In the house I grew up in, we were not big fans of using correct language in regard to genitalia. For example, my mother and grandmother referred to vaginas as “the front of you.” This often came up in the context of the suggestion that I not wear underwear to sleep because it was important to air out “the front of you.”
At the time, in my childhood and adolescence, it seemed totally antiquated, especially given the euphemism that was being used to refer to my sexual organs and the fact that I did not feel like discussing them or what we were calling them with members of my family.
In my 30s, I’m thinking more and more about what I was told as a kid about what my relationship to my body should be, and particularly about whether or not what I was told about my body and women’s bodies in general was even true, including this thing about “airing out” my vagina. Am I the only one who was told this? Is it a myth? Does it have any basis in fact?
It seems that I am not in fact the only one with female relatives who believed that vaginas needed air.
“My grandmother always told me to sleep without underwear ‘to let everything air out down there.’ I always thought it was kind of weird,” E told me. In Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, a child is advised, “Don’t wear panties underneath your pajamas, dear; you need to air out your pussycat.” Euphemisms for female genitalia aside, it turns out that the question of going commando in the name of better health comes up a lot. So what’s the deal?
For starters, the vagina is a closed area. It can’t be “aired out.” If you’d be airing out anything by going pants-less at night, it would be the vulva. We know that the vulva and its environs are delicate; in order to prevent things like yeast infections, we need to maintain a balance of good bacteria. For example, staying away from douching is recommended because it can upset this balance.
“Changes in the vaginal environment, like prolonged exposure to dampness and sweat, saliva from oral sex, antibiotics killing the good bacteria and other fluids containing unhealthy microbes can tip the scales to make it more hospitable for yeast or unhealthy bacteria to flourish, leading to infections,” says Mary Sabo, an acupuncturist who specializes in women’s health and fertility. “Some women are more prone than others and need to take extra care to keep this area healthy.”
There’s no scientific evidence that sleeping in underwear has negative effects on your genital health or that not sleeping in it is particularly good. In general, you want to avoid keeping your vulvar region warm and moist for long periods of time, especially if you’re prone to yeast infections and other unpleasant situations.
Dr. Althea O’Shaughnessy, Vagisil’s Intimate Health GYN, suggests not lingering in exercise clothes, bathing suits, panty liners and sanitary pads since these can change the pH in the vulvar region and lead to issues like irritation and vaginitis.
Some experts recommend choosing cotton undergarments if you are going to sleep in something. ”Cotton is more breathable — that is, able to let air pass through it and wick moisture — than polyester and other artificial and more tightly woven materials,” says Dr. Carol Queen, the staff sexologist at Good Vibrations, a San Francisco sex store founded by women in 1977.
So the answer to the question of whether or not you should be airing out your lady parts at night? Keeping your genitals healthy is more complicated than simply “letting it breathe” and actually leans more toward paying attention to your body and not letting things below the belt stay sweaty and hectic for too long. In other words, your grandmother was right — sort of.