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Digging into your back, squeezing around your chest, and poor support: These are all signs of an ill-fitting bra.
A loose bra can lack support, but a bra that’s too tight can wear out fast, limit your movement, and result in real pain — constraining straps and underwire can create tightness and soreness in your shoulders and upper body.
If your bra is causing you discomfort, you may suspect it doesn’t fit properly. But how do you know if your bra is truly too tight? Here are some ways to tell if your fit issues are because your bra is tight, and how to adjust or replace it for a better fit.
Believe it or not, wearing a bra that’s too tight can negatively impact the wearer in many ways. Some are mere annoyances, and some are more serious.
Your skin is irritated or chafing
“When tight clothing rubs the skin, it can cause excess sweating as well as irritation and inflammation of hair follicles,” says Heather Downes, MD, board certified dermatologist and founder of Lake Forest Dermatology. “Not only that, bacteria and/or fungus on the surface of the skin can more easily penetrate into these hair follicles, causing infection.”
Heat rash occurs when sweat ducts are blocked, and hives can develop through physical pressure on the skin.
You’re constantly adjusting it
You may find yourself constantly adjusting the straps or band as the bra shifts with your movement.
You’ve developed acid reflux, or it’s gotten worse
“Tight clothing, such as Spanx, on the abdomen can increase intra-abdominal pressure to the point that one can experience acid reflux from acid being pushed from the stomach into the lower esophagus,” says Downes.
You’re spilling out of your cups
Sometimes a bra seems to fit fine in the dressing room, but as you move around throughout the day, your breasts begin to slip out of the cups in the front or on the sides.
“Cups that are too small can be painful to wear, especially if they have underwires,” says Robynne Winchester, owner of Bay Area lingerie chain Revelation in Fit.
Your breasts not fitting snugly in the cups or underwire that sits on the breast itself can also be signs that your bra is too small.
“A properly fitted underwire should exactly trace the root of your breast, and it should lie flat on your ribcage,” says Winchester.
Your upper body hurts
“The most common bra fit issue is a cup that’s too small and a band that’s too loose,” says Winchester. “This results in a bra that is unsupportive, uncomfortable, and leads to issues such as shoulder and back pain.”
Winchester says that people often compensate for too-loose bands by tightening the straps too much, which puts strain on shoulders.
Speaking of tight straps, Downes says a common problem is skin issues worsening through overly tightened straps. “What I see… in my practice are tight bra straps that rub on benign skin lesions such as seborrheic keratoses and moles. These lesions can then swell or bleed and can feel painful.”
Depending on your specific issues, there are several methods for loosening a too-tight bra (or replacing it altogether).
Move up a notch
If you’re on the first or second set of hooks, the quickest fix would be to move up to the next set for (literally) a little more breathing room. If you’re already on the last set of hooks but don’t want to spring for a whole new bra just yet, try a bra extender.
Adjust your straps
Here’s a little-known fact about bra construction: The majority of a bra’s support comes from the band, not the straps or cups.
“Tightening the straps when the band is loose causes the band to ride up in the back, which further compromises support. Think of a see-saw — when the back goes up, the front goes down,” says Winchester.
If your straps or band are digging into your skin, your bra may fit better if you adjust your straps to be longer, moving the band further down your back.
Wear different sizes
You may have been led to believe that every person wears one, and only one, bra size but think about it — not every shirt or pair of jeans in your wardrobe is exactly the same size.
Depending on many factors, your bra size can fluctuate. “Hormonal fluctuations, age, and pregnancy can change a person’s bra size,” says Winchester. You may want to try on a handful of slightly different sizes, and keep a stash of the ones that fit best.
Before we begin, let’s dispel a major myth: There is no “good” or “bad” bra size. If you’ve been putting off bra shopping for fear you might fit a size that society seems to deem “too big” or “too small,” ditch that line of thinking, pronto. The right bra size for you is the one you feel best in.
According to Winchester, the basics of a well-fitting bra are:
- A level band. “The band should be level all the way around, firm and secure but not too tight or too loose. The gore (the part in the middle between the cups), in a wired bra, should sit flat against your sternum. It should not bow out or press in.”
- Comfortable cups. “The cups should totally encase and lift breast tissue. There should be no spillage out the top or sides or gaps. The wires should trace the outline of the breast. If the wire is too narrow, it will cut in, and if it is too wide, there will be empty space in the cup.”
- Doing the “scoop and swoop.” “Lean forward, place your opposite hand inside the cup towards the side and back, and gently pull your tissue up and forward. This gets all your breast tissue inside the cup and ensures a proper fit.”
Here are some ways to get yourself in the ballpark of a best fit.
The classic method
This is the formula often cited as the way to determine bra size.
- Measure your underbust. Find a measuring tape and wrap it around the space under your breasts. Make sure not to wrap it any tighter than you would want your bra to fit. If your measurement isn’t a whole number, round up.
- Add four inches. Adding four inches to your underbust measurement gives you your band size. If your underbust measurement is an odd number, round your total up. For example, an underbust measurement of 31.5 converts to a band size of 36. An underbust measurement of 29 inches converts a 34 band.
- Measure your bust. Wear the thinnest bra you own or none at all. Measure all the way around your back and the fullest part of your breasts — again, keeping the measuring tape no tighter than you’d be comfortable wearing. If your breasts are “shallow” (meaning the fullest part of them is near the bottom), you may need to lean forward a bit to get an accurate measurement.
- Calculate. Subtract the smaller number from the larger number. The difference gives you your cup size: A 1-inch difference is an A, a 2-inch difference is a B, and so on.
|Difference in inches||Cup size|
In recent years, others have come up with some new ways to find a more precise fit. For example, the bra-fitting brain trust at the Reddit board A Bra That Fits devised this method that factors in different body positions.
You can also try a riff on the classic method, in which you don’t add those four inches to your underbust to get your band measurement. Assume your underbust measurement in inches is your band size, rounding up for half-measurements, and measure your bust. Determine your cup size based on the difference.
Don’t forget about sister sizing
Your bra’s “sister sizes” are found by going down a band size and up a cup size, or vice versa. For example, sister sizes to a 36DD would be a 34DDD or a 38D. Sometimes the slight difference in fit is just enough to make for a better-fitting bra.
A tight bra can be at best uncomfortable, and at worst can result in real pain. Finding your correct bra size can be a time consuming task, but it’s worth it for a bra that won’t cause you annoyance or anguish. And remember: Your best-fitting bra is the one that you feel your best in.
Jody Amable is a freelance writer and editor from the San Francisco Bay Area specializing in music and subcultures. Her work has been seen in KQED Arts, Atlas Obscura, and local weeklies.