The claim that bra-wearing can put women at serious risk for breast cancer has been around for almost 20 years. Does this idea hold any truth?
The beginning of the “myth” came from a book called “Dressed to Kill”, where the authors, Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismgijer, studied the link between bras and breast cancer. The team's theory was that "external pressure of the bra constricts the lymphatic vessels and prevents proper draining of the breast tissue, leading to fluid accumulation in the breast". This was following the diagnosis of Grismaijer's breast cancer whilst pregnant. The book is said to have made a huge impact on the practices of the Medical and Fashion industries.
The authors were the only scientists to have conducted a study about the correlation between bras and your health. The team studied 4,000 women, with the major discovery that women who rarely or never wore bras have a 1 out of 168 chance of developing the illness. However, this shows the correlation to cancer when not wearing a bra, not specifically when wearing one.
Their explanation is that underwired bras block the circulation of lymphatic fluid, causing breasts to swell with “toxins” (a word more associated with pseudoscience, in my experience, than genuine medical knowledge). It is unlikely, though, that lymph fluid will be trapped by an underwire because it doesn't flow in that direction, and a properly fitting bra prevents breast ligaments from overstretching.
Lynn Daly, from Cancer Research UK, says: "You would need to wear a bra that was painfully and unbearably tight to have any effect on your lymphatic system, but constriction or applying pressure to an area of the body does not cause normal cells to become cancerous."
So it's unlikely that underwire bras will cause breast cancer, but there are other health issues that arise from wearing wrongly fitted bras. Chronic neck and back pain, headaches, lack of confidence, and poor posture are all issues that can be heightened. With repeated wearing, bras stretch and don't provide the same support they had when we first bought them. A bra typically can only last for about six months. This is why it's so important to ensure you're wearing the right size for you and getting measured regularly.
Well-designed studies and doctors have not convinced experts that wearing bras or underwire bras increases your chances of developing breast cancer.