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14 Health Risks You Might Be Wearing

Are bras to blame for cancer, and do backpacks really cause back problems? We reveal the clothes that could be harming your health and the myths that simply don’t stack up.
14 Health Risks You Might Be Wearing
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Hit the gym, eat right, get enough sleep— we already know these steps are essential to staying healthy, but the clothes on our back might be just as much to blame for making us feel less-than-stellar. From skin rashes to spinal misalignment and cancer to communicable diseases, clothing may have a major influence on well-being.Clothing and Accessories

Thongs and other unmentionables: We get that VPLs (that’s visible panty lines— duh!) are the worst. But— while studies on the topic aren’t plentiful— docs say thong underwear can carry bacteria from the back door to the front, causing yeast infections and UTIs. Women who are prone to these infections may want to swap their skimpy panties for something a little less mobile. Fabrics like silk and nylon may also prevent moisture down under from wicking, causing irritation. Opt for cotton instead for healthy, happy lady-bits.

Synthetic fabrics: Not all synthetic fabrics go straight into the “no” column, but some are more skin-friendly than others. Man-made fabrics— like polyester, nylon, and spandex— and wool may cause skin irritation, known as dermatitis [1]. While most natural fabrics and nylon are breathable, silk and many synthetics are not, and wearing them can lead to athlete’s foot or other irritation or fungi due to trapped moisture. Check clothing tags for anything non-natural and nix it if it causes a rash.

Heavy bags: Carrying an uneven load can cause back pain, but purses aren’t the only bags that may be at fault. Studies have shown backpacks that weigh a mere 15-17 percent of body weight (that’s 18 pounds for a 120-pound person or 30 pounds for a 200-pound person) can cause back pain and spinal misalignment [2] [3]. Try easing the load whenever possible (does the laptop really need to commute back and forth every day?), distributing some weight to the arms, or using a rolling bag.

Jewelry: Those pretty baubles (or manly chains and studs, of course) can lead to the development of a nickel allergy if they’re made from metals that contain it. The best way to avoid allergic reactions— including rash, itching, and redness— is to choose hypoallergenic jewelry made from metals like surgical-grade stainless steel, titanium, 18-karat yellow gold, and sterling silver.

Piercings: It’s not just jewelry that can create health problems. Piercings themselves can also cause a slew of other health issues— from keloids, caused by an overgrowth of scar tissue, to blood-borne diseases like HIV and Hepatitis B and C. Whether the piercings are in earlobes or in other, more scandalous locales, go to a reputable, health-department certified piercer (lists are available on many state government websites) for any new piercing. Studies have also found the number of piercings may contribute to the severity of an allergic reaction, so it’s worth limiting new holes after experiencing a reaction [4].

Footwear

High heels: It’s no newsflash that heels hurt. But studies have shown wearing heels two inches or higher for extended periods (think the daily nine to five for two-plus years) can cause muscle fatigue, muscle shortening, and tightness in the Achilles tendon [5]. Another study found walking in 3½-inch heels causes more bone-on-bone movement in the knees than walking barefoot— researchers felt this may even explain why women have a higher incidence of osteoarthritis in the knees than men do [6]. Heels could also sabotage posture, leading to muscle pain and headaches [7]. Studies didn’t reveal what it would take to reverse damage from wearing high heels, but cutting back their use and swapping in supportive flats could help. So could wearing platform heels, which place the foot at a slightly better angle (though it’s still not an ideal solution).

Shoes that don’t fit: Ill-fitting shoes could be to blame for almost any foot ailment.  Loose ones can cause corns and calluses, while too-tight shoes could cause bunions and in-grown toenails, not to mention painful swelling known as metatarsalgia. Swapping shoes is enough to treat many of these issues, but if pain persists, it may be time to visit a doc.

Flip flops: Don’t get us wrong, we love our flippy floppies, but research has linked them to painful plantar fasciitis. Some experts also say wearing flip flops without sunblock could even lead to increased risk of skin cancer. The good news? When people wear flip flops for short periods of time (with sunblock) and replace them every three to four months, researchers say these shoes can be A-okay.

Flats: Fab as they may be, the lack of arch support in ballet flats (or flat shoes of any sort, really) can wreak havoc on feet. To prevent plantar fasciitis, support and padding are equally necessary. Fortunately, arch supports can slip into most styles to make them more foot-friendly.

Wash and Wear

Dry-cleaning: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists guidelines for dry-cleaning workers that give some idea as to how toxic dry-cleaning chemicals may be. Studies have found they can be toxic to the liver, kidneys, and nervous system, as well as carcinogenic [8]. The easiest way to reduce exposure to the chemicals is to dry clean less (check care tags carefully and re-wear between washes whenever possible) and then after cleaning, allow clothes to air out before wearing or putting them away. Switching to a green cleaner may also be a safer option.

Laundry detergent: Most complaints against laundry detergents are on behalf of the environment, but standard detergents may also affect some folks’ skin. Contact dermatitis caused by harsh soaps and solvents can result in red, dry, itchy patches on skin. Though some argue detergents may be toxic, current studies only suggest some detergents can cause irritation— not that they’re toxic [9]. Still, buyers with sensitive skin (or a heart for Mother Nature) may want to consider greener alternatives.

Myth-Busting: Clothes That May Not Be So Bad

Secondhand clothes are bad for us: There was concern back in 2009 that regulations affecting the resale of used clothing (i.e. at thrift and consignment stores) suggested they may contain harmful chemicals. The government has since clarified used clothes are perfectly safe. The CDC says people can reduce the risk of infection from diseases like HIV and MRSA with regular laundering. So, when in doubt, simply wash away the germs after buying used clothes.

Tight jeans or briefs lead to infertility: The jury’s still out on this one. Docs say, logically, it would seem the heat from the body could harm sperm if the testes are held too close, but studies have never actually proven this theory true. Until we see controlled studies, we say opt for whichever option is more comfortable, especially since the potential damage would be temporary. If struggling to conceive, though, consider clothes that give the boys some room to breathe. Natural fabrics, like cotton, may also help testes stay cooler.

Bras cause breast cancer: The only study that’s suggested a link between bra-wearing and increased risk of breast cancer was flawed and never published in a peer-reviewed journal. Docs and cancer organizations agree: Supporting the girls will not cause cancer.

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Works Cited +

  1. Fabrics for atopic dermatitis. Mason, R. The Journal of Family Health Care, 2008;18(2):63-5.
  2. Trunk muscle activity in different modes of carrying schoolbags. Motmans, R.R., Tomlow, S., Vissers, D. Product Ergonomics Research Centre, Katholieke Hogeschool Limburg, Belgium. Ergonomics, 2006 Feb 10;49(2):127-38.
  3. Carrying a rucksack on either shoulder or the back, does it matter? Load induced functional scoliosis in "normal" young subjects. Bettany-Saltikov, J., Warren, J., Stamp, M. School of Health and Social Care, University of Teesside, Victoria Road, Middlesbrough, UK. Studies in Health Technology and Informatics, 2008;140:221-4.
  4. Role of body piercing in the induction of metal allergies. Ehrlich, A., Kucenic, M., Belsito, D.V. Division of Dermatology, University of Kansas School of Medicine, Kansas City, KS. American Journal of Contact Dermatitis. 2001 Sep;12(3):151-5.
  5. Long-term use of high-heeled shoes alters the neuromechanics of human walking. Cronin, N.J., Barrett, R.S., Carty, C.P., University of Jyväskylä. Journal of Applied Physiology 2012. Epub ahead of print.
  6. Walking on High Heels Changes Muscle Activity and the Dynamics of Human Walking Significantly. Simonsen, E.B., Svendsen, M.B., Norreslet, A., et al. Department of Neuroscience and Pharmacology, the Panum Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Journal of Applied Biomechanics, 2011 Aug 26.
  7. Effect of positive heel inclination on posture. Franklin, M.E., Chenier, T.C., Brauninger, L., et al. Department of Physical Therapy, School of Allied Health Sciences, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC. Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy, 1995 Feb;21(2):94-9.
  8. Perchloroethylene exposure assessment among dry cleaning workers. Solet, D., Robins, T.G., Sampaio, C. Occupational Health Program, School of Public Health, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan. American Industrial Hygiene Association Journal, 1990 Oct;51(10):566-74.
  9. The safety of synthetic zeolites used in detergents. Fruijtier-Pölloth, C. CATS Consultants GmbH, Toxicology and Preclinical Affairs, Gräfelfing, Germany. Archives of Toxicology, 2009 Jan;83(1):23-35.

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