Working out can be challenging without the comfort of a supportive sports bra, but which sports bra is ensuring you are not exposed to detectable levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)? PFAS “forever chemicals” are linked to a number of serious health conditions–cancer, immune suppression, fertility problems, & many others– and are virtually ubiquitous in our environment. This is why Mamavation commissioned the first consumer study on popular sports bras (without underwire) to determine which brands are the safest.
You’ve trusted Mamavation to bring you consumer studies like green beauty makeup & indications of PFAS, activewear & indications of PFAS, & period underwear and indications of PFAS, now join us for a report on the most popular sports bras sold to Americans and indications of PFAS compounds. We’ve recorded our raw data at the bottom of this post to help you make the most educated sports bra purchasing decisions.
Disclosure: This consumer study is released in partnership with Environmental Health News. Scientific reviews performed by (1) Linda Birnbaum, Scientist Emeritus and Former Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program, (2) Pete Myers, Chief Scientist at Environmental Health Sciences, Adjunct Professor of Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University, and Co-Author of Our Stolen Future, & (3) Scott Belcher, Research Scientist with the Center for Environmental & Health Effects of PFAS at North Carolina State University. This post was medically reviewed by Sondra Strand, RN, BSN, PHN. Donations were provided by Environmental Health News and Mamavation community members. This post contains affiliate links.
Mamavation Finds Signs of Toxic PFAS “Forever Chemicals” In Most Sports Bras
Your favorite sports bra with adjustable straps holding your bust confidently without bounce during your pilates or spin class may be exposing you to PFAS, a class of chemicals linked to serious health conditions. That moisture-wicking material inside the molded cups or those pads internally nuzzled up against your breast could be more sinister than just allowing more breathability and support. Whether used as a compression bra during workouts or lounging around at home, your sports bra may be hiding something from you.
Mamavation set out to find how prevalent PFAS indicators are in sports bras, just like we did with activewear, to help you make educated purchasing decisions. We were shocked to discover indications of PFAS inside 65% of the sports bras we tested, and are ready to share those details with you so you can make informed purchasing decisions.
We may not be able to tell you how bad this exposure is–quite frankly because nobody knows–but at least we can help you get a better idea of where it’s coming from and empower you with information you did not have before.
Study Suggests Prevalent PFAS Exposure Against Nipple Adjacent Fabric in Sports Bras
Mamavation tested 23 sports bras for indications of PFAS at a third-party EPA-certified laboratory. The entire chemical category of PFAS (with over 10,000+ chemicals like PFOA, PFOS, or PTFE) are known as “forever chemicals” because they are ubiquitous, persistent, and very toxic.
We asked over 8,000 women in our private forum what sports bras they were wearing and purchased most of the brands they suggested from Amazon.com, Nordstrom.com, Target, Walmart, & other retailers from their own websites between June and January 2021. Bras varied in sizes XS to larger cup sizes for large breasts and plus-sized sizes. All sports bras were sent to the laboratory unopened in their original packaging after pictures were taken.
The laboratory tested each sports bra for organic fluorine, which is a marker for PFAS. Non-detect products only required one test for total fluorine, however, detectable amounts required a second test to determine organic fluorine. The specific lab method used by Mamavation tested for total fluorine by using the Determination of Total Fluorine by Oxygen Flask Combustion and Ion-Selective Electrode. If detectable total fluorine was observed at a detection level of 10ppm, the lab did a Determination of Fluoride Ion by Ion-Selective Electrode and then did a calculation to determine organic fluorine amounts. There is currently no consensus on how to spot-check textiles for PFAS. All methods at this point are non-validated. They nonetheless can still be used in revealing the presence of organic fluorine.
Here were our main findings:
- 65% of sports bras tested by Mamavation had detectable organic fluorine on the fabric next to their nipples. That’s 15 out of 23 brands detectable.
- We discovered that most of the exposure was in the breathable mesh fabric adjacent to the breast and nipples.
- Sports bras made from synthetic fabrics like polyester or rayon were more likely to be found with detectable organic fluorine.
- Detectable levels we found ranged from 10 parts per million (the lowest we could detect) all the way to 58 parts per million (ppm) organic fluorine.
- Nursing mothers may want to consider opting for sports bras free from indications of PFAS to protect the baby.
- However, 35% of the products tested did not have organic fluorine in this material, therefore, there is hope to phase these chemicals out because plenty of brands are running a profitable business without using them.
PFAS “Forever Chemicals” Are Linked to Problematic Health Effects
Whether you are doing a high-impact workout like cycling or a low-impact workout like yoga, your sports bra can expose you to PFAS “forever chemicals” according to our laboratory results. This class of chemicals doesn’t care what your bra size or cup size is, how much extra support you need in the cups and shoulder straps, or how often you go to the gym. They build up in your body just the same and can take years to naturally detoxify.
Who knew your full coverage high-impact sports bra could be such a bummer! PFAS is linked to a variety of adverse health effects that range in seriousness.
- reduction in immunity
- reduced vaccination response
- increased risk of allergies & asthma in young children
- affect the growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children
- increase cholesterol levels
- metabolic diseases like obesity & diabetes
- cardiovascular disease
- lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant
- increase the chances of miscarriage
- lowers male fertility through low sperm count
- smaller penis size
- increase the risk of kidney & testicular cancers
- Causes endocrine disruption
- Disrupts normal thyroid function
If you feel like you’ve been exposed to PFAS, especially during pregnancy, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of Community Health Investigations has created this health advisory fact sheet to use when talking to your doctor. While regulating authorities struggle to catch up, it would be wise to limit your daily exposure to PFAS markers within consumer products like sports bras.
What We Know About Dermal Exposure of PFAS “Forever Chemicals”
There isn’t a lot known about dermal exposure to PFAS “forever chemicals.” That doesn’t mean that there is no danger, it really just means we don’t know the extent of the danger. But here are some of the studies that point to a potential problem with dermal exposure.
- One study looking at PFAS in infant car seats found that PFAS can migrate from fabric to sweat, suggesting a potential risk to dermal exposure and sports bras.
- Another study found that dermal exposure is similar to oral exposure to PFOA and can be immunotoxic.
- Another study found that dermal exposure to PFBA demonstrated effects on the liver and showed similar results to oral PFBA and PFOA exposure.
However, it’s still assumed that food is the most prevalent pathway for PFAS to get into your body. Mamavation discussed dermal exposure with Pete Myers, Chief Scientist at Environmental Health Sciences, Adjunct Professor of Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University, and Co-Author of Our Stolen Future. We wanted to know how much PFAS could be absorbed through the skin after one workout.
“While we know that PFAS can be absorbed through the skin we don’t have much information about how much would be transferred from sports bras. It’s unlikely to be 0,” says Pete Myers.
Special Warning to Nursing Mothers Wearing Sports Bras with Indications of PFAS by the Nipple
Mamavation spoke with our pediatric advisor, Dr. Manasa Mantravadi, mom to 3 young children, member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health, & Founder of Ahimsa Home about potential issues surrounding nursing mothers and PFAS exposure to the breast and nipple. We wanted to know if there were any concerns for infants who are exposed to sweat that could have traces of PFAS in them due to exposure in their sports bra.
Now that we know the transfer of PFAS to sweat is a possibility, what happens if a nursing mother sweats inside one of these sports bras with indications of PFAS and then nurses? Will the PFAS transfer to the sweat and expose the nursing baby? And if so, how much? No one knows the answers to these questions, however, Dr. Manasa Mantravadi had some advice.
“I would recommend moms of infants be aware of chemicals found in everyday products. Studies show that PFAS and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals are unfortunately found in the breast milk of nursing moms. So if you are using bottles choosing materials like glass or stainless steel can help decrease exposure to these plastic chemicals. If you are a nursing mom, choose sports bras that are free from PFAS. Try to make choices you have control of and do what you can — it can be overwhelming but small simple steps as a conscious consumer can really add up to decreasing the exposure of every day toxins to your baby,” said Dr. Manasa Mantravadi.
Environmental Impacts of PFAS “Forever Chemicals” in Sports Bras
PFAS chemicals are called “forever chemicals” because they are extremely persistent, and thus take forever to break down in the environment. So not only are humans exposed to these chemicals when it’s found in apparel like sports bras, but the environment and surrounding community is exposed at every level before and after that.
- Workers: When PFAS are added to sports bras, the workers at the factory and the surrounding community may be exposed. Textile mills in China were proven to be hotspots in one study finding elevated levels of PFAS in the indoor air of the factory and pollution in the surface water in the surrounding community.
- Waterways: When sports bras with PFAS chemical treatments are washed, there is evidence PFAS leaches out into wash water potentially getting into our public water systems. Because they are difficult to remove, they end up in wastewater treatment facilities & never break down.
- Landfills: Then finally when your sports bra has reached the point where you throw it away, it’s added to the landfill and may contaminate soil and groundwater nearby.
We reached out to Dr. Linda Birnbaum, Scientist Emeritus and Former Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program, for her impression on how sports bras could potentially pose a problem to humans and the environment overall.
“It seems pretty clear there are companies selling sports bras that do NOT have PFAS. Let’s hope the consumers pay attention and reward them.
Overall, finding indications of PFAS in such an everyday worn article as a sports bra is concerning not only to humans but to the Environment. Dermal exposure, however unstudied, may be a pathway for body burden. Nursing mothers may want to consider showering after sweating inside a sports bra before they nurse. But because PFAS does not break down, at every turn, the environment will be exposed–starting at the factory and ending inside a landfill where it never breaks down.”
How Do PFAS “Forever Chemicals” Get Into My Sports Bra?
There are various ways PFAS “forever chemicals” can get into your sports bras either on purpose as chemical treatment or as a contaminant of manufacturing. When we did our investigation of period underwear, we interviewed several brands to get an idea of how dermal exposure to PFAS could happen in the apparel industry. We also asked how you might be exposed to it through your period underwear.
Chemical Treatments Added to Fabric
The first way that PFAS can find its way onto your activewear is on purpose as treatments by the manufacturer. These treatments are very rarely disclosed on the label, but can serve the following functions:
- stain resistance
- water resistance
- protection from chafing
Sports bras that were tested by our laboratory found detectable levels of organic fluorine in the fabric adjacent to the breast and nipple. Sports bras typically have two and sometimes three layers of fabric. After much testing of different parts of the sports bras, our laboratory found the inner fabric to have the most indications of PFAS. Thus, chemical treatments seem to be focused on this breathable mesh fabric perhaps to provide a more moisture-wicking breathable experience. We also found this to be more common among sports bras made from synthetic materials perhaps because polyester and rayon are more likely to chafe your skin.
When we interviewed period underwear brands for an earlier investigation, we discovered that smaller brands are not manufacturing their own products or testing their products for indications of PFAS independently. The manufacturer middlemen offer laboratory tests to brands to “prove” what was inside the fabric and sometimes those fabrics have various certifications. Very few brands were independently lab testing their finished products on their own. This became evident when we did our own testing for indications of PFAS on period underwear.
Lubrication or Sprays on Manufacturing Equipment
Sometimes manufacturing equipment requires the use of lubrication or other chemicals to keep it running smoothly. These chemicals can be emitted into the air or rubbed up against the fabric. Trace amounts of those lubricants and other chemicals can then be found on the fabric.
In addition, sometimes equipment is sprayed with chemicals to keep things from sticking to machinery, especially when things get hot. This is also another way that trace amounts of PFAS can get on a piece of clothing.
It’s also possible that manufacturing equipment could be covered in PFAS “non-stick” chemicals OR utilize fiberglass that has been treated with a PFAS chemical.
The manufacturing equipment and storage equipment must be cleaned out in between uses to prevent the spread of bacteria and cross-contamination. Some cleaners used on manufacturing equipment are made with fluorinated ingredients and their trace amounts can get into your product if they are not rinsed off properly and wiped down.
Raw Data from Mamavation’s Investigation of Sports Bras
Mamavation desires to help make your non-toxic shopping experiences easy, so we have provided you with the raw data that we received from the laboratory on each brand. You’ll find three categories presented: Not our favorite, better, and best.
- Not Our Favorite Category — represents sports bras that the laboratory informed us had detectable levels of organic fluorine above 10 parts per million. In other words, we found indications of PFAS.
- Better Category — represents sports bras that had no detectable organic fluorine above 10 parts per million but were made of materials that pollute the planet. In other words, we did NOT find indications of PFAS.
- Best Category — represents sports bras that had no detectable levels of organic fluorine at 10 parts per million AND were made of mostly organic materials. These would be the brands we recommend you purchase if you can.
Please note some caveats about this consumer study. Mamavation is not saying that all products from the brands in “not our favorite” category are all going to have or are always going to have the amounts found. There is no possible way we could know all that. In fact, it’s likely that if their customers want them to remove PFAS, they will find a way to do it. (Hint, hint.) So please think of this consumer study as a spot check of the industry.
It’s also important to understand that the testing we have done is used as a marker for PFAS, but we did not isolate and identify those compounds directly. Instead, we are testing for organic fluorine. Because it’s impossible to test for all 10,000+ PFAS compounds directly, we are using marker testing that will only tell us how much organic fluorine is found. The other types of chemicals found in organic fluorine (that are not PFAS-related) are things like fluorinated pharmaceutical drugs.
And finally, we are not the only organization utilizing organic fluorine testing to ascertain what consumer products are free from PFAS. This method of testing for total fluorine and organic fluorine is becoming standardized by certifications looking for indications of PFAS in other industries. Some certifications evaluating food packaging products for “compostability” or as a toxic-free alternative are utilizing this type of method. BPI Industries uses total fluorine results to certify food packaging for composting and Green Screen Certified also relies on total fluorine results to give food packaging a non-toxic determination as well.
Not Our Favorite Sports Bras
This category is for sports bras that had detectable organic fluorine above 10 parts per million (ppm), which indicates possible PFAS on the fabrics. The fabrics that had detectable levels of organic fluorine were saddled right alongside the breast and nipple which concerned us about the potential for leaching onto the skin of the nipple tissue and for any mother who is nursing after they workout.
- Adidas Women’s Don’t Rest Alphaskin Bra — 57 parts per million (ppm) organic fluorine
- Athleta Warrior Longline Twist Sports Bra — 35 parts per million (ppm) organic fluorine
- Champion Women’s Freedom Seamless Racerback Sports Bra — 48 parts per million (ppm) organic fluorine
- Enell Sports High Impact Bra — 28 parts per million (ppm) organic fluorine
- Fabletics Harlyn Midi Medium-Impact Sports Bra — 23 parts per million (ppm) organic fluorine
- Knix Catalyst Front Zip Sports Bra — 13 parts per million (ppm) organic fluorine
- LIVI (Lane Bryant) No Wire Wicking Sports Bra — 28 parts per million (ppm) organic fluorine
- Nike Women’s Medium Support Non-Padded Sports Bra — 38 parts per million (ppm) organic fluorine
- SheFit Sports Bra — 48 parts per million (ppm) organic fluorine
- Sweaty Betty Sports Bra — 11 parts per million (ppm) organic fluorine
- Third Love Muse Sports Bra — 58 parts per million (ppm) organic fluorine
- Torrid Black Racerback Wicking Sports Bra — 37 parts per million (ppm) organic fluorine
- UnderArmour Sports Bra — 24 parts per million (ppm) organic fluorine
- Zyia Active Black Bomber Bra — 27 parts per million (ppm) organic fluorine
Better Sports Bras
The sports bras in this category did not have any detectable levels of organic fluorine with a detection level of 10 parts per million. This section would be for mostly conventional fabrics except for GapFit which our lab was able to detect organic fluorine just below the detection limit at 9 parts per million. The good news is there are several options here for women that are desiring sports bras that are under 10 parts per million organic fluorine. This section has some higher impact sports bras available for consumers who need to do more running, kickboxing, cross fit, or other high impact type activities.
- All in Motion Sports Bra (Target Brand) — non-detect results
- Cotton.com Workout Training Crop — non-detect results
- CRZ Yoga Longline Yoga Bra — non-detect results
- GapFit Recycled Power Low Support Sports Bra — 9 parts per million (ppm) organic fluorine
- Lululemon Free to Be Strappy Sports Bra — non-detect results
- Tree Tribe Brasport Eco Forest Camo Bra — non-detect results
Best Sports Bras
The sports bras in this category did not have any detectable levels of organic fluorine with a detection level of 10 parts per million AND materials are made of mostly organic cotton.
- Go Pact Organic Racerback Lounge Bra — non-detect results (DISCOUNT: Take 20% off your first Pact Organic purchase by using “MAMAVATION” at checkout.)
- Rawganique BEVERLY Organic Cotton Triple Strap Active Bra — Non-detect results
- Satva GOTS Organic Nanda Bra — non-detect results
Other Mamavation PFAS Testing Projects
Mamavation has been working hard to discover where to find PFAS “forever chemicals” inside food & other products we purchase and bring inside our homes. This is why we have decided to commission our own consumer studies on indications of PFAS in different consumer categories and share that information with you.
If you are here to find out what workout leggings are free from detectable PFAS, you may also be interested in our other similar studies.
- Green beauty makeup
- Period underwear
- Pasta & tomato sauces
- Parchment paper
- Bamboo flooring
We also have other investigations you may like.