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Sixteen million bras are purchased every year, and yet an estimated 80% of us are wearing the wrong size bra! I’ve covered some of the pitfalls of the modern bra in this post, but today I want to discuss how to find the healthiest bra, and also consider the position of whether bras are healthy at all.
The answer depends on several factors, some of which may surprise you!
Why Do Women Wear Bras?
First it was the corset, then came the girdle, and finally the modern-day brassiere. Over the centuries, fashion has changed and the desired shape of breasts has changed with it. These special undergarments offer modesty, support during activity, and the enhancement of the female form.
Women today basically wear bras for the same reasons. They keep the girls perky and provide support, especially during more intense physical activity. Fashion has evolved, so special bras are necessary for different outfits.
Benefits of Going Bra-Free
Even though most of us wear one, research is showing that the 1970s may have been onto something with their bra burnings! There’s a surprisingly controversial link between bras and breast cancer. Several studies show that sleeping in a bra, underwire, or tightly fitting bras suppress lymphatic flow and may contribute to lymph stasis. This is when the lymphatic system can’t drain properly because of breast restriction. Some research show improper lymph flow may contribute to breast cancer.
There are easy ways to support lymphatic health at home, but we women can’t ignore that wearing a better bra (or no bra at all) could be one of them!
Built-in Breast Support
During puberty, the breasts and surrounding chest tissue are developing. Ligaments in the breast tissue, called Cooper’s ligaments are thin tissues that weave through the breast and attach to the chest to support the breast.
Over time, these ligaments naturally stretch and may cause the appearance of droopy breasts. Some believe that muscle atrophy also plays a part.
According to our medical reviewer, Dr. Greenleaf:
Droopy breasts are not necessarily from muscle atrophy. Though it is true that muscle can cause a lifted appearance, droopy breast occur naturally over time due to stretching of the Cooper’s Ligaments and because as we age our breast tissue diminishes and is replaced with fat which doesn’t fill out the breast as much. In addition, if you get muscle atrophy of the chest, pectoral muscles all you need to do is start working out to regain those muscles back.
In other words, chest exercises might not always be the answer, but they certainly don’t hurt.
The evidence seems to suggest that going braless is the best option, if possible. However, for those who aren’t comfortable going braless in public, or who feel more comfortable with some support, this isn’t the best option.
Buying a healthy bra that allows the best lymphatic flow possible minimizes the potential damage caused by the contraption, while still providing the needed perks.
The Healthiest Bra Materials
Bras vary widely from sexy, lacy pushup models, to plain Jane cotton white. A few guidelines to follow when choosing a bra:
- Choose a bra made with breathable (and preferably organic) fabric.
- Organic cotton and bamboo are good choices.
- Watch out for latex straps or nickel closures, which can be irritating to those who are sensitive to these materials.
A breathable fabric wicks away moisture to keep the chest area cool and comfortable. Our bodies eliminate toxins in sweat, so trapping that all inside a sweaty bra isn’t just uncomfortable, but unhealthy. Some have even postulated that tight undergarments may be a contributing factor to cancer as it inhibits the body’s natural cooling mechanism.
One case study of a 34-year-old woman found that her Mondor’s disease was most likely caused by her constricting bra. This rare disease is when a vein just under the breast tissue or chest becomes inflamed. Medical professionals suspected that tight-fitting bras and girdles are the primary culprit.
Ditch the Underwire… Maybe
As I mentioned earlier, several studies have shown and some experts agree that the metal underwire in our bras could be contributing to breast health problems. On the other side, there are those who adamantly disagree with this evidence, most notably the Komen foundation and the American Cancer Society.
I’ve opted for a bra without underwire just in case the evidence is true, and I’m more comfortable without it anyway. Tight or cheap underwire digging into the chest can also cause skin irritation, shoulder and neck tension, and even headaches.
A regular underwire bra isn’t designed to work without the added support, so simply removing the wire from the bra can create an ill-fitting result. There are plenty of bras designed to hold shape without plastic or metal running through the bottom.
The Perfect-Fitting Bra
A shocking number of women are going around in poorly fitting bras. This can be due to a number of reasons, but isn’t too hard to remedy. Here are some tips to keep in mind when fitting a bra:
- The band on the bra should be comfortably snug, but not restricting. If it’s sliding around, then a tighter band is needed.
- If the band is leaving red marks or the skin is bulging, it’s too tight.
- The breasts shouldn’t be bulging out of the cups on the sides or top.
- Neither should the bra look wrinkly or puckered, meaning it’s too large.
- For those having trouble finding the perfect bra, a fitting with a professional can be helpful.
Another note: Heavily padded bras, like pushup bras, or even T-shirt bras push the breasts into a more pleasing shape. However, this artificial manipulation of the breast tissue isn’t necessarily healthy. The sexy, lacy, push-up bra in the store probably won’t be the one that’s healthiest. A comfortable, healthy bra can be worth giving up some frills for.
Consider Your Stage in Life
Pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause are times of hormonal change when the breasts fluctuate in size. A bra that has flexible, stretchy fabric helps to accommodate these often rapid changes. It will also allow freedom and movement of the breast tissue for healthy lymphatic flow and detox.
Unlike our circulatory system where the heart is the pump, the lymphatic system relies on physical movement to flow properly. So a little bounce in the bra is actually a good thing! Dry brushing is another great way to stimulate lymphatic flow.
The Healthiest Bra for Activity
Those involved in jostling sports, like running or horseback riding, are typically more comfortable with firmer support. The fabric should still be breathable and somewhat flexible though. In one study of 23 larger-sized women, they found that those running in sports bras with a wide, vertical strap stayed more comfortable than their cross-backed counterparts. However, in a similar study of smaller breasted women, the vertical shoulder straps were more likely to slide down and they were more comfortable with cross straps.
Factoring in Body Size
Those with a larger cup size tend to be more comfortable with wider straps and wider closures. This helps reduce the weight on the back, shoulders, and neck, which could negatively affect the spine, not to mentioning back pain or strained neck muscles.
One study of post-menopausal women found that those who had larger breasts and body sizes tended to have more mid-back pain.
Even if the back isn’t triggered enough to cause pain, it doesn’t mean that the body isn’t under damaging stress that still causes spinal subluxations. Subluxations compress the nerves that lead to all the body’s systems, impeding their function.
An ill-fitting bra can sometimes cause these issues for women with smaller cup sizes, too.
Concluding Thoughts on Bra Health
Going braless, or at least taking it off whenever possible (like in the evening or at night), is the healthiest option for many women. However, for those who still want or need a bra for various reasons, there are healthier options out there. A proper fitting bra with flexible, breathable, natural materials is a must.
Unfortunately, I haven’t found a lot of bras that fit the bill, and I certainly hope more companies start to consider breast health when making them.
- I’ve worn the Coobie bra for years as a comfortable and supportive wireless option, but it isn’t natural material or organic.
- Companies like Pact and Organic Basics have some great choices and there are more companies following suit.
If you know of a great healthy bra option, I’d love to hear about it!
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Betsy Greenleaf, the first board-certified female urogynecologist in the United States. She is double board-certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology, as well as Female Pelvic Medicine and Reconstructive Surgery. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Which bras have you tried? Do you have a favorite, or are you a fan of going au natural?
Discussion (56 Comments)
I just ordered a bra called Shefit which is designed for support for the most vigorous of activities. The most comfortable well made bra I have ever owned. Very smartly made and you do not bounce. I am a trail runner and it’s been challenging finding a sports bra that actually holds everything in place , comfortably and stylishly I might add. Made in America too.
Oh, how I dislike bras! I do wear them out in public but not around home. Thanks to your article, I selected a Coobie bra, a Warner Easy Does It, and 3 Fruit of the Loom sports bras – all on Amazon. Hope at least a couple of them work out!
I wish going bra free was deemed more acceptable. I don’t mind going without one in public, but if I try to do so at work, I get complaints and am forced to wear one. I hate wearing one because it’s so difficult to find one that fits even decently and isn’t extremely expensive. The few times I’ve found one that fits well, its fit goes away pretty fast as its washed. Even the most comfortable bras I’ve found don’t stay that way for the 8+ hours I’m at work.
I find it outright amazing how many bra manufacturers assume that women with large breasts also must be large in every other way. It’s impossible to find anything for above a D cup in a band size below 38 in the vast majority of stores. Even 38 is a rarity, most of it is 40+. On top of that if you have above a C cup, good luck finding something without wires, and I hate wires. On top of that, the sizes aren’t truly standardized (they are more so than for pants, but there are definitely variances), so special ordering is a shot in the dark if you can’t try it on before doing so.
I just find it amazing how in general fitting for women’s clothing is terrible, but women are the ones who actually desire a variety of nice clothes more. Trying to find things that fit has made me lose all the pleasure I used to find in shopping for clothes and I just go to the men’s department and grab pants in my size and miracle of all miracles, they always fit no matter the brand. Why can’t women’s clothing be this way? Why is it that I always have to try everything on and try a variety of sizes for every item because in one brand one size works, and in another brand that size is too small or too big. It’s so frustrating and in something like bras where the fit being perfect is so essential it’s even more so.
I hear ya! Because of multiple kiddos and breastfeeding I’m a 32j… in order to buy anything in a 32j you’re spending atleast $50-$75 and then that’s for unnatural unflattering and wired.. I’ve tried going mostly au natural and the biggest problems I face is that I’m constantly leaking (babies) it’s a frustrating problem!
Another big irritant for me is the women’s sections absolute lack of all modesty.. if you want to dress nice but want modesty there aren’t very many options unless you’re heavyset, and even then the clothing is becoming more and more risqué.
I wear a triple D or H cup. These are impossible to find and not offered by any of the companies recommended. What options are there for us larger sizes that do prefer to wear one?
I’m in the same boat. Currently breastfeeding and a 34J. I laugh at the suggestion of going braless or ethically made. Just getting anything that fits is challenging and very expensive at this size. What are you using as a nighttime nursing bra? I can’t go braless at night because I leak.
I like the Jane Plus Cup Organic Cotton Bra from Rawganique. They stretch out a bit with use but washing them shrinks them up again. I’ve used them for years. Love them!
I am also breastfeeding (pretty much for the majority of the last 8 years, current baby is just about a year old). I can’t wear bras or I always end up with clogged ducts and mastitis. How old is your baby? I personally have found that after the first couple months, I don’t leak anymore unless it’s just longer than normal between feedings. But I know everyone is different! In the colder months, it’s easier to just wear a tank top and a button up flannel and that doesn’t seem to draw any attention when going out. It’s harder to go bra-free in the warmer months. So frustrating, our society and the views on bras. LOL. I wish it were an easier answer.
I did get mostly cotton bra that works well with most of my shirt styles from soul-flower.com. But again like someone else mentioned, if I am wearing it too long, it is no longer comfortable!
Stephie N – i know exactly what you mean only I have just the opposite delimma: I’m small busted with a muscular build and they must figure if you’re small busted you’re a petite little thing.
Solution? I don’t wear a bra anymore and haven’t for years. That’s a little easier to pull off with being small busted but my sister is very large busted and doesn’t wear a bra either.
I’m also a professional gardener and can easily dress for modesty at work (love wearing bibs and jumpers for many reasons besides going braless modesty!).
I found a sponge type cup that fits over the breast and held in place by (your) form fitting tank that works really well for shape and modesty of your smaller than a D cup.
Unfortunately I can’t remember the name of them nor find them doing a search however even those bugged me and are anything but natural!
I’m a 32F cup and I wear very minimal bras for my everyday activity and for hiking/snowshoeing/yoga/running/etc. I would have laughed at people who suggested this was possible and used to buy the specialty underwrite bras and sports bras for large-busts. I had to work my way down from underwire, to supportive non-underwire, to bralettes. And it is SO worth it! I used to be unable to walk down the stairs without wearing a bra or physically holding up my breasts because the jostling would hurt so much. Now it’s not a problem at all! For women who mentioned that certain bras were wonderful because they prevented bounce, please think about what you’re saying!
Bounce and movement is what helps your breasts develop the strength to support themselves! And allows for more lymph drainage! As someone with fibrocystic breast tissue, this movement has been a wonderful thing–I get a lot fewer lumps than I did wearing underwire bras. My breasts also don’t swell as much before my periods and aren’t as tender.
I also have two herniated disks in my neck (C5/C6) and wearing a bra with very skinny straps that removes pressure from the shoulders has hugely helped prevent flares.
Please think about turning what you were always told about bras and support on its head and going minimal. Just remember that most of us have been wearing bras for years (I got my first training bra at 10) and that you’ll have to go slow if there’s a lot of breast weight for your connective tissues to support. I really wish going braless was more acceptable for larger busted women. But I work as a teacher and it just isn’t professional. I also wear a lot scarves to minimize my bust and ensure that no cleavage shows when I bend over to help a student with a problem.
My favorite bras are wool (no smell even after working out). Specifically, I like Icebreaker Siren Bra. They last forever and encourage good posture so you don’t fall out… Haha
Thanks for this blog, Wellness Mama! I’ve been reading since at least 2012!
For those with larger breasts there’s a new bra company called Behave bras that makes a beautiful lace wireless bra specifically for larger breasts. Its a woman owned start up company. The owner also does free virtual fittings and is really passionate about getting women into the correct bra size.
Hello Katie and thank you for this article. I am a personal trainer and a power lifter. I am in tight fitting sports bras every day of the week for most of the day. Most of the time I am very hot and sweaty around my breast area. I do change my clothes, however my gym is not air conditioned and it’s in Hawaii, so there’s heat and humidity. This article is alarming to me. I’m curious if anyone has any leads on sports bras that offer support and wicking material. I tend use only use the Nike classic style.
Alicia commented above about a Merino wool bra! That would do wonders for wicking, and they have some really cool sports bras. The brand is IceBreakers. I’m always super impressed by wool – so it caught my attention :).
I second the merino wool bra 100% for all conditions (hot and cold); they wick are are less gross than other poly materials. I also like the brand Ibex, I have a few of both Ice Breaker and Ibex. Both bralettes and sports bras; they are the only thing I wear.
Interesting that the two bras with links that you recommend are NOT organic, nor are they either cotton or bamboo. You should at least try to give examples with links to the most important factors in your post. I did a search once on Amazon, and they DO have organic cotton, with some of the factors listed here in this post. I have ordered two different ones, both from Majamas. I am older, with gravity issues, and large breasts and am a bit overweight, making it important for me to find something with a bit of space and a larger girth. I may come back with a review once I get these and let you know how they fit. Right now, and for the past few years, I have only worn ‘sports’ type bras due to reading about underwires helping to cause cancer. Unfortunately, I thought they only came in spandex, nylon and ‘nasty’ material. I read a magazine article about ‘yoga’ clothing causing health issues due to the material and tightness. I was pleased to find at least bras in organic cotton. I have been wearing leggings for the past few years due to comfort and ease (and, again, a “bit” of weight gain!) but am a bit concerned about the health issues of wearing tight fitting nylon. There are organic bamboo options, but those are expensive and bland (black only), and I have been wearing fun patterns that make me feel good. Just like the leggings, these types of bras only come in neutral colors, white, black and usually beige, which, being bras is ok, but I have been wearing sports bras that match my colored tops.
Carol, which two are you referencing? These two companies that Katie mentions and links to both have bras that are 95% organic cotton. (“Companies like Pact and Organic Basics have some great choices and there are more companies following suit.”)
I do love and wear the Coobie bra which fits most of my requirements.
If you need something on the more supportive side without underwire, look for a wide bottom band and wide shoulder straps similar to this style.
Neither the Coobie bra nor the Bali bra are organic. These two were specifically mentioned, with links as shown. (although it appears that the last paragraph, copied just above beginning “if you need something on the more supportive side…” was deleted from this page.)
Such an excellent conversation and the reason I starting making my own bras several years ago. The patterns I use are BravoBella which feature extremely flexible underwires. I often go without, but I when I need a new bra right away, I really like the Carole Martin bra. I use to wear Coobie, but the CM is much more comfortable and I really like the front closure. Several styles cost less than $20.
I’m pretty buxom and want to make my own bras. Anyone familiar with the “It’s All You Bra” by the Suddenly Slender Body Wrap creators? I’ve been wanting to buy one for some time but there has yet to be someone in my area or someone easy to get to. A pattern would be nice.
True and Co are my favorite bras. They have a quiz you can take for to find the perfect fit. Most come w cup inserts but I always give them to my kids to cut up for craft projects 🙂 I like the natural look and I hate underwires. Why should all our boobs look the same?
Great piece! Any opinion on The Freedom Bra(TM)? The strapless, backless silicone cup, not any regular designs with the same name. I’m thinking of trying it but don’t know anyone who has it and can share their experience with it.
I use it. It solves the problem of sweaty bras after a dog-walk. But I am concerned about all that stickiness on my skin – don’t know if it’s a healthy option. Also when removing them it’s like removing a bandaid from the sensitive areas?. Your boobs still bounce around but the nipples are covered.
They didn’t do well for me. They stuck well on sensitive areas but pulling them off was painful. They also did not have the same shape as my boobs so they looked funny. I would love to find a bra that I can customize. I had a partial mastectomy and so have different cup sizes.
Hello again Katie! I love reading your blogs. Thanks for all your effort to educate your followers! You could practically hand out diplomas! ?
About bras; I am a fully stay at home mom/wife/granddaughter/caregiver, and in the last few years I’ve come to really appreciate au natural. I don’t like being braless in public but I suppose that’s a culture indoctrination more than real need. ? When I do wear a bra, I have one similar to the Coobie you mentioned but with wider straps. Indeed, I love it! But the bra I wanna share wit you and your readers is actually the expensive, organic cotton, nursing bra I fell in love with and continue to wear though I’m done nursing. At $50 each I had to budget and over a couple years I collected four. It’s called Body Silk Seamless by Bravado Designs. https://www.figure8moms.com/item/107570/bravado-designs-body-silk-seamless-nursing-bra-butterscotch
I hope this helps another woman become as comfy in the bra department as I am! ?
I’ve been trying to find a decent bra for the past year. I wanted to ditch my wired bras, but need support. I like Wacoal’s bralettes, as there is some shape and support, however the thick straps are unattractive under tank tops. Target has a very reasonably priced wire-free bra but the cups just didn’t work for me. Warner’s advertise their wire-free bras but they only make 34 and up. So if you have a small rib cage and a large bust you’re out of luck.
There are multiple adverts for “new bra styles” on social media however I have found them all disappointing.
My next experiment is spanx. They’ve been keeping jiggly bits in place for years and they do have a wire-free bra range. I’m awaiting my order and I type!
A big struggle is if you have a small rib cage with large bust, or the opposite, then sizing of all these bras is S, M or L. This just doesn’t work because you are both S and L most of the time.
Here’s hoping there will be an organic cotton supportive wire free bra on the market soon!
I’m in the same boat. I wear a 40H, but I’m really more like a 38L, if anyone made such a bra. Bra manufacturers, LISTEN UP!
I got the bravado seamless when I had my first son. That was over 8 years ago. When I’m not au natural these are the bras I use. I’m not pregnant or breastfeeding. They have a kit to change them from nursing bras to regular bras. I tried an all organic cotton bra from a pricey company, when I was done nursing, but it was horrible. These are great bras if you have to wear them! Big smile. I’m a total burn your bra kinda gal. After nursing four boys they are a little lower than they used to be though, so when I have to meander amongst bra wearers/ enjoyers Bravado seamless is the way I roll! I’m with Katie, though what’s up with the organic bras that fit well?! It’s a wonderful niche! Come on bra makers!