Per the report, polyester sports bras and athletic shirts made by Pink, Athleta, The North Face, and other manufacturers contain up to 22 times the safe amount of bisphenol A (BPA), as based on California’s Proposition 65 right-to-know law. Prop 65, also known as California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, informs consumers of too-high levels of chemicals in products that may cause cancer or harm to the female reproductive system. BPA has the potential to hit both of those nasty notes.
While this news may seem pretty alarming, don’t throw out your entire sports bra collection just yet. We talked with several experts to understand just how risky wearing this type of athletic wear really is—and how to reduce your exposure to BPA in your daily life.
What exactly is BPA?
BPA is a hormone-disrupting chemical that imitates the effects of estrogen on the body. The health risks of BPA may include male and female infertility, early puberty, breast cancer, and prostate cancer. It may also exacerbate other conditions that affect the female reproductive system.
“BPA’s widespread effects are thought to be tied to its ability to bind to the estrogen receptor. Given estrogen's central role in many processes tied to reproduction and fertility, it’s no surprise that BPA has been implicated in infertility and hormonally-driven conditions like endometriosis and PCOS,” says Priyanka Ghosh, MD, a reproductive endocrinologist at Columbia University Fertility Center. And, the impact on the fetus during pregnancy is thought to be even more long-lasting, she says.
BPA may also have an effect on the skin—perhaps even causing or increasing the severity of acne in adults, according to a recent study published in The Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. “I have always recommended limiting BPA exposure to my patients. Now that we know high levels are in sports bras, I’ll recommend [to people with acne] only wearing them when it’s absolutely necessary,” says Anna Chacon, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Miami. Of course, there are many factors that play into what causes acne, so limiting how much time you hang out in your sweaty sports bra is just one small thing you can try.
Despite all these potential concerns, there’s a catch: Ingesting food and drinks that contain BPA is the primary way it enters the system, says Tracey J. Woodruff, PhD, MPH, professor and program director of the Reproductive Health and the Environment & Environmental Research and Translation for Health (EaRTH) Center at the University of California in San Francisco.
That means ditching your sports bra may not make much of a difference—and it’s really not something you should spend a lot of time worrying about. “Is your sports bra giving you cancer? No scientist could possibly tell you that,” says Dr. Woodruff.
Can BPA in sports bras really be absorbed by the skin?
So, even if BPA is in your sports bra, how much is actually oozing out? And how much of that is making its way through your skin into your bloodstream? Experts say it’s not entirely clear. “There’s a lot of debate in the scientific community about estimating dermal absorption of BPA,” says Dr. Woodruff. “When it comes to skin absorption, how much BPA do sports bras emit? It’s plausible that clothing worn close to the body while sweating, or in heat, may increase BPA absorption,” she says.
While Dr. Ghosh agrees that this news is potentially concerning, she says we still don’t know whether wearing clothes with BPA really bumps up the level in your body to a significant or harmful degree.
Who might want to consider limiting their exposure to BPA in sports bras?
Again, your sports bra is not the primary way BPA gets into your system, but certain people might want to be extra cautious about how much BPA exposure they’re getting in general. “Now that we know there are some clothing items with BPA, the most conservative thing to do would be to minimize exposure to these products, especially in someone who may be pregnant or trying to conceive,” says Dr. Ghosh. Add to that list anyone going through body changes that affect the breasts, says Dr. Woodruff, such as puberty and breastfeeding—since BPA has the potential to affect the mammary glands.
Really, exposure during pregnancy and puberty are the most troubling timeframes, says Dr. Woodruff. “Healthy adults have less risk of health damage from BPA.”
3 tips to limit your exposure to BPA
If you are concerned about how much BPA exposure you’re getting, there are some simple changes you can make in your life that don’t involve purchasing an entirely new, spandex-free wardrobe. The Mayo Clinic recommends:
- Eliminating as much plastic from your life as possible. One way to do this is by storing leftover food in glass containers.
- Avoiding heating food in plastic containers, as BPA can leech into your food that way.
- When you can, eat fresh fruits and vegetables rather than canned ones.
Perhaps the best thing you can do? Get loud. Let your legislators know that BPA is not acceptable—in sports bras or anyplace else. “Maybe sports bras aren’t the biggest contributors to the problem, but why are we faced with having to identify and quantify their risk level after the fact?” asks Dr. Woodruff. “The bottom line is there should just not be any BPA in any products.”
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