There are many conflicting reports about whether wearing a bra is good or bad for health. Scientific evidence backs up some of these reports, while others appear to be based on myth.
Here, we look at the scientific evidence on the pros and cons of wearing a bra compared with going braless. We investigate what effect, if any, either practice has on a person’s health.
There are a couple of myths about going braless that do not have any scientific backing:
Myth 1: Going braless promotes sagging
One myth about going braless is that the breasts will sag without a bra for support.
Many factors can lead to sagging breasts, including:
- the natural aging process
However, there is not enough scientific evidence to suggest that going braless will cause the breasts to sag.
Myth 2: Going braless reduces the risk of breast cancer
Another myth about going braless is that it could reduce a person’s risk of developing breast cancer.
This myth is based on the idea that wearing a bra affects lymphatic drainage, which is the process that helps remove toxins and waste products from the body. A problem with lymphatic drainage can cause these substances to accumulate in the bloodstream, potentially increasing a person’s risk of developing cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, there is no scientific evidence to associate wearing a bra with breast cancer. They note that a 2014 study of 1,513 postmenopausal women found no link between wearing a bra and breast cancer risk.
This myth may stem from the fact that people with overweight tend to have larger breasts and are, therefore, more likely to wear a bra. Having overweight or obesity is a known risk factor for developing breast cancer.
According to an older study from 2000, wearing a bra or other tight fitting garment at night could affect a person’s sleep-wake cycle.
The researchers found that nighttime pressure from tight fitting garments caused an increase in core body temperature and a decrease in melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle. A decrease in melatonin can affect sleep quality.
This small scale study monitored 10 participants over a 58-hour period. Further research involving more participants and a longer study duration is necessary to support the findings.
There is no scientific evidence to suggest that wearing a correctly fitting bra during the day has any negative effects on health.
However, a bra that does not fit properly can cause pain in the neck and the chest muscles.
Excessively tight shoulder straps may also affect the shoulders. In those who wear a bra, the shoulder straps are one of the main supports for the breasts. Over several years, this tension may cause a permanent groove in the soft tissue of the shoulders.
There may also be a link between wearing a badly fitting bra and seeking breast reduction surgery. A 2003 study found that of 102 females undergoing this procedure, all of them had been wearing the wrong size of bra. Wearing a badly fitting bra may worsen the symptoms that cause people to seek breast reduction surgery.
The researchers concluded that people should ensure that they are wearing a correctly fitting bra before considering getting surgery to reduce the size of their breasts.
Going braless or wearing the wrong size of bra may be a barrier to exercise for some people. A lack of exercise can cause a range of health issues.
In a 2013 survey of 249 females, 17% reported that their breasts were a barrier to exercise. Some of the key reasons for this included:
- embarrassment over excessive breast movement
- being unable to find the right sports bra
- increase in breast pain due to vigorous exercise and a lack of adequate breast support
The researchers noted that better knowledge of breast health led to increased use of a sports bra, resulting in increased exercise levels among the participants.
When choosing a sports bra, people should look for options that provide the greatest support. A 2015 study investigated the effects of wearing a sports bra during running. The findings suggest that sports bras that offer a high level of support can reduce breast pain, particularly for people with larger breasts.
Sports medicine specialist Prof. Jean-Denis Rouillon carried out a 15-year study to assess whether bras cause sagging. The study involved 330 females aged 15–35 years.
Rouillon’s findings suggested that wearing a bra can weaken the chest muscles, thereby promoting sagging. Rouillon concluded that going braless encourages the chest muscles to work harder to elevate the breasts.
There is no official published study of Rouillon’s findings and no peer review. As such, it is not possible to evaluate the validity of the research.
Marco Klinger, Head of the Operating Unit of Plastic Surgery at Humanitas Research Hospital in Italy, states that the study is too small to be an accurate representation of breast sagging in the general population.
According to Klinger, a wide range of variables are likely to affect breast sagging. These include:
- changes in weight
- normal hormonal phases
Overall, there is not enough scientific evidence to suggest that either wearing a bra or going braless has any effect on sagging.
However, for people with larger breasts, supporting the connective tissues of the breasts by wearing a bra may help reduce the rate of sagging.
According to a 2013 study, large breasts are associated with the following symptoms:
- neck and back pain
- nerve irritation
Many people with large breasts claim that their breasts are the cause of their back pain. However, according to the Women’s Health Research Institute of Northwestern University, even large breasts are rarely the primary cause of back pain.
Instead, back pain may be due to:
- wearing a badly fitting bra
- having overweight or obesity
- injury to the back muscles
- irritation of the spinal nerves
- osteoporosis, or weakening of the spine
Wearing a correctly fitting bra may help improve posture and prevent back pain, particularly for people with larger breasts.
People who continue to experience back pain should see a doctor. Chronic back pain could indicate an underlying health issue.
There is not enough scientific evidence to confirm whether or not wearing a bra or going braless can cause the breasts to sag or change shape.
There is also insufficient evidence to suggest that wearing a correctly fitting bra has negative effects on health. In fact, people with larger breasts may find that wearing a correctly fitting bra improves their posture and reduces back pain. In contrast, wearing the wrong size of bra may cause pain and discomfort.
A correctly fitting sports bra may help support the breasts and reduce breast pain during physical activity, which may encourage a person to exercise more. Regular exercise can help people maintain a moderate weight, thereby reducing their risk of developing breast cancer.