​Today Is The Day We Will Talk About Your Dirty UnderpantsS

Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She'll be here every other week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Email her.

I consider myself a clean person, in fact my husband would say I veer on the neurotic side … however I need to ask an embarrassing cleaning question: How do I deal with lady discharge stains in undies? I'm not talking about blood, I mean just normal everyday discharge.

I know I can't be the only one who has this problem, I change my underwear every day, I'm a clean person, and I've given up on black undies due to some weird bleaching (God this is awful!) and have settled on white cotton (except for sexier stuff that doesn't stay on long enough to be affected), but I still have discoloration which is nasty even after washing with OxiClean. Should I bleach? Should I use vinegar? Should I buy dune-colored undies because there's nothing I can do about it? Should I go and live in a cave somewhere where no one can be contaminated!?!

So I have a "gross" question and even if you can answer it via email I'll be satisfied. (And be spared the comments-judgment the skidmark question got, I don't know.)

Discharge crust in panties, especially thongs.

I pretreat especially bad cases with a stain treater before washing them (and my stain remover stuff is effective on period blood, so it's pretty damn effective) and throw them in the washer on cold, and about half of them come out with little white crusts that I have no intentions of picking off (I'll just toss the thing and wait for the next 7/$26).

I have Googled laundry measures and while the entire internet hastens to inform me that "vaginal discharge is perfectly normal" (thanks, I know), no one seems to be able to point me to any kind of tutorial on how to save my underwear from white crustiness. Some suggest wearing black underwear, which I feel like shows a complete lack of understanding of the problem.

So if you can help with this, I'd be eternally grateful!

Here's a gross question for you. (Sorry.) Any suggestions on how to clean discharge off one's undergarments? Not menstrual blood, but the white-ish, goopy stuff one gets toward the middle of the month or the fluid one secretes when aroused. No matter how much OxiClean and hot water I use, I cannot get its remnants (or are they stains?) off the gusset, and I'm sick of having to either dispose of underwear or be squicked when I pull a "clean" pair out of the drawer. Your advice will be appreciated!

It's unusual for me to run three such similar questions, but I wanted to drive home two things: (1) This is a very common thing to have happen! (2) People feel really embarrassed about it!

So look, I know that I can't make you feel not embarrassed about discharge buildup, but I sure wish I could. Because discharge is actually a thing we should totally celebrate—it's a function of the vagina's self-cleaning mechanism and we should be leaping about with great pride crowing about the magic our vaginas can do! "Pardon me, Bob, but does your wang have a self-cleaning function? No? I THOUGHT NOT!" [WAVES VAGINA WAND]

Speaking of that self-cleaning function, we should ring the Health Class 101 bell! This'll be fast and done in broad strokes, because this is a cleaning column and I think we can all agree that after sitting through Sex Ed as teenagers, we needn't spend a lot of time revisiting that experience. With that, here's the quick discharge rundown: Vaginal discharge is a mucous that contains protein, acids (amino and otherwise) and carbohydrates.

It's the acid levels that cause the "bleaching" effect noted by one of our LWs. Your vaginal discharge can have a pH level of anywhere between 3.5 and 8 (7 being neutral, or base)—and it will vary depending on your cycle, how much bang-bang you're having, where you are in your monthly cycle and on the makeup of your hoo-ha. A "healthy" pH level falls in the lower, or more acidic, end of that range.

Generally, in the days immediately after your period ends, your discharge will be on the whiter side of things, while around the time of ovulation that discharge will turn clearer—but it will likely also get heavier. Just like with pH levels, this can vary quite dramatically from ladypart to ladypart.

With that out of the way, here are some ways you can cut down on staining caused by discharge and tricks for treating undies that have already been marred.

  • Enzymatic Sprays

    Because mucus falls into the protein stain category, enzymatic stain treatments are what you want to reach for. These are the OxiCleans, the Resolves, the Zouts of the world. The thing you'll want to know here is that the enzymes need a little time to break the proteins down, so just adding a little powdered Oxi to the wash won't do much—you'll want to treat the soiled areas directly.

    For this purpose, a spray is your best bet and if you can add it to your routine, it's ideal to spritz those panties down when you take them off, just before putting them in the hamper. (If you're putting your dirty underwear on the floor just be a doll and don't tell me. Ignorance being the bliss that it is and all.) For ease of access, tuck the bottle of spray stain treatment right next to the laundry bin.

    If you've got a couple of pairs that have developed crusties, go ahead and soak them in warm or hot water with some of your enzymatic product, maybe for an hour or two, and then go in with a soft bristled toothbrush and gently slough the discharge off. The soaking combined with allowing the enzymes to do their thing for an extended period of time should have loosened up the dried-on mucus and the toothbrush will help to set it free.
  • Rinse Panties After Wear

    The thing about mucus is that once it dries, the stuff is like concrete. Which is why all of these gals are reporting the appearance of a residual crust-like substance even after washing. So one way to approach discharge removal is to get it while it's still moist. (That was, I believe, the most horrifying sentence I've ever written. My sincerest apologies to the crowd who cannot handle the word 'moist'.) A quick rinse will go a long way in eliminating the discharge before it can fully adhere itself to the fabric.

    So! If you take your underwear off at night, rinse them in the sink, wring out very, very well, and then air dry or just toss them in hamper. If you take your underwear off in the morning, take a page from our bra washing tips and bring them into the shower with you for a rinse! Or do the sink thing, whatever's easiest for you.
  • Panty Liners

    Remember panty liners? Do you know that they make thong panty liners now? They do! Or you could make your own because our DIY culture knows no bounds. Unscented panty liners are a great protection option for folks who have heavy or acidic discharge (unscented is recommended, because the perfuming used on pads and liners can cause vaginal irritation and I think we can all agree that none of us wants an irritated vagina). Also: Talk to us about your thoughts on/use of panty liners. I feel like somewhere along the way I dismissed panty liners, and then rediscovered them, and I have no idea why or how either of those things happened and right, I just want to chit chat a little bit. Sometimes it's lonely here with just a feather duster for company.
  • Track Your Cycle

    If the idea of wearing a panty liner every day strikes you as a bit much cost-wise or landfill-wise or just it's-one-more-thing-to-remember-in-the-morning-wise you could certainly start tracking your menstrual cycle, making note of the days on which your discharge tends to be at its heaviest/gloppiest.

    Of course if you fall into the one-more-thing-to-remember group when it comes to panty liners, adding tracking to your daily routine probably won't be for you. Tracking is kind of a pain. It seems like it shouldn't be! And yet.

Okay then! I'm going to go have a stiff drink now and try not to think about the number of times I just wrote the word 'discharge'.

I was just putting my underwear away, when my husband pointed out that I have had many of them since we met. We've been together almost seven years. He said I should throw them out, because that's gross. (I didn't tell him that I have actually had many of them from college. I'm 30.)

Should I? I mean, nothing's wrong with them. They look to be in decent shape and still function fine—ones that don't fit that criteria get trashed. Is there anything inherently "dirty" about this?

From a functional and cleanliness standpoint, no, there's nothing inherently dirty about wearing a pair of underwear for years providing it is, as you said, in decent shape and isn't carrying around a lingering odor. In that regard, your undies are virtually no different from a t-shirt, or a pair of pajama bottoms, or those darling blue and red polka dotted socks you love so much.

And actually, as long as they're clean, there's nothing inherently dirty about wearing a set of 'pants that have a tiny hole at the hip, or a shot elastic waistband, or some discoloration. That doesn't necessarily mean you should keep wearing underwear with holes, or shot elastic waistbands, or that is faded or stained, but it also doesn't make you, like, a filthy beast if you do wear underwear with holes, or shot elastic waistbands, or that is faded or stained. My personal philosophy is that life is too short to wear uncomfortable unders, but if you don't mind hitching your drawers up all the livelong day, by all means keep wearing that favorite pair of Hello Kitty briefs with the blown out elastic. It's not my tush!

Getting back to that notion of what's inherently dirty—it should be noted that inherently dirty is different from psychologically dirty, and people sometimes can't get past a feeling that they have, even if they rationally know that the feeling isn't rooted in reality. Which is to say that on some level, I absolutely understand your husband's reaction to your olden underthings, and I suspect others will share his response, even though I don't agree with his assessment from a Clean Person or Rational Person standpoint.

I'll leave you with the rule of thumb I use when executing an underwear drawer purge, with a firm reminder that this is my rule of thumb. It need not be yours! It is also not the rule of law. No one should get up in arms over this, because what choices you make vis-a-vis your panties is entirely up to you. With, I suppose, input from your partner? Or not. I dunno. I'll stop hedging now and just tell you about my rule of thumb: If a pair of unders are uncomfortable or I'd be embarrassed if someone else saw them, they get pitched.

Okay, your turn now! What are your underpant disposal rituals? How old is your oldest pair?? How much do you love or hate that Liz Phair song about the underwear???

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Jolie Kerr is the author of the upcoming book My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag … And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha (Plume, February 25, 2014); more cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found on Twitter, Kinja, and Tumblr.

Squalor appears on Jezebel and Deadspin on alternating weeks.


Image by Jim Cooke, source image via Shutterstock.