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Are Toxic Bras Killing You? An Industry Insider Talks

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Are you wearing toxic bras?

It’s a valid question. After all, we really know very little about the chemicals making up those sexy breast-enhancing bras that so many of us hold dear. Most women are also wearing the wrong size bra, which reportedly causes a number health issues.  So, what gives?

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Bra padding materials and associated chemicals are probably the most controversial of topics in the industry.  In 2008, a woman who experienced painful rashes, welts, and burns brought a lawsuit against Victoria’s Secret claiming that formaldehyde was to blame.  Hundreds of other women experienced the same symptoms and posted on web sites throughout the Internet. An independent lab tested the bra material and found trace amounts of formaldehyde, yet the lawsuit was dropped. Women still post about suffering from these awful reactions, but VS denies the claim.

Could it be another chemical? Or a combination of chemicals that are to blame?

We Asked The Bra Designer

“There’s no such thing as a good bra designer unless you understand the materials,” claims Heidi Lehman, the chief technical designer of Vibrant Body Company.

Heidi Lehman Vibrant Body
Heidi Lehman


Heidi is one of the world’s leading experts on bra construction and design. She is from Germany, where she grew up in a garment district that specialized in knitted and elastic fabrics. Her mother was a talented seamstress.

Heidi continued working with textiles as she apprenticed for a cotton company, went to trade school where she focused on underwear and stretch materials, and later attended Munich’s fashion school where she got her masters in tailoring and design.

Heidi became one of the most recognized names in the bra and lingerie industries. She has worked with Jockey by Hanes and Soma and was the top designer at Triumph/Valsere (the biggest producer of bras and underwear).  She has multiple industry patents in her name, including the revolutionary Santoni Seamless Technology, which is used by essentially every major lingerie brand.

Heidi is no doubt the world’s leading source on what women need to know about their knocker lockers.  Who better to ask about those continued rumors about formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals in our over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders?

Heidi gave merit to the rumors of formaldehyde in bras: “It’s all about cutting costs. Save a cent here, don’t tell anyone this is toxic… The skin is the biggest organ in our bodies.  What are we putting on our bodies? I was blown away that they were still using formaldehyde.”

The chemical is used to help retain elasticity and shape, according to a vendor she talked to about the subject. It is also used in wrinkle-free textiles. While Europe has stricter laws about formaldehyde use in clothing than the U.S. does, formaldehyde is a classified carcinogen.  In other words, it causes cancer by altering a cell’s genetic structure. It can also cause a variety of symptoms and adverse health effects such as eye, nose, throat, and skin irritation, coughing, wheezing, and allergic reactions (like skin blisters and rashes), per the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

So why do chemicals like this appear in our clothing at all?  According to the U.S. Department of Commerce report dated 2010, there are zero enforceable legal restrictions on formaldehyde in clothing, but there is required disclosure if it exceeds certain levels. For people over age three, the U.S. doesn’t require labeling until levels meet or exceed 75 parts per million (ppm) for innerwear. It’s 300 ppm for outerwear. (source: Restricted Substance List (March, 2017) from the AAFA).

Is that good? Compare it to the 0.03 ppm that naturally occurs in indoor and outdoor air and decide for yourself.

Then, there’s polyurethane. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, if you’re wearing a padded bra, you are most certainly exposed to polyurethane. In fact, you’ll find it in shape wear and shoes (it’s elastic and light weight).  If properly bonded during the manufacturing process, the petroleum-based chemical is considered inert— not dangerous. But it is not always properly bonded. Prolonged exposure to the active chemical can cause cancer, autoimmune disorders, respiratory problems, skin irritation and more (source:

Note: After browsing content lists on lingerie sites, the disclosure of the foam padding in bras is not mandatory or not enforced.

“Polyurethane foam releases chemicals as you use it. You can create a better scenario with low toxic, up to sky high toxic. It’s called ‘fogging,’” explains Heidi. Vibrant Body uses a water-based foam. “It’s called “Blue Foam” — non-yellowing, non-crumbling, non-toxic. It’s patented by Meiser. We patented the whole bra.”

The Vibrant Body bra that Heidi designed is made from 100% non-toxic materials. The cup is six layers and the underwire is eliminated. They also use a V-back design so the straps stay put and a cushioned hook and eye. The standard bra manufacturer uses a typical “U” shape cup, but when you incorporate more to the side of the breast, you get a better shape (think projection instead of lift).   “The projection comes from the cups and frame. The tiny bones in the side move with you, it will never poke. This is the secret sauce.  All those ingredients together.”

It’s All About Fit

An ill-fitting bra can cause damage as well, though the rumor about bad fit causing breast cancer was debunked by a number of sources.  “Like a strapless bra,” says Heidi. “Women think it has to be very tight. But your body can’t flush out through your lymphatic system.  A bra can’t be restriction-free, but it has to be gentle. If we could, we should run around braless!”

Ill-fitting bras can also cause bank pain, shoulder/neck pain, block blood flow to the breast tissue, and even cut the skin.

That argument along with premature sagging that is attributed to prolonged bra use are great reasons to take off your bra as soon as you get home very day.

What are common mistakes with regard to choosing and caring for your booby traps?  Heidi named three:

  1. Throwing your bra in the washing machine.  “Ideally, wash it with your hands.”
  2. Buying bras the wrong size— usually due to poor measuring techniques.
  3. Believing one size is consistent across brands.  “For instance, they [a brand] were using a 36B cup in a 34C band. In a cut and sew cup (no foam shaping), the sizing is more consistent.”

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6 comments on “Are Toxic Bras Killing You? An Industry Insider Talks

  1. Okay, this made me giggle: “knocker lockers”. I have a love/hate relationship with bras. Through the magic of menopause, my taataas have expanded exponentially. No. No. No. In the past few months, I’ve been seriously contemplating going braless and letting my 36DDs swing merrily in the breeze. Great article!

    1. You might be onto something! Definitely look for non-toxic, wireless bras if you keep strapping them up. I don’t think Heidi’s company Vibrant Body Co. designs above a “D” cup right now, but it’s on the way.

    1. Fit is queen! There are some pretty great sports bras out there that define the breasts instead of the old “uni-boob” that traditional sports bras create 🙂

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