Ah, yes. The underwire bra vs no underwire debate. Whether you love underwire bras or hate them, the discussion begs the question, are underwire bras bad for you? Personally, I’m a no-underwire fan and go for sustainable underwear, but that’s mostly because I’m a human sloth obsessed with comfort. I had no idea that there were some other health benefits to ditching the wire! (Pats self on back.)
Even so, underwire bras remain popular. And because those with boobs tend to wear over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders every day, there’s a lot of speculation around underwire bra problems. I dove into the research to answer the question, are underwire bras harmful, and to look at the pros and cons of WAMA’s wire-free hemp bralette alternatives.
WHAT IS AN UNDERWIRE BRA?
An underwire bra is a popular brasserie style that uses sturdy curved material at the base of the cups. Originally produced with metal, these “wires” (underwires) perk up your ta-tas and create that desirable rounded shape. Although the general idea of a bra dates back to Ancient Rome, the modern-day underwire bra didn’t come into style until the 20th century, after the world wars.
THE HISTORY OF THE UNDERWIRE BRA
With such a demand for metal during WWI, bra-wearers got to ditch the constricting corset, which required a lot of metal to construct. Instead, manufacturers used a stretchable fabric to hug the torso but still relied on a bit of metal for the bust. Enter the underwire bra. Although women were happy to say goodbye to corsets, it wasn’t until after WWII, and another subsequent metal shortage, that the bra we know today became a wardrobe staple.
PROS OF UNDERWIRE BRA
You already know my preference for bras, but there are still a few pros of the underwire variety. There are a few reasons why 70% of women in the western world wear underwire bras!
- Breast Support. It’s no secret that a sturdy underwire supports your boobs and perks them up. If you have bigger or saggier breasts, in particular, underwires keep boobs up and in place, as they help structure the cups
- Creates Curves. Underwire bras make those “perfect” curves and a more feminine silhouette. This is a nice perk, but keep in mind that there are nine different and beautiful breast shapes, so you don’t need to have round perky boobs unless you want them!
- Tons of Variety. Because underwire bras are so popular, more brands produce them. Therefore, you have a lot more variety in colors and styles than with other types of bras.
ARE UNDERWIRE BRAS HARMFUL?
Although there are some positives associated with underwire bras, the question remains: are underwire bras bad for you? I’ve detailed the pros, but what about the cons? The bottom line: underwires won’t give you cancer, but other health concerns are worth your consideration.
UNDERWIRE BRA CANCER: THE TRUTH
Where were you when you heard that underwire bras could cause breast cancer? I feel like this was a defining moment for every tween (at least, every Millennial tween), painfully shopping for bras with their, ugh, mom. In 1995, the book “Dressed to Kill” swept the US with its claims linking underwire bras to breast cancer. So, basically, graduating to an “adult” bra left my entire generation scarred.
Luckily, scientific research has since busted this myth. According to a study conducted by cancer research giant Fred Hutch, underwire bra cancer isn’t a thing. But because breast cancer kills 40,000 people each year, the center wanted to be certain and used a population-based case-control study to get to the truth. No matter how they compared the data—taken from over 1,000 women for four years—there was no link between wearing a bra and developing breast cancer.
Fred Hutch isn’t the only organization to bust this myth. A study from Harvard found a link between bras and breast cancer, but only in women with larger busts. The study concluded that having larger breast tissue and obesity were the culprits, not wearing a bra.
And in 2009, two scientists used data from the National Cancer Institute to directly address one of the book’s main claims, that bras constricted lymphatic drainage and caused cancer. While studying women who had their lymph nodes removed, the scientists found no increase in breast cancer risk, successfully rendering the claims completely useless and not backed by science.
OTHER UNDERWIRE PROBLEMS
Maybe underwire bra cancer doesn’t exist, but other health issues do. If you wear a bra daily (which most of us boob slingers do), you may notice little things like skin irritation, muscle pain, headaches, digestive issues, or just a plain ole feeling of uncomfortableness.
So, are underwire bras bad for you? Well, a lot of these health issues pop up because you’re wearing the wrong size. Don’t feel too bad—you’re not alone as 80% of women wear the wrong bra size! It’s so important to use an underwear size chart and ask yourself the question, how long do bras last? This will help you buy the right size from the start and know when it’s time to say goodbye to an old standby.
But, wait, any bra style can fit poorly, so why am I picking on underwires? Underwire bras are more vulnerable to issues because of their firm structure. To get the desired perks of underwire bras, your bra needs to maintain its controlled shape. The moment the elastic wears down or the cups wrinkle, it’s over!
When any clothing rubs up against your skin all day, it can irritate. But if you see it more on your boobs and across your ribs, there are a few different culprits. You could have a “bra allergy” (meaning your skin reacts to the material), the underwire could come loose and poke you, or a poor-fitting bra could cause chafing.
- Chafing. Those poor-fitting bras move around and cause skin irritation. This is especially true when you suffer from boob sweat (who doesn’t?!), and you have to keep moving things around. Not fun and not good for your skin!
- Poking. One of the reasons why I said “never again” to underwire bras is this exact problem: the obnoxious poking from your underwire. It’s super annoying, can cause skin irritation and scrapes, and no matter how many times you channel junior high Home-Ec class, no amount of amateur sewing will return it to its former glory.
- “Bra Allergy.” If you have sensitive skin or allergies to certain materials, you can develop a rash from your bra. Synthetic materials like latex, spandex, elastic, and metal are all common culprits, as are the toxins and chemicals used in the coloring, dyeing, manufacturing, or treatment processes. Plus, synthetic fabrics aren’t as breathable, so you’re more prone to heat rash and bacterial growth.
How do you avoid bra rashes? Choose a natural fabric like hemp, which is nontoxic and makes breathable underwear that’s super soft and gentle on your skin. A strong hemp bra can last a long time and even gets more durable after washing. Plus, hemp material produces naturally antibacterial underwear.
HEADACHES AND MUSCLE PAIN
Underwire bras are associated with body pain for a few different reasons. Boobs hang from your chest and naturally put pressure on your shoulders, neck, and back. I thought underwire bras were more supportive and could alleviate some of this pain. It turns out, in certain situations, they can actually make it worse.
Remember how I said poor-fitting bras could do more harm than good? It’s the same case here. Underwires are supposed to help support your boobs, especially if you have a larger pair. But if they don’t fit correctly or lose their shape, your muscles have to work harder, resulting in headaches, neck pain, and back pain.
CHEST PAIN AND INDIGESTION
When your bra is too tight or restrictive, which is more common with underwire styles working hard to keep those boobs perky and rounded, you can experience chest pain and disruption in the digestive system. It’s better to have a bra that allows some natural movement, so your body can do its thing.
So, are underwire bras bad for you when it comes to your organs? Tight, restrictive bras have been linked to Mondor’s disease, which can cause blood clots, chest pains, and hardening along veins. In one clinical study, an otherwise healthy woman experienced pain, redness, and a bump on her left breast and had difficulty breathing.
Doctors found that the tip of her tight, underwire bra caused the problem, which led to Mondor’s disease. Luckily, she alleviated her symptoms quickly, but her doctors advised her to avoid the constant use of tight-fitting bras!
BLOCKED MILK DUCTS
There’s a reason why nursing bras are different from typical underwire bras. Firm, structured, and tight bras can cause blocked milk ducts. And when not addressed quickly, they can lead to mastitis and infection.
If you’re a breastfeeding mom (or hope to be one in the future), it’s best to wear a nursing bra. Specialized bras support engorged boobs, especially during the first 2-6 weeks of breastfeeding, without restriction. You’ll feel better and avoid a too-tight fit that can cause nursing issues.
ALTERNATIVE TO UNDERWIRE BRAS
Bra style is a matter of personal preference. I get that you may still prefer an underwire bra, and that’s totally fine! You do you. But if you’re still questioning, are underwire bras harmful, maybe you’re ready to make the switch. Luckily, there’s an excellent alternative to underwire bras: bralettes!
WAMA’s triangle bralette and racerback bralette offer the perfect solution to underwire bra problems. What is a bralette? Bralettes are lightweight bras without an underwire, mostly designed for comfort, but they also provide support.
You already know I love comfy, wire-free bralettes! My favorite part? Letting them show beneath your shirt, tank, or dress is an actual fashion statement and not a sign of laziness—I told you I was a sloth! Bonus—while wearing them, you never have to worry or wonder, are underwire bras harmful?
- Feminine fit
- Convertible straps to fit any top
- V-neck design to go with lots of outfits
- Soft, durable materials
- Supportive band
- No underwire (if you want underwire—but still supportive)
- Lower cut, so not as much cover (but goes well with low-cut tops and dresses!)
The racerback bralette is my go-to everyday bra. It fits almost like a sports bra but without that overly constricting feeling. I wear it on days when I’m casually dressed, lounging around the house, or doing light exercise.
- Sporty, pullover fit to go under racerback styles
- More coverage for the ta-tas
- Thick straps and double-layer fabric
- Soft, durable materials
- Supportive band
- No underwire (if you want underwire—but still supportive)
- Higher cut, so not great for low-cut tops (unless you want it to poke out in a cute way!)
CONCLUSION: ARE UNDERWIRE BRAS BAD FOR YOU?
Since the mid-90s, we all worried about underwire bra cancer. Now we know there’s no link between the disease and bras—phew! But that doesn’t mean underwires are totally off the hook. There are still some underwire bra problems to consider, often associated with poor fit.
So, I’ll give it to you straight, are underwire bras bad for you?
Yes and no. Since underwire bras can lose their shape and fit more easily than other styles, you can be harming your body without knowing it. Just make sure your bra fits right, and you don’t overwear it. It’s also helpful to learn how to hand wash bras to keep them lasting longer and wear sustainable fabrics. Or, opt for hemp bralettes to alleviate any worry!
Where do you fall in the great underwire debate? Are you a fan or a loyal bralette wearer? Cast your vote in the comments!