Should You Be Worried About BPA Levels In Your Workout Clothes? What To Know About The Claims

Most of us know to stay away from the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) whenever we can, but did you know it could be in your sports bra? Last year, the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) sent out legal notices to fourteen sportswear brands whose products contained high levels of BPA. Some of the brands that received notices last year included PINK, The North Face, FILA, and Reebok. Last week, CEH sent out another set of legal notices to an additional eight sportswear brands including Nike, Fabletics, and Patagonia. These notices came as a result of new testing that found leggings, sports bras, shirts, and shorts from these brands to contain up to forty times the limit of BPA that is considered safe in California.

BPA is primarily used to make plastics that can be found in things like water bottles, food cans, epoxy resin, and bottle tops. Typically a person's BPA exposure is linked to ingestion as the chemical can leech into food and beverages from containers and bottles. However, more and more research is looking into BPA absorption through the skin, which makes the concept of BPA levels in clothing you might wear for a long time (like leggings), or sweat in (like sports bras) worth a deeper look.

The risks of BPA exposure

BPA can disrupt normal bodily functions, especially in women, because it mimics your natural hormones. In addition to BPA being linked to increased blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, it can also affect your metabolism, bodily development, and even reproductive abilities. CEH's Science Director, Dr. Jimena Díaz Leiva, notes that "Even low levels of exposure during pregnancy have been associated with a variety of health problems in offspring. These problems include abnormal development of the mammary glands and ovaries that can increase the likelihood of developing breast or ovarian cancer later in life. These effects occur even at low levels of exposure like those seen in people today."

Hugh Taylor, M.D., chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at Yale University, told Shape that people who are pregnant (or actively trying to become pregnant) should especially avoid BPA. Not only can exposure lead to fertility issues but it can also negatively impact a pregnancy since fetuses are particularly vulnerable to chemicals like BPA. Research on BPA exposure through ingestion demonstrates a link between the chemical and breast cancer — from changing normal cells into more cancerous ones to making chemotherapy less effective. This combined with the new research into BPA skin absorption makes the possibility of exposure through sports bras or even new technology in period care underwear and shorts particularly troubling.

What the experts are saying

Beyond the effects on women's health, the Mayo Clinic describes fetus, toddler, and child exposure to BPA as concerning due to the possibility of negative health effects on the brain. BPA exposure is also linked to fertility decline in men as well as diabetes and chronic inflammation. With that being said, Dr. Taylor did clarify that BPA clears your system fairly quickly, so the real trouble comes from constant or prolonged exposure as opposed to brief time periods. If you're not wanting to purge your current wardrobe of activewear, just be mindful to change out of those clothes quickly after a workout and to avoid spending all day in your leggings. Additionally, Dr. Taylor suggested making sure to check the fiber content (specifically for polyester-based clothing containing spandex) and do your research on BPA levels in your favorite brands before buying new workout clothes.

The CEH is hoping to work with the brands they've tested to reduce the BPA levels in their products and has already called out more than ninety different companies. Dr. Taylor had a final call to action that could help people avoid unnecessary BPA exposure in the future: calling for more transparency in our clothing materials and requiring better labeling.