Although not a visible part of an outfit, a bra helps smooth out your look while also supporting your skin and tissue in a way that can prevent back problems. You’d think that such an important undergarment would be treated with reverence, but most of us just whip it onto a chair across the room at the end of the day, rarely thinking about how often we’re washing it.
Given the importance of bras, we thought we’d ask the experts about how often we’re supposed to wash them — and we’re a little shook.
Why Even Wash Bras?
It’s important to understand why wearers should clean their bras every so often, whether they’re visibly dirty or not.
Let’s start with the obvious: The risks of wearing a dirty bra include bacteria possibly rubbing on your skin and causing an infection, according to Dr. Leah Ansell, a board-certified dermatologist in New York.
“Yeast infections are common under the breast and are caused by a yeast called Candida,” she said. “Yeast likes dark, moist places. That’s why they’re common in that area. They can be exacerbated by bra-wearing if not washed properly.”
A good cleansing will also clear the bra of debris, “like dead skin that naturally exfoliates, dirt, and sweat,” Ansell added.
Laura Burke, an intimate apparel stylist and certified bra fit expert at Fit by Burke in New York, said the natural heat that a body gives off actually alters the shape of a bra.
“Washing it will help it get back to its natural shape,” she said. “The heat of our body impacts the fabric. That’s why we need to allow our bras to rest in between wears, to come back to its shape and continue to support you best.”
She added that “in terms of ‘regular’ bras, I worry about exposed metal,” specifically calling out underwire products.
“When that cloth [covering the metal] wears out and the metal becomes exposed, even if not completely visible, it can cause allergies,” Burke said. “Exposed metals from bras can, in fact, cause irritating contact dermatitis or allergic contact dermatitis.”
Interestingly, overwashing bras can also damage them, which leads to the question ...
How Often Should You Clean Your Bras?
“Bras can be worn three to four times before being washed,” Burke said. “But it depends on the type of bra. Sports bras, for example, can be washed after every wear.”
Lingerie designer Nichole de Carle echoed those sentiments.
“I tend to hand-wash my bras at least once a week. But my functional sports bras will be washed after every sweaty session,” she said. “They do need to be washed more regularly when I’m more active.”
Ansell agreed that each type of undergarment should be treated differently.
“A sports bra is tight and fitted, and I think it is more likely to contribute to the inflammation of the skin under the breast since you’re sweating,” she said. “If you’re not washing it after exercising, bacteria can get into your skin.”
Everyday lingerie pieces, said the dermatologist, can be washed about once a week.
“But if you commute or take a bike, exercise, or walk a lot, I would be [cleaning] it more frequently,” she noted.
What’s The Best Way To Wash Bras?
The question is not only how often we clean our lingerie, but which methods we employ to do so.
The consensus is that, given their fragility, bras should be washed carefully — but that doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding machines.
“Wash your bras in a delicate or hand-wash cycle,” Burke advised. “If you are washing them with other clothing, it’s best to place them in a lingerie bag to protect them.”
Sweaty sports bras should be washed after each use to prevent bacteria from growing.
If you do throw them in the washing machine, you’ll want to follow a few tips from Burke.
“Remember to hook all your bras first to make sure they don’t snag on each other,” she said, further suggesting that you consider doing a “bra-only load.”
De Carle, a fan of hand-washing, recommended selecting a lower temperature if you insist on machine-washing a bra. “Pop it on a delicate program in its laundry bag to give it a better chance of surviving a few spins,” she added.
De Carle also emphasized the environmental issues associated with machine use.
“We should prioritize the life of our bras and the environmental impact over speed,” she said. “I recommend soaking to save on wasting more water when rinsing it out. Hand-washing is gentler on some fabric fibers (especially silk or wool) and, more importantly, it saves water use. Today’s standard washing machines use on average 20 gallons of water per cycle, which is equivalent to 320 cups of water. So hand-washing not only prolongs your bra’s life cycle, but it is also much better for the environment.”
Overall, everyone we interviewed suggested avoiding drying machines entirely.
“Letting the bra dry naturally will preserve its life cycle for more longevity,” de Carle said. Ansell agreed, noting how air-drying bras will “keep them in good shape” and prevent them from breaking down.
Specifically, “the dryer breaks down the elasticity,” rendering the product basically useless, according to Burke.
How Do You Know If It’s Time For New A Bra?
“A good rule of thumb is to donate your bra after its first birthday,” advised Burke, noting, however, that most women “keep them much longer than that.”
If you’re looking for an even more detailed timeline, Burke offered a helpful guideline.
“When you first buy a bra, you should be wearing it on the first or the loosest hook and eye,” she said. “As you wear and wash, it will stretch. So keep moving into the middle and last hook and eye over the year of wearing. Once it’s on the tightest hook and eye and is no longer providing the support like it once was, it’s time to ditch it.”
Explaining the tip, Burke said the majority of a bra’s support comes from the band. So when that portion of the undergarment starts riding up and the front of the bra no longer lies flat, its function diminishes as well.
Ansell, meanwhile, suggested buying a new bra as soon as any metal starts poking through the one you’ve been using.
“If you see visible stains that aren’t going away, including sweat stains, that’s also a good reason to get rid of it,” she added.
Another reason to toss your lingerie? A changing body.
“Our lifestyle, our habits and our aging all have a big impact on our bras,” Ansell said. “It’s common to go up a size or two during pregnancy, for example. After menopause, you may need to go big when you shop for bras.”
When not experiencing significant biological shifts, “it’s generally recommended that a bra should last anywhere between six to nine months, although I think that, with proper care, your bras can last a lot longer,” de Carle said.
As for how many bras the average woman should have in her closet, Burke had some sage advice.
“A woman should own a minimum of three everyday bras that should be rotated, not wearing the same one every day,” she said. “Think about it as one to wear, one to wash and one to rest. In addition to to that, there are a few other essentials to add to your bra-drobe: a strapless one, sports bras, lounge options and some special evening bras.”