Health: Hello boys (got any painkillers?)

Dressed to thrill - or dressed to kill? Wearing a push-up bra could cause backache. And before you don cropped trousers, platform heels, nail varnish, eyebrow rings or sunglasses, be aware they're all fashion health hazards too. By Liz Bestic
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The Independent Culture
If you have just been congratulating yourself on getting your summer holiday wardrobe sorted out, hold it right there. According to medical experts, most of this year's summer fashion statements could seriously damage your health.

Take those nice little transparent tops. You probably thought they were designed by the gods to fit neatly into your bulging suitcase. But according to the Health Education Authority, they will lull you into a false sense of security, so you foolishly believe that you need no further sun protection. "If you think these tops would protect you from the sun, you are sadly mistaken," says Lisa Glover of the HEA. "They will offer you virtually no protection at all. It is much safer to wear a good-quality, tightly woven T-shirt, preferably in a dark colour which will give you a maximum sun protection factor of 25."

You should also watch out for this season's cropped trousers - if they are excessively clingy, they can irritate the nerves inside the muscles of the thigh. This can lead to meralgia paraesthetica, a condition which causes an extremely uncomfortable pins and needles sensation over the front and side of the thighs.

So is it possible to be stylish and safe? Not if you wear a push-up bra, says Charles Hunt, head of clinical practice at the British School of Osteopathy. These bras might look great under low-cut tops, but at what price?

"A woman wearing a fashion or sports bra, as opposed to a conventional bra, can put unnecessary strain on the muscles on her back and neck, due to the fact that her breathing is restricted," says Hunt. "They actually restrict the rib expansion by up to one and a half inches. Bras can only do their job by pressing on the ribcage, which can then restrict breathing and put pressure on the diaphragm."

However, a spokesperson for Gossard said: "There's more danger of not having enough support - you can tear the muscles in your chest by not wearing a bra. There's a trend among models not to wear bras or to wear light support ones, and now you've got women in their mid-twenties with unhealthy saggy breasts."

Anne Hopkins, senior brand manager for Wonderbra, adds: "Any bra that doesn't fit properly will cause you problems. If you get a Wonderbra that fits you properly, it is no different from any other bra... Research shows that 80 per cent of women are wearing the wrong bra. If that was corrected, it would reduce the number of problems with backs and shoulders."

Luckily, high heels are out this summer - they can cause irreversible damage to the feet and legs. Teetering on high heels in strapless shoes can cause claw toes, shorten your calf muscles and give you back pain. Kitten heels, however, are in. They may look like a sensible alternative, but there are associated dangers, as they put too much strain on the calf muscles at the back of the leg. This can lead to tendonitis, an excruciatingly painful condition caused by inflammation of the tendons (the fibres that join muscles to bone or cartilage).

You can put away your platform sandals, too. Dr Peter Skew of the National Back Pain Association believes that platforms, which you'll find everywhere on the high street, could lead to arthritis in later life, along with ankle and knee problems. "The foot is supposed to be flexible and mould to the surface you walk over. If you have a two-inch block between your foot and the floor it takes away that flexibility and you walk with a sort of slapping motion. This puts tremendous pressure on the knees and hips and could certainly cause arthritis as you get older," he says.

As for the finishing touches, nail varnish and false nails are a concern for dermatologist Dr Ian White, from St Thomas' Hospital in London. "Some nail varnishes can cause contact dermatitis," he warns. Fungal infections also result from artificial nails - a simple bump or a knock to a long false nail may leave the nail underneath vulnerable to infections from grit and dirt.

The dangers of body piercing and facial piercing are well known - if not done by a reputable practitioner, they can cause infections and the spread of diseases, including hepatitis. Cheap studs can cause allergies, and if eyebrow rings contain cobalt, nickel or copper, the metal can react with skin and release toxic substances. If the chemicals are washed into the eye, perhaps with sweat, it can damage your eyesight (in rare cases, it can lead to blindness). Tongue piercing, which can result in the tongue swelling to over twice its size once the stud is inserted, may end up shattering your teeth.

Hair dye affects some people. "Black and dark brown hair dyes contain a particularly strong allergen. Around 3 per cent of all patients we see with scalp eczema are allergic to hair dye," says Dr White.

Even your signature scent could damage your health. Dr White believes there is an epidemic of perfume allergies in this country. "There are just short of 3,000 chemical substances used in fragrances in the UK and many of these can cause horrendous allergies," he says. "Over the last 15 years, around 8 per cent of patients presenting at my clinic with eczema were allergic to the substances found in perfume." If you notice any rash or scaling of the skin, don't persevere... switch brands.

"At the moment the fragrance industry is self regulated, which is part of the problem," says Dr White, who is calling for proper labelling on all perfumes. "The only reason we don't have labelling is because of resistance from the industry. I think the consumer has a right to know if they are buying a product which may contain well-recognised allergens. At least if I could tell you that you were allergic to substance X then you could look at the label and avoid products causing that substance. At the moment, all I can tell you to do is to go fragrance free, which is limiting your choice."

You might think that if you forked out a fortune for sunglasses, you would get good value. Not so, says Dr Louise Culham, head of optometry at Moorfields Eye Hospital. "People think that by buying top designer sunglasses they must automatically be getting good value and guaranteed 100 per cent UV protection, but there is absolutely no guarantee that the higher the pricetag, the better the quality of sunglasses." Sunglasses that don't offer enough protection could cause eye damage.

One final warning: as you drag your new purchases home from the shops, don't pack too much into your designer bags (and don't allow one shoulder to take all the weight). Charles Hunt, from the British School of Osteopathy says: "It increases pressure on the spine. Overnight your spine rehydrates and during the day, the fluid is squeezed out. Carrying heavy bags mean the fluid is squeezed out more quickly and more damage is done to the spine. At the worst, women who don't look after their backs could end up with scoliosis or curvature of the spine."

Dr Skew, of the National Back Pain Association, would like to see fashion designers taking more responsibility for their products.

"It would be nice if the major fashion houses looked at how the body was designed and could think about clothes which work with nature, rather than against it," he says. "We should be augmenting the natural beauty of the body, not making it impossible for it to function."

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