Update October 12, 2022
The Arc Bra recommended by this article is no longer available for sale. I’m currently researching alternatives and will publish a new post on the topic soon! – Ann
I’m writing this post so that the next woman who scours the internet searching for a supportive, flame resistant bra to wear racing will have an easier time finding one than I did. I’ve spent a lot of time researching safe and comfortable fire resistant undergarments for women, and I’m putting it all in one place to make other women racers’ lives a little easier.
But… spoiler alert! There is one bra that won’t fuse to your skin at 130°F and will contain your DDs when you sprint across the paddock to the tech shed. It’s the Arc Bra. It’s made of Nomex and Kevlar and is designed for women who work in environments where they could be exposed to an electrical “arc flash.” Note: I am so excited about this bra that this might sound like they paid me to write about it, but they didn’t. It’s just that exciting to discover that your big boobs won’t keep you from enjoying racing!
When I started assembling my safety gear in preparation to go wheel to wheel racing, I asked some fellow women racers what type of bra they wore. I got two kinds of answers; “I’m not happy with the support from my fire resistant bra so I wouldn’t recommend it,” and, “Why do I need a special bra if I’m wearing a fire suit?” I’m going to tackle that last response first.
Why you need a flame resistant bra
Bras are made of fabric with a high spandex (a.k.a. Lycra, or elastane) content. Most of the time this is awesome, because stretchy spandex fabric provides lots of support while still letting you comfortably move and breath. However, spandex has a huge downside in a race car, because it melts at just 130°F. So even if your bra isn’t actually on fire, it will still melt on your skin at a temperature that’s otherwise survivable while you get your burning race car stopped and get out. And since almost all bras also contain some polyester or acrylic based fabric, if the flames start licking your fire suit, your bra will turn into molten plastic that will fuse with your skin before your fire suit burns. Hot Rod Magazine was horrified at what happened when they got flames near a bra.
Every bra I could find for sale contained some spandex. Even cotton tank tops with built in bras have a decent percentage of spandex to keep them stretchy and comfortable. There are no good options available through any “street clothing” retailer.
Motorsports safety manufacturers don’t offer full support bras
For some reason, the motorsports safety equipment manufacturers and I have different definitions of what a “sports bra” is. To me, a sports bra is an architectural wonder made of many panels of various fabrics and elastics that keeps everything in place even if I’m running or upside down in yoga class. However, the motorsports safety industry seems think a sports bra is a minimally structured knit crop top. Friends who’d worn these bras told me they didn’t offer enough support for anyone larger than a B cup.
My guess is that there are a couple of reasons for this. First, I’m sure these are easier to design and manufacture. Second, women come in all shapes and sizes, so these bras likely do work for some women. Plus, many female races are teenage girls who are less likely to need a very supportive bra. The gentlewoman racers like myself, with more mature figures, seem to be fewer.
But I figured there must be some women out there, somewhere outside of the world of motorsports, who also need a flame resistant bra with real support. I looked for a bra for women firefighters or oil workers, but all I found was forum and blog posts from women complaining about how they couldn’t find a safe, supportive bra either, and were forced to choose between being safe and being comfortable at work.
Enter, the Arc Bra!
Somewhere, many pages deep in my Google search results, I discovered the Arc Bra. It’s designed for women who work with high voltage electrical equipment and are at risk of electrical arcing. If you’re working with electrical equipment and an arc flash takes the shortest route to your body, guess where it’s going to hit if you happen to be a women? The exact spot that’s covered by your melty bra, that’s where.
The arc bra is Nomex and Kevlar, and while it’s not homologated for motorsports, it is certified by the National Fire Protection Association and according to the website, “The fibers will not melt, drip or support combustion in the air when exposed to heat or flame,” which is exactly what I was looking for. According to the woman who designed the Arc Bra, a lot of other women are looking for this, too.
I typically wear one of two different bra sizes depending on the brand, and I ordered my Arc Bra in the smaller size, like I do with all my sports bras. It’s a soft knit bra with no underwires (obviously), but I was amazed at how supportive it is. This bra isn’t going to lift and separate and make you look 10lbs lighter, but it’s just as supportive and comfortable as the underwire bras I wear everyday. This means I can spend the weekend at the track racing, running around the paddock and wrenching on my car without even thinking about my bra. It also offers as much coverage as a sports bra, so I can change in and out of my fire suit in back of my truck without having to run off to the restrooms for more privacy.
You need flame resistant underpants, too
While it’s easier to find women’s underwear in 100% cotton fabric, even cotton underwear has elastic trimming the waistband and leg openings, bringing us back to the problem of melty materials in sensitive areas.
Depending on your build and what you find comfortable, you may be able to wear men’s fire resistant underwear, of which there are many offerings from motorsport safety manufacturers.
Because I have a small waist-to-hip ratio, I wanted underwear that was cut for women. The first pair I tried was the UJF boy shorts, which I was hoping would be comfy flame resistant beige granny panties. It turns out they’re safe because they don’t have any elastic at all in the leg openings, which is I guess what “boy shorts” means. The lack of elastic caused this pair to ride up on me and give me an instant wedgie. However, if you know that boy shorts like this work for your body type, these could be a good option, because at $21.25 they’re the best deal on flame resistant underwear that I’ve seen.
I ended up going with these Lady Eagle shorts. They’re comfortable, although I wish the rise was a little higher in the back. They’re SFI certified two layer CarbonX, so not only will they not melt to your skin, they’ll give your ladybits some extra protection time from flames. The downside of this is that they’re bulky. They feel a little bit like diapers under jeans and would probably look pretty lumpy under leggings. Fortunately, these shorts have a 5″ inseam, which is longer than some of the regular shorts in my wardrobe. This means that not only do I not need a lot of privacy when changing in and out of my fire suit, but I can even wear them on their own in the paddock on hot days without being risque.