Do Underwire Bras Really Cause Breast Cancer?

Making healthy lifestyle decisions is a choice as well as a key part of breast cancer prevention. Patients, thrivers and any one of us at high risk know that in order to find balance and live fuller lives, it's important to eat well, exercise and avoid unhealthy habits like smoking. Yet, a few decades ago, a groundbreaking report about lingerie threw us all a curveball: Is there a link between underwire bras and breast cancer? According to the report, the numbers were bleak. The science was alarming. And the lingerie industry was in a panic. Fortunately, we now know that underwire bras do not cause breast cancer. But let’s take a look at how this report raised concerns about restrictive underwires and what we learned when we took a closer look at the industry. It turns out, when we started examining the potential causes for breast cancer – and whether or not our bras were to blame – we started making changes to our intimate apparel design and choices.

Underwires and Cancer 

Could wearing a bra put us at higher risk for breast cancer? That was the question on everyone’s mind after a bombshell study published in the early nineties. Researchers from Harvard University looked at a large group of women – 5,000 to be exact – and found that those who wore bras for more than 12 hours a day dramatically increased their risk of breast cancer. The numbers were frightening. So frightening, it turned the lingerie industry on its head. 

  • Women who wore their bras for 24 hours a day were 75% more likely to develop the disease
  • Wearing a bra for 24 hours increased your risk 125X

These findings were later published in the European Journal of science and then followed up by the authors of a popular book, Dressed to Kill: The Link Between Breast Cancer and Bras. Certainly, people were alarmed. The statistics in the book were enough to make all of us abandon our bras forever. Was it time to go braless? What were women supposed to do?

Causation vs. Correlation

When the study was initially released, it faced some pretty harsh criticism. Was the study flawed? The answer is complicated. When it comes to epidemiological research – which the this study was – large data has a difficult time telling the full story. Correlation generally lumps together two things that happen at the same time. However, it doesn’t exactly prove that one thing caused the other. For starters, it wasn’t a double-blind study – the gold standard of medical research. And it didn’t take into account other breast cancer risk factors such as each person’s family cancer history, weight, diet or exercise. But the research did do one thing: it caused enough of a stir that we began paying attention to our options in the retail industry. And women started asking more questions about their breast health and the impact that their garments, lifestyle and clothing could have on their overall wellness. 

Under the Wire

Those of us who came of age in the nineties have the distinct memory of wearing underwire bras – and only underwire bras. There weren’t many other options. Nineties fashion may be making a comeback, but having our underwire poke through surely doesn’t need to. Uncomfortable and misfitting garments may have been the only option then, but things have changed. And part of the reason has to do with concerns about the health of our breasts. When Dress to Kill was published, although the study itself was flawed, scientists, the lingerie industry and the public had a lot of questions about the impact of wearing bras. It turned everything on its head. And, thankfully, the light that was shed on the industry brought awareness to breast cancer, plus much needed improvements to our lingerie. Now, we can have our cake and eat it too -- with a nice array of comfortable and beautiful wire-free options on the market, thanks to brands like Everviolet.

First, there is no scientific evidence bras cause breast cancer

According to scientific research, as recent as 2014, there is no evidence that bras or underwires cause breast cancer. 

Why did the study seem plausible?

Essentially, the book claimed restrictive bras may limit our body’s ability to regulate hormones. This idea held traction because, for one, male testicles, like female breasts, exist outside our bodies to maintain lower body temperature. It would seem, then, that restricting them could upset the natural hormone balance.

Additionally, restrictive underwire bras tend to press against the lymph nodes under our arms. These are an important part of our lymphatic system and breast cancer can often spread to the lymphatic system. Could an underwire bra impede our lymphatic system from draining toxins away from breast tissue? Fortunately, our body is able to process lymphatic fluid, even when we are wearing tight bras.

But simply asking these questions did spark more frequent awareness and conversations about women's health, our bodies and whether or not wearing restrictive clothing was healthy, natural or harmful. We were beginning to take a closer look at an often overlooked closet staple; one that we generally regarded as utilitarian. 

Flexing Forward

Things have changed, thanks to the pioneering women who took a look at their lingerie options and demanded a seismic shift. Now, reports indicate that underwires are out and comfort is in. Whether we’ve stopped dressing exclusively for the male gaze, we’re simply leaning into comfort, or this is a happy side effect of working from home, market research shows comfort beats sexiness. Especially for cancer thrivers or those of us transitioning into new phases of our lives, feeling beautiful may have more to do with feeling like people, and not feeling like patients as we go through pre- and postoperative healing. Medical care, puberty and just feeling beautiful as we process whatever life throws at us while wearing softer garments that bend and move with our bodies is the new normal. Women’s beauty products have to pass stricter standards that meet our needs, avoid sensitivities, don’t endanger our health and bring us joy. Whether or not we’ve chosen to ditch the underwire or not, what we choose to wear intimately corresponds to a beautiful change in fashion today.

“One day I decided that I was beautiful, and so I carried out my life as if I was a beautiful girl. I wear colors that I really like, I wear makeup that makes me feel pretty, and it really helps. It doesn't have anything to do with how the world perceives you. What matters is what you see.” – Gabourey Sidibe