One of the most rewarding feelings for people who wear a bra is unhooking it after a long day away from home. But that moment of relief is actually one I haven’t experienced in over a year. That’s because I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to work and socialize from the safety of my house during the pandemic—which means I’ve been able to go braless. Sure, I throw one on when I’m exercising or need to run an errand (though even errand runs were bra-free in the colder months, when I wore extra layers to cover up). Other than that, I’m usually bra-free—and have been since last March.
But rumors I’ve heard throughout the years have swirled in the back of my mind all these months: wearing a bra prevents your breasts from sagging, not wearing a bra actually trains your breasts to not need one, there is a link between wearing a bra and breast cancer risk.
Now that I’ve been largely braless for over a year—and based on what I’ve read and heard, I know I’m not the only one who has ditched regular bra usage this past year—I figured it was time to find out if there’s any truth to these rumors. Here’s what experts say about the health effects of not wearing a bra long-term.
Is it OK to go braless for an extended period of time?
“The short answer is that it’s not dangerous to go without a bra,” Deanna Attai, MD, a breast surgeon and associate clinical professor of surgery at UCLA, tells Health.
And now, the longer answer addressing each rumor.
Breast sagging (which is medically known as “ptosis”) happens with or without wearing a bra, Dr. Attai says. It’s mostly due to the normal aging process—when the dense glandular tissue of the breast is replaced by fat—and to the stretching out of supportive ligaments over time. Factors like genetics, weight fluctuations, hormonal changes, pregnancy, and smoking can also impact when and how much breasts sag, Sabrina Sahni, MD, a family medicine physician and women’s health expert at the Mayo Clinic, tells Health.
However, she says that some of the sagging may be mitigated by wearing a bra, especially for women who have larger, more dense breasts. “What can happen if you don’t wear something that’s supportive is that you can get little micro-traumas in your Cooper’s ligaments [your breast’s supportive ligaments], which can sometimes accelerate that sagging process,” Dr. Sahni explains.
Why does going braless potentially result in sagging for women whose breasts are large? Because the heavier that breasts are, the more strain they put on the glands inside the breast and the overlying skin, Jordan Jacobs, MD, chief of plastic surgery at Mount Sinai Downtown in New York City, tells Health.
So if you are someone with large breasts who wants to possibly prevent some degree of sagging, you might not want to go braless for months on end…though how long it takes for any sag to happen is impossible to know, Dr. Jacobs says, since it depends on so many factors. But otherwise, going braless for the long-term won’t really have an effect on sagging—you’d have to find an anti-aging potion to prevent it altogether.
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Training your breasts
I’d heard that not wearing a bra can make it so you won’t need to wear a bra in the future; the thought behind this was that your breasts will stay perkier as you get older because you’ve trained your muscles to not need the support. Wrong.
“One thing that I always tell women is that you have to remember that the breast is made up of fat and glandular tissue, so it really can’t be strengthened in the same way that your muscle can,” Dr. Sahni explains. In other words, going braless isn’t “training” your muscles—that’s just not how the body is set up anatomically. The pec muscles in your chest can be strengthened through push-ups and chest presses, she points out, but that won’t have an effect on whether or not your breasts sag.
“There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that wearing a bra or not wearing a bra will impact your overall breast cancer risk,” Dr. Sahni says. Many factors can play a part in your breast cancer risk, but going braless isn’t one of them.
The bottom line: “generally speaking, wearing or not wearing a bra really won’t have a significant impact on your overall health,” she says, adding that it’s entirely a personal choice.
Is there anyone who shouldn’t go braless?
For most women, going braless comes down to a personal decision. But in some cases, doctors recommend that a person continue wearing one.
“In some women who experience a lot of breast pain (which can be related to ptosis but also other factors such as hormone fluctuations), we do recommend wearing a supportive bra as one of the measures that may help,” Dr. Attai says.
Wearing a bra might be beneficial for women with larger breasts, too. “It can provide additional support, it can help with posture, and it really can alleviate some of the strain on the back, neck, and shoulders,” Dr. Sahni says. One of the most common things doctors hear from women who go braless is that they have back pain, she adds.
So for women with these concerns, Dr. Sahni says the suggestion is to find a bra that’s “supportive for your body shape, that’s comfortable, that you can wear as much as much as you want to.”
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Alternatives to going braless
Going braless isn’t for everyone, but I certainly haven’t been alone in this quest for comfort.
Since the pandemic, there’s been a shift from “hard clothing” to “soft clothing,” such as loungewear, Cora Harrington, founder of The Lingerie Addict, a blog dedicated to intimate apparel, tells Health. That trend toward soft clothing extends to undergarments too, particularly bras. “People are preferring wire-free bras, bralettes, sleep bras, lounge bras, that sort of thing over underwire bras because they’re at home, so they don’t feel that they need to have that harder support, that firmer structure at home that they might need if they were leaving the house,” Harrington says.
Right now, comfort is the primary factor people are considering when purchasing bras to wear at home. (That includes me; I bought my first lounge and wire-free bras this year.) “People want to wear something at home that’s comfortable, that feels good, but that also works when they need to be on a Zoom call or that works as far as what they need to do around the house,” Harrington explains.
For some people, that might mean wearing a sports bra. “I think that a sports bra that properly supports the skin and supports the gland is absolutely just as efficacious as an underwire bra,” Dr. Jacobs says. In fact, while Dr. Jacobs says it’s “absolutely fine to take a break from wearing a bra,” finding a bra that is more comfortable, like a sports bra, and that still maintains support is a happy medium in preventing ptosis in the long run for those women who are at risk.
Dr. Sahni also says that wearing a supportive and comfortable sports bra as your daily bra is fine. “I think a lot of other physicians or people might argue that you can get increased risk of dermatologic issues on the breast if you’re wearing something really tight and compressive, and you can have things like rashes or skin irritation, but it really comes down to getting something that fits really well and that you feel comfortable in,” she explains.
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When we start leaving the house more, are we going back to underwire bras?
Right now, the trends in lingerie can go in any direction, Harrington says; it all depends on what people want when they start returning to their workplaces. People might want to dress up more, since they’ve been home in loungewear for so long. Some people may not feel comfortable going bra-free or wearing anything but an underwire bra in an office setting.
But since many of us still haven’t returned to the office, Harrington says it’s a good time to explore new options when it comes to bras, as your comfort level might have changed. And over the course of the past year, your breasts themselves might have changed too, particularly if your weight has gone up or down, Dr. Jacobs points out.
And when the country fully opens back up again and you want to stick with your old bras that have been stored away for over a year? They’ll be in the same shape you left them in, ready to be hooked into place on your body. It’s the act of wearing a bra and washing it that causes wear and tear. “It’s far more of a risk that your size has changed, or your comfort has changed, or your taste has changed than that your bra has become suddenly unwearable this past year,” Harrington says.
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