Are you like the many women I know who throw off their bras immediately upon arriving home? It’s freeing and infinitely more comfortable to be braless. And there is a growing body of evidence showing that, beyond being uncomfortable, consistent bra use may have a negative impact on our health.
Link Between Bra Use and Breast Cancer Risk
Results from several studies indicate that there may be a link between regular bra use and breast cancer risk.
One of the earliest studies was conducted by medical anthropologists Syndey Singer and Soma Grismaijer. The researchers conducted a study of over 4000 women and compared breast cancer risk as a function of frequency and duration of bra use. One of the most well-cited findings from their research indicate a strong relationship between bra use and breast cancer . Then found that:
- Women who wore bras all day, including to sleep had a 75% risk of developing breast cancer
- Women who wore bras for more than 12 hours per day, but did not wear a bra to bed, had a 1 in 7 chance of developing breast cancer
- Women who wore bras for fewer than 12 hours per day had a 1 in 52 risk of breast cancer
- Women who rarely or never wore bras had a 1 in 168 chance of developing breast cancer
Additional studies have found similar results. A study in 1991 found that premenopausal women who did not wear bras had half the risk of breast cancer compared to women who did wear bras . Multiple studies have shown a relationship between wearing a bra while sleeping and increased breast cancer risk [3,4]. In one study, women who did not sleep in a bra had a 60% lower risk of breast cancer than did women who slept in a bra .
The existing research is correlational, and there are a few prominent theories as to why the relationship between bra use and breast cancer exists. Underwires are thought to be one of the more problematic components of bras. There is evidence that underwire bras, particularly those that fit poorly, are related to poor breast health and may contribute to breast disease .
Bras in general, and underwire bras especially, can impair the flow of lymphatic fluid to the lymph nodes that reside below the breasts. It is thought that, by blocking drainage of lymphatic fluid, toxins can not be expelled and build up on the breast tissue. These carcinogens can then cause cellular damage in the breast tissue and may eventually contribute to breast cancer [4, 5].
Katy Bowman offers another perspective, emphasizing the importance of appropriate mechanical loads relative to breast size . In her book, Katy addresses the value of experiencing loads consistent with our physiology. From this perspective, women with large breasts would be experiencing the weight associated with those larger breasts were it not for bras. Wearing bras changes the loads our bodies experience relative to the loads they require, and that discrepancy can have consequences at a cellular level .
When we move in a way that is consistent with the loads and movement patterns that our bodies ‘expect’, we experience greater health, all the way down to our cells . Ditching our bras is one way to start to bring our bodies into better alignment with natural movement patterns.
Bras Prevent Breast Tissue from Strengthening
It is often said that going without a bra will make breasts saggy. However, there is evidence that the opposite may be the case. It is true that our breasts don’t have muscle, which means that we can’t directly strengthen breast tissue (only the muscles underneath the breasts). However, breasts do have tendons and ligaments that provide support and stabilization.
Just like wearing a knee brace all the time would eventually prevent the knee ligaments and tendons from stabilizing the knee without the brace, constant bra use prevents the breast tendons and ligaments from developing the strength necessary to support and stabilize the breasts.
Depriving our breasts of expected mechanical loads has a negative impact on the structure of our breasts. By exposing our breasts to gravity, we allow the tendons and ligaments to strengthen . When tendons and ligaments are stronger, they can hold up our breasts all on their own, without the help of a bra.
One researcher performed a study with women between the ages of 18 and 35. The study spanned fifteen years and measured ‘sagging’ in the breasts of women who did and did not wear bras during that time period. He found that, compared to regular bra users, women who never wore bras had nipples that were an average of 7mm higher in relation to their shoulders .
The study findings provide important support for the notion that bras are not required to keep breasts healthy and supported throughout life.
How to Ditch Your Bra
So does this mean every woman needs to immediately stop wearing a bra? Not necessarily. There are a lot of reasons to wear bras, and it is not feasible for every woman to go braless all the time. I certainly wear bras sometimes, especially in the summer when I’m wearing thinner shirts to work. I would be uncomfortable without a bra in those situations, so I choose bras that are free of wires, provide limited support, and are as loose as possible while still being flattering.
It is also important to note that women who are in their 40s or later and have been wearing bras for most of their lives might not have ligaments and tendons that are strong enough to support their breasts without additional help from a bra. This may especially be the case for large-breasted women, who may choose to wear a bra regardless of age.
If you have worn a bra for a long time and decide you want to stop wearing one, you may benefit from weaning off the bras you typically use before stopping all together. Try wearing a bra less and less frequently and/or choosing a bra that is free of an underwire and is slightly less supportive before ditching the bra completely.
These are a few recommendations I have for bra use that supports maximized lymph flow and allows our breasts to support themselves as much as possible:
- Never wear a bra to bed! – The single most consistent finding in the research literature is that wearing a bra to bed is associated with the greatest risk of breast cancer. Let your boobs breathe at night, when propriety is unimportant and gravity is a non-issue, no matter your breast size
- Take your bra off when you get home – One of the first things I do when I walk in my door is take my bra off and toss it somewhere far away from my body. It’s so much more comfortable, and the extra bra-free time will benefit your boobs.
- Go bra-free when clothing allows – Winter is the ultimate bra-free season for me. I wear a lot of sweater layered over tank tops or other shirts and the extra layers + thick sweater fabric render a bra unnecessary.
- Choose a bra without an underwire – Another consistent finding was the relationship between underwire bras and breast cancer risk. I opt for bras that are as minimal as possible, such as bralets or what are often considered to be ‘training bras’. There are also some impressively supportive wire-free bras out there. These are my favorites – I am a big fan of Hanes. I have them in my closet and find them all to be pretty great:
What are your thoughts on wearing or not wearing bras? Do you have a favorite wire-free bra or any tips for going bra-less?
Singer, SR & Grismaijer, S. Dressed to Kill: The Link Between Breast Cancer and Bras. 2014: Avery Publishing Group. Garden City Park, NY.
Hsieh CC & Trichopoulos D. (1991). Breast size, handedness and breast cancer risk. European Journal of Cancer and Clinical Oncology, 27(2): 131-135.
Zhang AQ, et al. (2009). Risk factors of breast cancer in women in Guangdong and the countermeasures. Journal of Southern Medical University, 29(7): 1451-1453.
Othieno-Abinya NA, et al. (2015). Comparative study of breast cancer risk factors at Kenyatta National Hospital and the Nairobi Hospital. J. Afr. Cancer, 7: 41-46.
Stanovich MEQ, et al. (2011) Mammary pathologies generated by the sustained use and incorrect selection of the brassier in patients who come to the mastology office. HUAL.
Bowman, K. Move your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement. 2014.
Rouillon J-D, 2013. University of France-Comte.