A bra contains, in addition to a pair of breasts, at least a couple of paradoxes. One is that while most women feel like they need to wear a bra in order to feel supported, most women also hate bras, since they can be uncomfortable and it’s hard to find bras that fit well. (I would wager that the more you need bras for support, the more likely you are to resent them.) Another is that bras encase our skin and abut the sweat glands in our armpits, and yet normal women wash them far less frequently than they wash their underwear or even their blouses. A normal amount of time to wear a single bra without washing it, I have determined by consulting myself and other women about their habits, is a week or two. Since most women own more than one bra, that means a normal woman might wash her bras once a month, or even less often.
I know already that this news will alarm certain Slate readers. In 2009, our erstwhile Dear Prudence columnist, Emily Yoffe, responded to a male reader repulsed by the fact that his girlfriend had worn the same bra every day for two weeks. Her advice? “[Y]our girlfriend's behavior is perfectly normal and neither unhygienic nor gross.” Readers revolted. One Dear Prudence devotee wrote in, “I spent the day calling 92 women, ranging in age from 16 to 85, co-workers, relatives, neighbors, strangers, and found none who wore their bra more than once before washing it.” Another reader—a mansplainer before his time—informed Prudie, “If a man wears a t-shirt one day, he puts it in the hamper. A woman should do the same with a bra.”
There are some problems with this argument. The first is that most women do not own as many bras as they own shirts. Bras are expensive, and, as previously mentioned, most women have mixed feelings about them. We’re not particularly inclined to spend tons of money expanding our collection. I recently conducted a wholly unscientific survey of more than 200 female colleagues, friends, and random social media connections about their bras and their bra-washing habits. Eighty-two percent of them reported having five or fewer everyday (read: non-sports) bras in their rotation. Forty-seven percent had three or fewer. I personally usually have two or three bras that I regularly wear.
If we washed our bras after every single use, we would be doing laundry once or twice a week, or maybe even every other day. Most people don’t have the time or inclination to do laundry that often—especially if they’re following every bra manufacturers’ advice and washing their bras by hand.
As someone who recently has been trying to take better care of my bras by following said advice, I can report that hand-washing is an ordeal. It requires time and elbow grease, and it almost always results in significant amounts of water being splashed onto the floor. And hand-washing bras is even less pleasant than hand-washing regular garments, thanks to bras’ wires, foams, and irregular shapes. You can’t wad an underwire bra into a ball in order to squeeze all the water out of it, so you have to give it an extra-long air-drying session. You can understand why women who hand-wash their bras to put off the grueling, unpleasant process as long as possible.
It turns out, many women don’t bother. When I asked a group of colleagues if they hand-washed their bras, one replied indignantly, “What am I, a laundress?” Most women who took my unscientific survey—again, 82 percent—wash their everyday bras in the washing machine. (Many of them use lingerie bags to keep them from getting caught on other clothes and getting twisted.) If you choose to wash your bras in the washing machine, that means you’ll wash them as often as you wash your other laundry, because no one’s going to run the machine for just a few bras. About a third of the women who took my survey report washing their bras every two weeks; almost half wash them less often than that. And there’s good rationale for this, since washing bras stretches them out and takes them ever closer to being limp, graying underthings that provide no lift or support whatsoever. By washing them as infrequently as possible, we are actually extending the life of our bras.
Now, sports bras are a different story, for obvious reasons. When you don’t wash a sports bra after a few uses, it starts to smell. Most of the women I polled wash their sports bras either after every workout or once a week (and almost all of them, 94 percent, wash their sports bras in the machine).
So how do women know when it’s time to wash their bras? If you sweat a lot in a bra, you’ll probably feel the need to wash it before wearing it again. (More than one woman told me that she washes her bras far more often in summer than in winter.) If you have a hot date coming up, you might wash your bra ahead of time, just in case. If a bra starts to smell bad, it’s obviously time to wash it—but most women don’t let it go that far. Instead, they rely on their intuition. One colleague described a process that felt very familiar to me:
I don’t know how long I go between washings. Some kind of internal barometer tells me it’s time, and I ignore that barometric reading, and then some time later (days? weeks? who can say?) I put a drop or two of laundry detergent into a big bowl, fill said bowl with water, and soak the bras. Then I hang them up to dry. But it could literally be months between washings.
If you’re a man, and this sounds gross to you, I strongly urge you to get over it. If you’re a woman, and this sounds gross to you, I humbly suggest that you join your sisters who don’t make bra-washing a top priority. Women who go weeks or months between bra washings aren’t creepy pariahs: We’re busy women with fulfilling home, work, social, and sex lives. We don’t smell bad. We’re, in a word, normal.
Read more from Normal, Slate's pop-up blog about how you're supposed to do it.