Every Question You've Ever Had About Your Breasts, Answered

From stray nipple hairs to self-exams.

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Breasts have been, interestingly, one of the buzziest topics of 2015—from the #freethenipple movement to the push for acceptance of public breastfeeding to the proud women who go viral for celebrating breast cancer survival with beautiful areola tattoos

But breasts aren't just an "issue"—they're something we live with every day. And considering how close they are to our hearts, it's kind of crazy that so many of us still have so many questions about our own anatomy.

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In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we looked to Sherry Ross, M.D., a Los Angeles-based gynecologist, to answer our most burning questions about breasts, once and for all.

Why do our breasts feel like rocks before we get our period?

"It's the raising hormones, estrogen, and progesterone you experience 1-2 weeks before your period," she explains. And if you suffer from PMS, it's likely you'll have exaggerated breast symptoms. During your period, you should also steer clear of caffeine, tobacco, and certain medications as they can bolster these side-effects.

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Why do we get random hairs on our nipples?

Chances are, you've had more than a few stray hairs spring up in your lifetime. And while they may be a little disconcerting, there's no need to worry. "During different stages of life and hormonal surges, hair growth around the nipples is considered normal," assures Dr. Ross. "The areola naturally has hair follicles and some women are more prone to this than others."

We know lots of women have breasts that aren't the same size...but is there a reason?

"Body parts that come in a set of two are never exactly a mirror image of each other—different is normal!" says Dr. Ross.

Why do our nipples itch sometimes?

Normally, nipples shouldn't itch, but it definitely happens and a change of season could be to blame.

"Dry or damaged skin on the nipple can cause them to itch," explains Dr. Ross. "Eczema is a common and abnormal skin condition causing this delicate area to become dry, scaly, red and itchy. Nipple eczema can occur during pregnancy and breastfeeding."

If they do itch, use a moisturizer like lanolin cream, extra virgin coconut oil, or, you know, nipple balm, to treat them. 

What's causing our breasts to sag *besides* gravity?

Simply put, poor support = saggy breasts. While a form-fitting, everyday bra will provide support to breast tissue for typical daily activities, you must wear a sports bra when exercising.

"If you wear a regular bra, the delicate and sensitive breast tissue will bounce and move in such a way where pain and trauma can occur," she says. " If there is lack of proper long-term support, breast tissue, with its fibrous ligaments and fatty tissue, will stretch and become saggy.

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Is non-organic deodorant posing a serious cancer risk to our breasts?

You've heard the medical myth: Using a deodorant filled with aluminum-based and sweet-smelling ingredients plugs the sweat glands and ducts close to the breast tissue, changing normal cells to cancerous ones. But you can relax according to Dr. Ross, as there is no conclusive or even reliable medical evidence that proves deodorants increase your risk of breast cancer. Swipe away!

How often are lumps in our breast cause for concern?

Before you send yourself into a tizzy, know this: Breast lumps are common, affecting 8 of 10 women, and most are not cancerous. 

As far as analyzing these lumps, you must pay close attention to your menstrual cycle.

"If you're feeling a breast lump just before your period, chances are it will go away once you finish your period," explains Dr. Ross. "During the premenstrual time, hormones cause an increase in nodularity of breast tissue creating benign cysts that will ultimately go away once you start your period."

There are, however, instances in which you must always get a lump, big or small, checked out by a professional.

"If you have a persistent breast lump or cyst, it is important to have your doctor examine you and determine if further testing, such as a breast ultrasound, is necessary," she says. "In this instance, size does not matter."

How often should we be performing self-exams on our breasts?

First thing's first, you should know your body very well. "Breast tissue can be intimidating in the beginning, but once you are familiar with your own breast tissue and all its normal lumps and bumps, you will be able to find abnormal changes if they occur," she says.

The best time to check your breasts? During the first week of your period when the hormonal effects on breast tissue have subsided, says Dr. Ross. 

Worth noting: Most breast cancer organizations no longer recommend a monthly self exam—read more here.

At what age should you get your first mammogram?

The thing is, women and physicians are equally confused about this. For example, while the American College of Obstetricians/Gynecologists says 40, continuing every 1 to 2 years until 50, when they should be done yearly, The American Cancer Society suggests getting them annually starting at 45, then getting them every other year starting at 55. What is universally agreed upon? Dr. Ross believes it's knowing your individual risk factors, as well as weighing the benefits and overall risks when making your own screening guidelines. Risk factors for breast cancer include:

  • A number of first-degree relatives with breast cancer
  • Having had your first menstrual period before age 12
  • If you had your first pregnancy after age 30 or you've never had a full-term pregnancy.
  • If you've had a number of previous breast biopsies 
  • If you've had breast cancer before
  • Presence of atypical hyperplasia 
  • Mammographic breast density
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • BMI is less than 30
  • Physical inactivity

What kind of things compromise the health of our breasts?

The biggest culprits: Low levels of vitamin D, consuming high-fat meat, butter and dairy along with fried foods, excessive alcohol consumption, obesity, and physical inactivity, says Dr. Ross.

And that's not all, unfortunately.

"Currently research is being done to pinpoint other environmental health hazards, such as radiation, chemicals, flame retardants, industrial chemicals used to make rubber, vinyl and polyurethane, pesticides and other pollutants, which make breast tissue more susceptible to breast cancer."

What can we do to reduce our risk of breast cancer?

According to Dr. Ross, the four most important things you can do are:

  1. Eat a colorful, plant-based diet
  2. Limit alcohol consumption
  3. Exercise regularly
  4. Control your weight

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