in virgin, white cotton… Your underwear can’t impact your vagina, which is inside your body.”
Having shared all this with you, it’s still true that cotton underwear, regardless of the reasons (or now, lack of reasons) is a great option for everyone, just not a mandatory one. To be cotton clad or not to be? That is your decision. But here are some cotton facts you should know. Not all cotton is the same, and there has been a dark cloud hovering over the many claims and classifications of cotton for some time now.
There Are Only Two Types of Cotton
When marketing cotton products, you’ve probably seen labeling like: Egyptian cotton, Pima cotton, Supima cotton, Giza cotton, or Ramie cotton. But the reality is, there are basically two cotton plant strands from which all cotton fabric is made. Almost 90% of all cotton produced around the world is called Upland cotton. The remaining 10% is cotton considered to be of higher quality due to it having longer fibers. This higher-quality cotton goes by many names: Egyptian cotton, Giza cotton, Pima cotton, Supima cotton, and a few others. While Upland cotton fibers are up to 1 1/8” long, this higher quality cotton can have fibers up to 1 1/2” to 2” long. Longer cotton fibers create a stronger, smoother, more luxurious-feeling fabric that is resistant to fraying, wrinkling, tearing, pilling, and fading. Therefore, this more desirable cotton commands a higher price. And this is the very reason for the wide-spread, deceptive labeling of cotton products.
Egyptian cotton has been classified as having extra-long fibers. However, any cotton that is grown in the country of Egypt is also called Egyptian cotton, even if it’s not grown from the extra-long fiber variety of cotton. A report by the Wall Street Journal found that about 90% of products labeled Egyptian cotton were actually made with an inferior cotton with shorter fibers. Also curious is the fact that this long-fiber Egyptian cotton is primarily grown in India, China and the USA. Egypt isn’t even in the top 10! True Egyptian cotton, however, will have longer and stronger fibers than Turkish cotton, which seems to be very popular in towels right now. No cotton item on our HerRoom site claims to be made with Egyptian cotton.
Pima Cotton, too, has its issues. Back in the 19th century, it was originally called American Egyptian Cotton to convey its high quality. In 1910, it was renamed Pima cotton by the USDA to honor the Native American Pima people who were further developing and growing it for the government. Pima cotton generally refers to all extra-long fiber cotton grown in the USA, Peru, Israel, and Australia. However, Bloomberg reported several years ago that most Pima cotton is mislabeled, citing a forensic science biotech company, Applied DNA Sciences, which discovered that 83% of tested products labeled as 100% Pima cotton were partially or entirely made of lesser cotton quality. This report had a huge impact. Consequently, manufacturers of products we sell on HerRoom and HisRoom, which claim to be made with Pima cotton, are in fact using the extra-long staple variety.
The one truly regulated, high-quality cotton brand is Supima cotton. Its brand is trademarked and controlled by a non-profit organization by the same name which was established in 1954. Only Supima cotton is guaranteed to be 100% American Pima and it must have an average fiber length of 1 7/16” or greater. Maintaining this high standard means Supima fabrics can be woven finer, are lighter in weight and are softer than their other cotton counterparts. Supima cotton also has a silkier, luxurious feel and luster so it can come in richer colors. Many of our cotton products use Supima cotton in their content.
Ramie is not cotton at all. Rather, ramie is a coarse fiber similar to linen, which is often blended with cotton. Blending ramie with cotton makes the fabric resistant to shrinkage, mildew, and insects. However, it easily wrinkles. Cotton fabrics blended with ramie also allows it to be more easily imported into the USA because this blend is not covered by quotas on imports of cotton fabrics into the USA.
The Pros & Cons of 100% Cotton
100% cotton fabric is 100% natural, so it offers numerous benefits. First, it is soft and comfortable to wear. Cotton also breathes because the fibers that make up cotton fabric are not very dense. This allows air to pass through it. Cotton can stretch if needed during activities. It’s absorbent, so it helps control moisture. And, cotton is naturally hypoallergenic and easy to clean, so it is a great product to use when trying to control allergic reactions.
There are also some downsides to garments made with 100% cotton. One is that it does not hold dyes well, so it tends to lose its color gradually with each washing. Thus, the colors fade. Of course, this fading can be significantly reduced if you make sure to wash in cold rather than hot water. And hot water not only increases the fading problem but also leads to another cotton disadvantage: shrinkage. Why do most cotton products shrink in hot washers and dryers? Because the cotton threads had tension built into them when they were being spun. Heat of any kind (water, dryer, steam, and even excessive sunlight) releases this tension, causing the cotton fibers to relax back to their natural size, which is shorter. Washing in cold water and drying by line or laying down flat prevents shrinkage, but can lead to other issues. Cotton is extremely absorbent but super slow to dry. Left damp, it will be attacked by mildew. Removing mildew requires bleach, which in turn also fades the color. Finally, cotton does not hold its shape. Think about your jeans and how they need to be washed after a wearing or two because they’ve become stretched out. Cotton can also quickly burn. The good news, however, is that all these disadvantages can be overcome if cotton is blended with other fabric fibers.
I know a cotton blend just feels and sounds cheaper, and it usually is. But there have been exciting strides made in man-made fibers that, when combined with cotton, bring a lot of benefits. Blending just 2-3% elastane with cotton gives the fabric memory to stretch, but return to its original shape. I will only buy jeans and cotton blouses now that have a touch of spandex. Their increased comfort, wearability, and less need to be ironed is simply amazing. The most common blend with cotton is polyester because it increases durability, wrinkles less, dries faster, and can be machine washed. Having some polyester included lets your cotton be exposed to heat without shrinking or fading. And some argue that a cotton/poly blend is more environmentally-friendly because cotton requires a lot of water to grow. The most comfortable cotton/polyester blend ratios will be those with a higher proportion of cotton.
Modal: The Un-Cotton
I must make a short point about modal since it has pretty much revolutionized the underwear industry. Modal’s advantages are that it’s softer than cotton because its fibers are thinner. It’s also lightweight, feels silky, stretches, and is breathable. It does not shrink, wrinkle, or pill. Modal is technically a type of rayon, but It’s also considered a semi-synthetic because its fibers come from beechwood trees that have been run through an environmentally-friendly chemical process. Growing beechwood and producing modal through this process takes far less water than cotton. Modal can stand alone or be combined with cotton and spandex to create amazingly comfortable undergarments. So, undergarments made either of 100% modal or with a modal blend are highly popular and beloved.
Filtering for Cotton at HerRoom and HisRoom
My sites help you make cotton selections two ways. In our “features” filter, we have two boxes you can check: “cotton” and “cotton – 100%”. Checking the “cotton” box filters your results to include any garment with any amount of cotton in its contents. Checking the “cotton – 100%” box filters your results to just that – products that are 100% cotton. To find Pima and Supima cotton products, you would search on those terms in our search window.
A Final Thought…
So back to my Ellen underpants. They’re still super comfortable and fun to wear. But, being black, they have faded. The backside has become baggy and the leg holes have stretched out. I thought of getting more, but alas, Jockey has abandoned this specific style. So, no, you’ll never see me wearing them. But know, that on some evenings, I slip into a pair of white ankle socks and an old dress shirt of my Dad’s. Grabbing a candlestick from my mantle, I crank up Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock N Roll and slide into my entry hall to work on my Risky Business dance moves… let’s keep this between us girls.
Tomima Founder & CEO