This is what happens to your boobs when you stop wearing a bra

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues on worldwide with uncertainty of what the “new normal” will entail, many of us with breasts are sure of one thing: our boobs are finally free. Yes, after many years of having them locked up in “boob prison,” working at home and remaining indoors has allowed us to kick our bras to the curb. The consensus seems to be that if you’re not going anywhere, then there’s no point in wearing a bra. Just let those babies breathe and do their thing!

But while the bra-free life is a comfortable one, it does beg the question: Does shunning my bra affect my body in any way? Short answers from experts: yes and no. So let’s unwrap that, shall we?

Will not wearing a bra cause my boobs to sag?

To understand how bras affect our breasts, it’s important to understand how they were created in the first place. According to Amsterdam-based clothing company, Hunkemöller, bras can be dated back to 2500 B.C., when women wore a corset-like belt that pushed their bare breasts up. The first modern bra didn’t arrive until the 1889 World’s Fair when French inventor Herminie Cadolle decided to cut the corset into two pieces, giving the upper portion the straps we know today. Then, in 1913, Mary Phelps Jacob came along and perfected what Cadolle had started, by creating the most-widely used type of bras we see on the market today. But while these innovations over time were created to keep breasts in place and create a desired silhouette, nowhere does it say they were made to prevent sagging. Probably because they were mostly designed with aesthetics in mind.

As Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University School of Medicine, told Prevention there’s no evidence that bras prevent sagging. Nor does the myth of wearing a bra to bed to keep breasts shapely and perky hold any water either. 

Laura Tempesta, bra expert and founder of Bravolution, echoes this sentiment, recalling an interview with CEO of Platex, John Dixey for a documentary called, “Bras—The Bare Facts,” where he said, “We have no evidence that wearing a bra could prevent sagging, because the breast itself is not a muscle, so keeping it toned up in an impossibility.”

“Lifted breasts are considered attractive in our culture which is why bra-wearing is a cultural development,” Tempesta tells HelloGiggles. However, specific types of bras like sports bras were developed for functionality, support, and comfort during exercise. “There are lots of scientific studies showing the need to wear a sports bra during athletic activity.”

One such study by Professor Joanna Wakefield-Scurr of the University of Portsmouth found that breasts can bounce up to 21 centimeters (about eight inches) during exercise. This bouncing results in breast pain in 50% of women, no matter if they’re an A-cup or an FF-cup.

So whether it’s running, yoga, or any other exercise that’s likely to jostle your breasts, you definitely want to reach for your sports bra—if only to prevent aches and pains after your workout.

Will not wearing a bra cause chest muscles to grow?

Although breasts are mostly made up of fatty tissue, underneath against the chest wall, there are still ligaments and the pectoral muscle. Because of this, breast size can be affected by the muscles underneath.

According to Reuters, French sports doctor Professor Jean-Denis Rouillon found that when women ditched their bras, their breasts developed more muscle tissue. The reason for the more muscle tissue, he observed, was because bras weaken muscles, basically giving breasts the chance to be lazy. “The suspension system of the breast degenerates,” Rouillon told Reuters. However, his 16-year-long study of 330 women between the ages of 18 and 35 doesn’t exactly hold true for women who are middle-aged, plus-size, or who have had children, so take this tidbit with a grain of salt.

Will not wearing a bra alleviate physical pain?

For some women, wearing a bra all day can result in back, neck, or chest pain. A 2000 study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health found that pressure caused by wearing a bra can be so acute that it can disrupt your sleep cycle and circadian rhythm—even if you take off your bra way before bed. “It is essential for the breasts to rest adequately to stay healthy,” Heidi Lehmann, Master Bra designer of Vibrant Body Company, tells HelloGiggles. 

As Lehmann explains, going braless gives everything from the mammary glands, to the shoulders, neck, and ribcage, a breather. And, considering a 2008 study found that 70% of women wear bras that are too small for them, it only makes sense that pain could result. “If you wear a bra, look for one that minimally restricts and supports without wires,” says Lehmann. Or, better yet, stop guessing as to what your bra size is and be fitted by a professional.  

“There is a lot of research out there that says wearing a bra for prolonged periods of time is not good for you,” Helena Kaylin, founder of MINDD Bra Company, tells HelloGiggles. “As well as research that speaks to breast health benefits for not wearing a bra, like improving circulation, reducing neck pain and for many of us is just more comfortable, especially at home.”  

According to Kaylin, some research has found that bras cause more back pain than going braless—especially for women with large breasts. 

Ultimately, back pain from bras differs from person to person. But if you’re experiencing back pain and can’t pinpoint it to an ill-fitting bra, you may want to consider seeing a doctor. 

Can going braless cause skin issues?

For many people with breasts, breast sweat is a real thing. But if your breasts sweat while wearing a bra, the bra creates a barrier between the chest and the underneath part of the breast. When we go braless, that skin against skin combined with sweat can lead to skin irritations like intertrigo.

“[Intertrigo] arises as a result of two skin surfaces coming into close contact for a prolonged period of time,” Dr. Erum Ilyas, a dermatologist and Tory Burch Fellow 2019, tells HelloGiggles. “In the ‘inframammary’ area (under the breasts for both women and men) this fold of skin builds up heat and humidity that can inflame and start to break down the skin. This can also lead to a secondary yeast infection as well.”

According to Breast Cancer Now, yeast infections and intertrigo under the breasts are “very” common and can happen to anyone with breasts at any time throughout their lives. However, the bigger the breasts the more likely the rash, simply because there’s more space for moisture to develop. Also, the longer there is moisture under the breasts, the more likely someone is to develop irritation.

Although intertrigo can be treated with a topical steroid prescribed by your doctor or even by just putting a bra back on for a few days so the skin can dry out, it can still feel uncomfortable and itchy.

For some people, though, having an itch you can’t get to and maybe some dampness under their breasts is a small price to pay for letting their breasts be free of “boob prison.” If bras are, at the end of the day, a cultural preference that has far less to do with aches and pains, then maybe being bra-free is something worth considering in the long run. Perhaps, it’s time for us to come out this pandemic swinging—literally—and never go back to everyday bras again.