What is a chest binder and how does it work?
All your questions—asked and answered!
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People don’t get to choose the bodies they're born with, but there's always options to make themselves feel more comfortable in their own skin. Chest binders—articles of clothing that gently compress breast tissue to reduce its appearance—are essential garments for those whose chest area is more prominent than they wish. They allow folks with chest dysphoria—discomfort and distress from unwanted breast development—to do something about it without opting for more permanent measures like surgery.
Whether you or someone in your life is interested in buying a binder, we’ve got you covered. Read on.
What is a binder?
To achieve its compressive purpose, most binders are made of some kind of spandex blend in the main construction as well as a cotton panel for comfort. Binders are typically worn beneath other clothing, but can also be worn on their own or as a swim top, provided the material is water-friendly.
“[Binders] often look similar to a tank top or undershirt that can be tucked into your pants (described as a ‘full-length binder’) or end close to the bottom of the ribs (‘half-length binder’),” says Noah Glick, trans health program patient advocate at Fenway Health in Boston, Massachusetts. Binders may be designed to be pulled overhead, stepped into, or they could have zippers, clasps, velcro, or hooks that keep it closed once it’s secured in place. Most cost between $35 to $55, and you can also get single-use binding tape that costs less that $20 a roll.
Some people find that a compression shirt or sports bra provides adequate constriction to feel at home in their body. But binders, sports bras, and compression shirts are not interchangeable. “Binders are specifically designed to create the feeling and appearance of a flat chest,” says Glick. Sports bras “are designed to support a person’s chest and back during athletic activity.”
Binders are more than just a simple means of compression, too. They’re a form of gender expression, an easy way for trans men, gender-nonconforming folks, and any individuals who are self-conscious about their chests to feel more confident. Binders can be used as an alternative to getting top surgery (a surgical procedure to remove breast tissue), which can be prohibitively expensive and difficult for trans people to get approved. Binders can also be used by people who don't identify as a trans man, transmasculine, or non-binary. They may also be used by non-binary and gender non-conforming people, those who have undergone significant weight loss to smooth skin under clothing, or by anyone who simply wants the appearance of a flatter chest.
Finally, no matter your reason for getting a binder, it's good to be realistic about the outcome. Unless you have a very small chest to start with, binders won’t make all of your breast tissue disappear. They will, however, help redistribute your breasts more evenly so your chest appears flatter.
How to safely wear a binder
Binders should not be worn for longer than eight to 12 hours at a time or while sleeping. “It’s important to take small breaks here and there,” says Glick. “It can also be helpful to take deep breaths and stretch your back, arms, and chest during a binder break to help loosen up those muscles.”
You should avoid wearing a binder if you aren’t feeling well, especially if it’s an upper respiratory illness like a cold. If possible, don't wear it while you exercise, either. “Binders compress the chest [more than sports bras] and may make it more difficult to take heavier breaths when working out,” Glick says. If you must wear one while exercising, Glick says to “pay extra close attention to your body and go slowly—ensure that you can still take deep, full breaths, and have full mobility of your arms.” If your binder doesn’t allow this, compression shirts and sports bras are good alternatives for exercise.
Those with certain illnesses or disabilities might need to be more careful than others, too. Glick advises that people with medical conditions "including but not limited to" asthma, lupus, fibromyalgia, and scoliosis "might consider talking to an affirming medical provider about some other options or try a product like TransTape instead of a binder,” says Glick. If you have loose joints or are susceptible to dislocations (especially in your shoulders), do not get a binder that goes over your head—instead, look for binders that have zippers, clasps, Velcro, or similar methods of opening and closing.
Most importantly, if you experience persistent issues when you wear a binder—such as chest pain, shoulder pain, shortness of breath, back pain, overheating, tenderness, itching, or body acne—talk to your doctor and take a break from binding until they approve continued wear. Binders should feel like you’re secure and compressed, but not like you can’t breathe, move, or like you’re suffocating in it. If you continue to suffer, it could cause lasting damage to the respiratory or musculoskeletal systems, which could negatively affect long-term health and or results if you are hoping to get top surgery one day.
How to pick the right size binder
To find the right size, you’ll need a measuring tape. All companies that sell binders should have their own size chart and measurement guidelines on their website (if they don’t, that’s a red flag). Options vary across brands, but most binders come in sizes ranging from XS to 5XL. Some brands offer custom-sized binders, too. If you’re one size at one company, don’t just assume you’ll be the same at another, so always take new measurements before purchasing.
In addition to being too small and causing the aforementioned discomfort or ailments, binders can be too large, too. Reasons you should size down: if you notice you're readjusting your binder regularly, or that the shoulder straps feel loose, or there are gaps around the armpits, or it fits more like a tank top, or it just does not bind well.
How to care for your binder
Most binders are worn daily, so they take in a lot of sweat. Every binder requires different care, so it’s best to check the manufacturer’s instructions. Because the most important attribute in a binder is for it to retain its elasticity, it's best if they're washed after every use with a mild detergent and cold water, and air-dried. The heat of a dryer can warp or even melt elastic fibers. If you feel you must use machines, place your binder in a garment bag, wash on the cold, delicate setting, and put in the dryer on the lowest setting for no more than 15 minutes.
When it's time to get a new binder, you'll probably already know: It will have lost its shape, begun to fray, have developed bubbles or gaps, or otherwise just not work as it once did. This can occur from anywhere between six months to several years, depending on how often the binder is used and how it is cared for.
What if you don’t want to wear a binder but want the same effects?
First and foremost, don’t use any at-home DIY methods you can find online, as those are more likely to cause long-term damage. “Ace bandages and duct tape should be avoided whenever possible,” says Glick. "Ace bandages are designed to constrict and can be dangerous to wear. Duct tape, and any tape that isn’t medical grade, should also be avoided as this can damage the skin.”
If you want to try binding with tape, try TransTape or KT tape. Both use medical-grade adhesives that are safe for skin. KT tape is an accessible option in particular, as it can be found at many grocery stores and pharmacies.
To use it, you first need to cover your nipples with some fabric scraps or even a folded up piece of paper towel, as you never want to tape directly over them. Then, you can maneuver the tape in such a way that your breasts are taped down by your armpits. There’s a learning curve to figure out how to get the optimal shape and amount of flatness you desire, but practicing makes perfect. This method has been said to work best for people with smaller chests, but it’s a relatively low-stakes way to test out binding. No matter your chest size, it can’t hurt to try—but if it does, take it off (carefully) and don’t do it again.
You can also minimize the appearance of breasts without any binding. Glick recommends layering shirts, especially ones that are structured and made of heavier material. “Start with a tight-fitting shirt or sports bra as a bottom layer and add successive layers over it with each layer looser than the one underneath,” they say. “Shirts with patterns as the top layer can also help hide the appearance of a chest. Some people also find unbuttoned or unzipped shirts or jackets to be helpful in creating the appearance of a flatter chest.” Just remember to be mindful of the temperature and stay hydrated.
Where to buy a binder
Now that we’ve covered the basics, it’s time to get yourself a binder. We’ve picked out some of the best places to buy binders online. Just remember to measure before buying, and don’t be afraid to reach out to the company’s customer service if you have any questions about fit or sizing.
GC2B is a trans-owned company based out of Maryland. Founder Marli Washington created the first binders that were designed and patented specifically for gender-affirming chest binding. For this, GC2B is known in the LGBTQ community as the place to buy a binder.
The brand’s binders vary in material. Its original tank and half binders are 80% nylon and 20% spandex. The inner binding panel, made of 80% cotton and 20% polyester, is designed for comfortable compression without sweat retention or breath restriction. Meanwhile, the racerback binder is 80% nylon and 20% spandex, with an added elastic in the shoulder straps of 65% nylon and 35% polyester.
GC2B’s original binders are appropriate for swimming as well as daily wear. The binders come in 11 colors and sizes XS to 5XL, ensuring there’s an option for just about everybody.
2. Flavnt Streetwear
Co-owners Courtney and Chris Rhodes founded Flavnt Streetwear, a queer clothing brand, with the belief that everyone should be able to own clothes that make them feel comfortable and confident in their own skin. An important part of its offerings: its Bareskin binders.
These garments come in seven flesh-toned and neutral colors and are made of 82% nylon and 18% spandex, with a 100% cotton non-stretch inner liner for compression and fast drying. Ranging in sizes from XXS to XXL, these binders are also water-friendly and suitable for swimming. Each binder is hand-sewn and a percentage of every purchase is donated to a charitable cause, typically a trans person’s surgery costs, and that partnership changes once the fundraising need is met. The brand has a whole page on binder safety, tips and tricks, and sizing so check that out before purchasing.
Shapeshifters’ binders are unlike many other retailers in that they're custom-made (albeit more expensive than some ready-made options). The website provides a guide on how to measure yourself properly, then you send in your chest, under-chest, stomach, hip, and length measurements to receive a bespoke binder. You can also get extra add-ons for an additional fee, such as making it a racerback, adding zippers, and more. The binders’ base layers are made of a proprietary material called Powernet, a nylon/lycra blend mesh that's “very breathable," according to Eli K. Coughlin-Galbraith, co-owner of Shapeshifters. The outer layer is made out of 100% spandex.
But with an original design, you may worry about returns. Luckily, if you receive your binder and experience fit issues, Shapeshifters offers one free refitting within 45 days of purchase. The brand’s website also provides educational material about binding and has a whole page devoted to binder tips and tricks.
4. Origami Customs
Origami Customs binders are made with “an interior compression mesh layer, and most have an external Lycra layer which allows you to choose a broader range of colours and prints,” according to founder Rae Hill—and all of its binders are swim safe. With sizes ranging from XXS to 5XL and custom sizing also offered with almost every item, Origami Customs is accommodating to literally every body.
This retailer has a plethora of binder varieties to choose among. You’ve got your strapless compression top, your zip front binders, your standard full length binder, your standard half length binder, tank tops with built in binders. You can even go swimming in some of these. Sizes range from XXS to 4XL, and thousands of reviewers rave over these binders' effectiveness, style, and comfort.
This trans-owned Canadian co-op prides itself on providing affordable, accessible goods for gender-nonconforming individuals. It sells an entire spectrum of products—including children’s educational books—but we love GenderGear for one specific product: its new and pre-loved binders, available in sizes XS to 3X. You can buy a new product for $41 or a gently used binder for just $5.
On the flip side, if you have binders in good condition that you no longer use, you can donate them to GenderGear’s binder recycling program. For each donation, the brand also purchases a new binder to donate and provides donors with a $10 gift card to the GenderGear store.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.