Ask Surly Amy: Underwire Bras and Cancer

Hi, Surly Amy.

I recently went shopping with my mom and she saw that I had picked out a bra with under wire in it. She immediately began telling me that under-wire causes breast cancer and since we have a history of breast cancer, under-wired bras are a death sentence for us. I have heard a bit about the whole “under-wire = death” and I highly doubt that it is true. Is there any scientific basis supporting my well-meaning mother and friends?


Dear WiredinBoca,

The idea that underwire bras can cause cancer is an urban myth that started in 1995 whena book called Dressed to Kill, by Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer came out. In the book the authors claimed that women who wore tight fitting bras everyday where more likely to get breast cancer. They recommended that women wear no bra at all. Not so surprisingly, this research did not pan out and Scientific American did an excellent take down of this research in a 2007 article called: Fact or Fiction? Underwire Bras Cause Cancer.

The bra cancer link simply does not have evidence to back it up. There are too many factors the research did not take into consideration and no real evidence to back up the claims. From the Scientific American article:

It just really is not logical in terms of what would increase your risk of breast cancer,” says Louise Brinton, chief of the hormonal and reproductive epidemiology branch of the National Cancer Institute. Brinton, who has been doing research in the field for 30 years, says commonly accepted breast cancer risk factors are generally things that affect endogenous hormone levels.

These risk factors include how old a woman is and the age at which she had her first child. (The risk increases for women who have not had children, or who have given birth after the age of 30.) Breast-feeding and exercise are thought to lower risk, whereas a family history of the disease increases it. Scientists also know that 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers are linked to BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations.

As with many simple urban myths the underwire bra story has managed to lurk in the collective subconscious of the culture and it pops it head up now an again. It’s a story that sounds somewhat plausible and can easily be passed along in casual conversations and this gives it staying power. So just to put our minds at ease I also ran your question past David H. Gorski, MD, PhD who is an oncologist and managing editor of Science Based Medicine Blog. His short answer was this:

The answer is, of course, no. Underwire bras do not cause breast cancer.

He then gave a link to a post he wrote that addresses many of the myths and outright quackery surrounding breast cancer and breast cancer awareness. You can read that detailed post in its entirety here.

If there was evidence for underwire bras causing cancer you would think we would see some warning labels on bras. It has been 17 years since the myth began but there is still no evidence to back the claim and no need for warnings or alarm.

Bras may be at times very uncomfortable, but they aren’t trying to kill you.

Breast cancer is a very scary thing and we often feel a lack of control around issues like this so we try to find ways in our own life that we can gain some sort of control over what may or may not cause the disease. Unfortunately, the answers are not as simple as what type of bra you are wearing. We often have little or no control of disease onset. We do however, have some control over early detection and some very effective ways of fighting the disease. The best thing you can do, especially if breast cancer is a risk in your family is to get regular breast cancer screenings and do your best to follow a healthy lifestyle.

There are plenty of things in life to worry about but your bra isn’t one one of them.

Got a question you would like some Surly-Skepchick advice on? Send it in! We won’t publish your real name, unless you want us to and creative pseudonyms get bonus points! Just use the contact link on the top left of the page.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. In some hippie-er circles this urban legend has been extrapolated to all bras.  I have a couple of friends who routinely lecture me about the fact that my bras are going to DESTROY ME!  I knew it was bullshit, but thanks for the links specifically to debunk this in particular. 
    At least my militant lesbian friend is honest about the fact that she despises them as Tools of the Patriarchy.  I prefer to refer to them as "Tool that lets me run without undue pain in the boob-al region."

    1. Agreed, I have boobs that get very sensitive during certain parts of my cycle, if I didn't have my bra I would walk around eternally craddling them to my chest.

  2. I do know that for many (but by no means all) women who've had treatment for breast cancer, underwired bras are no good because they can irritate post-treatment scar tissue.  I can't help but wonder if people get this mixed up in there with their misinformation somehow.

    1. While I haven't had surgery for breast cancer, I have a large scar under my left breast that extends under my arm pit from a thoracotomy I had 6 years ago. I definitely notice some of my bras cause… not pain, but a definite discomfort along the scar. For me, I think it has to do with something rubbing along the skin that has lost sensation due to the surgery, not the scar itself. I was very luck and my scar healed wonderfully. They did the surgey that way, rather than through my back because I have large breasts and it was very easy for the scar to be hidden along the crease under my breast. Even though I got a large amount of the sensation back over the years (much more than predicted) there is still an area surrounding the incision that has no tactile sensation but where I can feel pressure. Certain bras rubbing along that section of skin, I can only describe it as, freak me out. I can feel the pressure from the bra but not the sensation of it. Anything rubbing on this area freaks me out, not just bras but I suppose they are the most likely things to be there on a daily basis.
      Sorry for my long rambling post on this… My bra was driving me crazy on a plane yesterday so it's on my mind!

  3. I don't how people with really large boobies ever got along without bras. :P I'm a busty lady, and thank you inventer of bras for letting me run and jump and excersize without ouchies. Personally, I prefer underwire varieties (coincidentally, a relative also gave me an underwire/cancer lecture because of this preference) the other types really just don't offer me any support. :P
    Any way, awesome post! This is why I love skepchick. <3 

  4. You know, I have my doubts – but not for the reasons people seem to think. I also tried to research this but couldn't find much online. Apparently metals with a very low dose of radioactivity are allowed to be used for general purposes like silverware or whatever. What if undwerwires in bras are very slightly radioactive – but we wear them every day.
    It sounds like a wildly strange conspiracy theory but I've wondered for years. I would be happy to be proven wrong.

    1. I haven't clicked on the above links yet, but I believe the scare has more to do with the metal pushing up against your body and cutting off lymph drainage than the type of metal itself.

  5. I almost never go out without an underwire bra, I'm just too chesty and wearing non-underwire makes me feel like my breasts are trying to escape. When I saw the question posed my eyebrow about flew off my head. I do vaguely remember that book and goodness I'm not surprised it's chock full of the bunk.
    Granted I've been literally stabbed a few times when the underwire breaks off and manages to shear through the fabric layer. It's a strange sensation, hear a small pop then JAB!! Attacked by undergarments >< So I think that's the most likely 'health risk' associated with underwire in general.

    1. I hate that.  You're just going casually about your day, and then "ATTACK FROM UNDERBOOB!"  I think when it pinches is almost more annoying than outright stabbing.

  6. When I was starting to wear bras it was 'wearing a bra to bed gives you cancer'. In my first fulltime permanent job it was 'underarm deodourant gives you cancer'.

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