Back in 2009, you couldn’t read a fashion magazine or blog without seeing the phrase “leggings are not pants.” I once believed this, taking a stance that leggings were meant just for working out or for wearing under tunics with a big belt. One, LOL. Two, in recent years I have seen the light, and the majority of my wardrobe is comprised of leggings and other athleisure essentials. But with the prominence of athleisure comes a tricky question: when it comes to workout clothes vs. loungewear, how do you know which is which?

It’s like that thing you learned in math class about how a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not a square. Basically, you can wear your workout clothes to lounge in, but you probably shouldn’t wear loungewear for working out. So how can you tell the difference between workout clothes vs. loungewear? I asked industry pros Eleanor Haycock, founder of Year of Ours, and Dan Harris, co-founder of Alo.  

Essentially, it all comes down to fabric composition. “That will always be the dead giveaway,” says Haycock, who helped develop fabrics and do full-package fabric and garment production before starting her own company. If something is made of cotton, it’s definitely not for working out. “Cotton is super breathable and soft (great for lounging), yet absorbs sweat and moisture, so the leggings will take forever to dry after class. Cotton often pills after several washes or even from a rough workout bench,” she adds. 

On the other hand: “Performance fabrics are usually synthetic, which allows for sweat-wicking, and quick-drying; they can handle tons of washing without ripping or pilling too,” Haycock says. And Harris agrees. He believes the best fabrics for working out should tick the following four boxes: sculpt, wick away sweat, dry fast, and move with you. “If the right level of quality isn’t there, activewear won’t support your practice and will be baggy, soggy, and lose its shape after practice or any other workout,” he says.

Harris also recommends looking at the details on your clothing. “If straps or hardware are in the wrong place, they won’t perform as well and may even chafe or be too uncomfortable to work out in,” he adds. 

Basically, if it’s a performance fabric, it’s designed to work out in. Whether you deem it comfy enough to lounge in, too, is up to you. 

Below, shop 5 activewear items that feel like loungewear but are definitely made for working out.

Beyond Yoga Spacedye Team Pockets Bike Shorts — $72.00

Beyond Yoga’s spacedye fabric is incredibly soft, a little compressive, and so comfy. This biker short is made from that fabric and it has pockets—IMHO these are just as comfortable to lounge in as they are to work out in. They’re available in sizes XXS-3X.

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Italic Aura High Waisted Leggings — $30.00

Made with quick-drying, anti-microbial, four-way stretch fabric, these leggings are comparable quality to ones that cost three times as much. The wide, high waistband has a pocket in the back that’s big enough to hold an iPhone, and they’re available in seven colors, from neutrals to brights.

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Year of Ours Ribbed Football Leggings — $114.00

Year of Ours’ football leggings have consistently ranked among my top leggings for years, and this iteration in a soft, ribbed fabric is about to be my new go-to for workouts and hangouts. In addition to black, they are available in heather gray and bone.

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