The Bra Debate

Can wearing the wrong bra make you sick? After a reader sent in this question, I looked into what experts have to say about bras and women’s health. Recommendations range from advice to wear the most supportive bra you can find to warnings against wearing bras at all. Let’s look at a few of the questions I came across in this debate.

Is Wearing a Bra Bad for You?

There are many women who have chosen to say goodbye to bras altogether. Although women choose to go braless for a variety of reasons, health concerns sometimes play a role in their decision-making. One of the most alarming concerns circulating around the internet has been a possible link between bras and breast cancer. But according to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, there’s no good scientific evidence to support that wearing a bra (underwire or not) affects breast cancer risk. Studies that found a possible relationship between bras and cancer noted that the women in the study who didn’t wear a bra were thinner and that their weight may have been the true reason behind their lower breast cancer risk.

Many women have specific health questions like whether or not it’s healthy to wear a bra at night or to wear an underwire bra every day, but according to Holly Pederson, M.D., the Cleveland Clinic’s director of medical breast services, “There’s just no evidence that any type of bra, or a tight-fitting bra, is harmful in any way.”

Of course, whether a woman wants to wear a bra or not is a personal decision. However, women who want to wear bras should know that, from a health perspective, there doesn’t seem to be a good reason not to. But most experts touting the safety of bra-wearing seem to assume that every woman wears a bra that fits.

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What about Bras That Don’t Fit Correctly?

A survey by the Swiss lingerie company Triumph found that 76% of women are wearing the wrong bra size. And according to Dr. Sasi Royyuru, a family medicine physician with Advocate Medical Group in Bloomington, Illinois, “Wearing the wrong bra size can cause or worsen upper back problems causing muscle tension and sometimes even headaches.”

Because most bras are worn for 12 hours a day or more, it’s important that they fit well. Tight fitting bra straps can pull at the muscles in the upper back, and discomforts that are barely noticeable at first can turn into excruciating neck and shoulder pain as days go by, causing muscle tension and headaches. And bras with underwire that digs into the rib cage have even been accused of contributing to tummy problems like indigestion and heartburn.

How to Find a Bra That Fits

Experts say to leave bra fitting up to the professionals. Stores that offer the help of experienced fitters are usually pricier than other options, but many women find the extra expense is worth feeling good in their bras.

Why is finding a bra that fits so tricky? Bra expert Linda Becker says that “vanity sizing” on the part of stores makes sizing more complicated. Stores have learned that they sell more bras when they make women feel like their cup sizes are larger and that their chest measurements are smaller. Because there isn’t a sizing standard, each brand may be sized slightly differently. According to Becker, your bra “should always be halfway between your elbow and your shoulder. If you look in the mirror and you are lower than that, then your bra is too loose in the back.” She says that women should no more settle for the wrong bra size than they would settle for the wrong shoe size.

The consensus is that if you’re going to wear a bra, it should fit. And often that means getting professional help, especially if you haven’t been sized by an expert before. Other sizing tips include sticking with brands and sizes that you’ve had good experiences with and being alert to any changes in your health after trying a new bra for the first time.