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?