A few months ago, I saw a question on Quora that asked whether bras caused breast cancer. The question didn’t make a lot of sense to me, as I didn’t understand why someone would associate a bra with cancer. To the best of my knowledge, bras are not made of any exotic material, or laundered in some special way, so why would they cause cancer? Perhaps if they were made of asbestos they would…

But questions like this aren’t asked without a real element of concern from the questioner. And I live with my wife and two teenage daughters, so if there is a relationship between bras and cancer, it’s something that I’d want to understand. If only I could figure out why the question was asked…

Then, the other day, I had an, “Ooooooh, I get it now,” moment.

I saw one of those reports that claims that 80% of women are wearing an ill fitting bra, and the penny dropped. It isn’t the bra itself that is in question, it’s the action of the bra on the body.

To some extent, this would explain the prevalence of memes like this:

I’m a man; I accept that I understand how good this might be.
From Pinterest.

Although, if this is generally accepted as being such a good feeling, it would indicate that a lot of women are wearing uncomfortable bras. And if bras are uncomfortable, then they might well be causing sustained pressure on breast tissue. And sustained pressure can potentially lead to tissue damage. In certain circumstances, prolonged tissue damage can lead to cancer.

Which meant that I finally understood the need for the question as to whether bras can cause breast cancer.

As with most things, there is some debate about the answer. There are two camps of people; one camp argues that, yes, bras cause breast cancer. The other camp disagrees.

In the ‘Yes’ camp, you have:

  • Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer, the authors of the 1995 book, ‘Dressed to Kill: The Link Between Breast Cancer and Bras’
  • Websites, that primarily refer back to ‘Dressed to Kill’ and its citations, like:

It’s worth noting that the second edition of ‘Dressed to Kill’ was released in 2018.

And, you know; why not?!
Well, they’re expensive, for one thing…

While, in the ‘No’ camp, you have:

  • Doctors
  • Oncologists
  • Scientists
  • Cancer charities
  • Governments
  • Heath services, like the NHS

The arguments come down to whether or not bras cause damage to the lymphatic system of the breast tissue. And, if so, whether this damage might lead to cancer. The primary areas of bra-related concern are:

  1. Underwired bras
  2. Sleeping in bras
  3. Sleeping in underwired bras

Part of the rationale that bras are damaging, is the simple fact that there is no good justification for wearing bras (outside of rare medical necessitates). And, before anyone gets too angry with me for saying this, let me cite the Wikipedia page:

There is no evidence that bras actually prevent breasts from sagging.

Please, do not shoot the messenger.

Now, I am perfectly willing to accept that this seems counter intuitive. It does to me.

The theory goes that wearing bras prevents excess stretching, over time, of the supportive tissues of the breast. Therefore, less sagging.

A counter-argument, though, might be that wearing bras prevents said supportive tissues from getting the ‘exercise’ they need to maintain their structural properties. Thus causing supportive breast tissue to become weaker over time, from lack of use. Presumably at the same rate that this supportive tissue would stretch, if no bra was being worn. Thereby cancelling each other out and meaning that wearing bras does not prevent breasts from sagging…

Whatever the reason, science says that bras don’t prevent sagging. A lot of women find this hard to believe.

Science also says that bras don’t cause breast cancer. If a lot of women already have their doubts about scientists, when it comes to bras, then maybe bras can cause breast cancer!?

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that those who argue that bras cause breast cancer, can utilise a ‘why risk it’ approach. If there is no good reason to wear bras, and bras might cause cancer, the obvious solution is to not wear bras.

Of course, despite the interesting logic of this approach, bras have been around since at least ancient the Greeks. These ‘bras’ were bands of material that were wrapped around the chest to hold the breasts in place, but the principle is the same. Breast bands were particularly associated with women who were playing sport because of course they were. Sports bras are clearly a very useful, and oft times necessary, piece of kit.

Sicilian mosaics from the 4th Century AD.

On another note, it seems that there is more to bras than just their functional element. I feel like I’m walking on egg shells here, so I’m just going to quote Wikipedia again…

Women’s choices about what kind of bra to wear are consciously and unconsciously affected by social perceptions of the ideal female body shape, which changes over time. Bras have become a fashion item and cultural statement.

In the past couple of decades, bra fashions have undergone some major changes. For previous generations, bras were an item of underwear that should not be seen, or even alluded to. That changed during the 1990s, when displaying bra straps became the norm. Since then, bras, in particular sports bras, have become acceptable as outerwear. This has always seemed logical to me, as I never could understand the difference in acceptability of displaying bikini tops, compared with bras. Surely they’re the same thing?!

In most recent times, there has been a trend, especially amongst Western millennials, to go braless. While there has always been a political, feminist undertone around not wearing bras, as evidenced by the #freethenipple campaign, it is now simply considered fashionable as well.

Which brings us back to an environment where a second edition of a 1995 book becomes a viable economic proposition in 2018.

Now, without wishing to get bogged down in the technicalities of the claims that bras cause breast cancer, I’ll briefly consider the lymphatic system in relationship to the cancer claims. The claims are that bras prevent the lymphatic system from working properly, due to the underwire and/or the tightness of the bra. Most notably if sleeping in a bra.

The fact is that the lymphatic system of the breasts drain away from the bra, towards the armpit. This is even referred to in one of the supporting documents cited by the Bras and Breast Cancer site, which is being used as evidence of their claims that bras cause breast cancer. However, the authors of the document, which is a meta-analysis, make note of the limitations of the studies that it is analysing. The document notes the contradictory nature of the various studies, observing that while some studies see a correlation between breast cancer and bra wearing, others do not.

Needless to say, those advocating the link between bras and breast cancer only draw on the studies that support their claims.

Which brings me on to the observations of those in the ‘No’ camp.

BreastCancer.org, states the following:

There is no evidence to back the claims that… underwire bras, and wearing a bra at night are causes of breast cancer.” It goes on to say, “There is no scientific evidence to support either of these rumors.

The United Kingdom National Health Service (NHS), has this:

There is an ‘urban myth’ that wearing a bra disrupts the workings of the lymphatic system (an essential part of the immune system), which could lead to a build-up of toxins inside breast tissue, increasing the risk of cancer. New research suggests that this fear may be unfounded.

“The researchers concluded that their findings ‘provided reassurance to women that wearing a bra does not seem to increase the risk of the most common histologic types of postmenopausal breast cancer’.”

The American Cancer Society has a page for Disproven or Controversial Breast Cancer Risk Factors, which includes this:

Internet and e-mail rumors and at least one book have suggested that bras cause breast cancer by obstructing lymph flow. There is no good scientific or clinical basis for this claim, and a 2014 study of more than 1,500 women found no association between wearing a bra and breast cancer risk.

So, on the one hand you have a consensus among the scientific community that bras do not cause breast cancer. While, on the other hand, you have someone trying to sell a 25 year old book. It speaks volumes of today’s society that something that was disproved an entire generation ago is able to gain traction.

An issue with living on the internet is being able to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Quite why people are so willing to give credence to things that are demonstrably not true, I don’t understand…

One thing that I really don’t think is helpful, is that so many women find their bras uncomfortable. If something causes a person discomfort for so much of their lives, they’re bound to think the worst of it.

At the risk of being accused of mansplaining; would it not make more sense if everyone just got fitted for the correct bra size? Perhaps, at different times of the month. And also on a regular basis…?!

Because, no; bras can’t cause breast cancer.

But if it feels like they do, then you really need to do something about it…

(Please don’t kill me.)

4 thoughts on “Can Bras Cause Breast Cancer?”

    1. Bless you Kathy,
      Yes, thanks, everything was fine. Not even a polyp to have to wonder about.
      I will cover this in my March update, next week… although I might just do it as a post on the procedure for a colonoscopy, as that’s all that’s really happened this week.
      Thank you for your concern.

  1. Sydney Ross Singer

    Hi Paul. Nice to see you trying to tackle this topic, but you made some errors. In case you don’t recognize my name, I was mentioned in your article as the co-author of Dressed to Kill. If you look at the negative quotes from the cancer authorities you cite, you will see that they are opinion only. The only comment that has a study behind it refers to a 2014 study at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research CEnter, which was a flawed study that did not include any bra-free women, only bra users, so there was no control group. It also only included post-menopausal women, which creates a survivor bias. The purpose of that study was to disprove the link and discourage interest in it, so it was biased from the start. On the other hand, the meta-analysis study you mentioned which showed conflicting studies did conclude, without doubt, that sleeping in a bra increases cancer risk. Of course, if sleeping in one does that, then wearing a bra less than that could also cause cancer. And there are many other studies which show this. There are many issues in medicine where there are conflicting studies, which means there needs to be more research. Your conclusion that bras do not cause cancer is unjustified, especially since it is only based on unsubstantiated opinions and one flawed study.

    Realize that the lymphatic system is the immune system. Impair lymphatic function and you impair immunity, and increase the incidence of all sorts of diseases, including cancer. In fact, research shows that surgical incisions in the body create permanent impairment of local lymphatics and increases cancer incidence. You can see this study and others at my website BrasAndBreastCancer.org.

    As for money from my book, it is negligible. I run a nonprofit, and money is not our motive. On the other hand, there is the multi-billion dollar cancer detection and treatment industry which finds the simply, cost-free solution of preventing breast cancer by not wearing bras as a threat. By the way, the cancer industry will have to someday explain why they have been ignoring the most obvious factor that impacts breast health. Doing cancer research that ignores the bra (how long and how tightly it is worn daily) is like doing lung cancer research that ignores smoking, which actually was the case in the early 20th century.

    The key for any woman is to stop wearing a bra to see how her breasts feel after one month. Let her body be the guide. When women do this, they report that their breast pain and cysts go away, and their breasts lift and tone. (You failed to mention that when you discussed the weakening of the ligaments caused by bras. Ligaments can regain strength and better support the breasts as nature intended once women stop wearing the bra.)

    Anyway, I realize you are involved in medical care, so your faith and trust is probably in medicine and what doctors say. Unfortunately, the medical system is invested in drug therapy, and there is too much money in detection and treatment to bother with lifestyle methods of preventing, and recovering from, disease.

    Also, keep in mind that before you listen to doctors, ask for references, and look up the studies. You will find that much research is flawed, biased, and attempting to prove a point. There is no objectivity in medical science given the financial incentives. And mine is not the only health information that is being suppressed.


    Sydney Ross Singer
    Medical Anthropologist
    Director, Institute for the Study of Culturogenic Disease

    1. Hi Sydney,
      Thank you for your comment.
      Just to clarify my position, I’m a cancer patient in the UK. I have no vested interest in this issue, it was just something that I saw on Quora, which piqued my curiosity.
      As with all my posts, I started my research and the writing of this post with an open mind.
      The conclusions that I came to are based solely on my understanding from my own investigation. And, yes, I do accept the authority of sites like the NHS. In this instance, because the National Health Service is a universal health care provider. The NHS has a vested interest in reducing the cases of cancer, because it has limited funds, which are provided by taxation. If the NHS thought there was a link between bras and cancer, it is in its best interest to make this known. Simply put, the Big Pharma argument is not applicable in the UK.
      I accept that there is the risk of bias in research papers. I accept that this risk exists in all research papers, from all sides of the equation.
      My post was an honest appraisal of the information I could find at the time.
      And I’ve just dipped back into Google on the subject…
      I found, ‘Do underwire bras cause cancer?’ listed on the Breast Cancer Now page, entitled: ’10 Common Breast Cancer Myths Dispelled’. I’m referencing, Breast Cancer Now, not because I’m familiar with them. I’m not; in fact, I’ve never heard of them. But they’re a British Breast Cancer Charity. Which means, to my mind, there is no reason for them to mislead people on this topic.
      As it stands, and on the balance of probability, I see no reason to change the conclusions of my post.
      Which isn’t to say that won’t change in the future. Should the NHS sites and Breast Cancer charity sites start issuing warnings about bras, then I will rewrite my post accordingly.
      All the best,

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