How Silicone Is Used in Breast Implants

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Silicone is a polymer with many uses in personal care products and surgical implants. It can be found in liquid, gel, or rubber-like solid forms. 

Breast implants are used in breast augmentation and can be placed under or over the muscle. They are also used in breast reconstruction after a mastectomy to recreate a breast mound. Implants are silicone sacs filled with either sterile salt water (saline) or silicone gel.

Learn more about silicone's advantages, use in breast implants, risks, and safety.

silicone breast implant
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Advantages

Silicone is made of silicon, oxygen, and other elements, usually carbon and hydrogen. Silicone has many advantages, including:

  • Stable at high temperature
  • Resistant to aging
  • Resistant to sunlight
  • Resistant to moisture
  • Resistant to extremes in temperature
  • Soft consistency (feels like a natural breast when used in implants)
  • Less rippling when compared to saline implants
  • Cohesive (maintains shape even with leakage)

Silicone Breast Implants

The most well-known use of silicone is as breast implants for breast surgery. Breast implants are medical devices implanted under the breast tissue or muscle of the chest to either increase breast size (breast augmentation) or help reconstruct the breast after a mastectomy.

Breast implants are either saline-filled or silicone gel-filled. Both types of implants have a silicone outer shell. Silicone implants are those with a silicone inner filling. They are very popular and come in various shapes, volumes, and textures.

Sizing Silicone Breast Implants

Sizing depends on your body type and desired results. When discussing the size of the implant, your plastic surgeon will evaluate many factors, including:

  • Diameter: The width of your chest cavity. This measurement helps the surgeon determine whether you need a narrow, medium, or wide implant.
  • Projection (silhouette): Projection means how much the implant projects forward. The surgeon will decide on a low, medium, or high profile based on your desired outcome.
  • Volume: The amount of fluid needed in each implant to help achieve your desired result. This amount is referred to as milliliters or cc (cubic centiliters). Silicone implants usually come in 100-800 cc. The most common size is 300-400 cc.

Traditional silicone gel can cause a silent, slow leak, that is only detectable with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). "Gummy bear" implants are newer silicone implants that are highly cohesive. They will maintain their shape and do not leak, even if there is a tear.

For patients with silicone gel-filled breast implants, an MRI is recommended every five to six years after implantation and every two years afterward. The MRI screens for a silent rupture which is the leakage of silicone from the implant into the tissue around the implant. This recommendation also includes gummy bear implants as the MRI can detect a rupture in the outer shell.

Silicone Implant Rupture

A ruptured silicone breast implant can maintain it's cohesiveness for years before discovery. It can go undetected (silent) but it can also cause breast lumps, pain, changes in breast shape, or capsular contracture (a complication of breast implants).

Risks

The risks for silicone and saline breast implants are similar. They include:

  • Capsular contracture (scar tissue that forms around the implant, creating a capsule)
  • Pain in the breast
  • Infection (rare)
  • Numbness in the nipple
  • Leakage or rupture of the implant
  • Undesired aesthetic (appearance) results and reoperation
  • Breast implant illness

To correct some of these complications, additional surgery may be required. The United States (U.S.) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that breast implants are not meant to last a lifetime, and the longer you have them, the more likely you will need surgery to remove or replace them. Most saline implants last 10 to 20 years before needing to be replaced.

Breast Implant Associated-Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma (BIA-ALCL)

Breast Implant Associated-Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma (BIA-ALCL), cancer that affects the immune system, is a very rare risk of silicone. Typically, when it occurs with silicone breast implants, it is usually in the scar tissue or fluid around the implant. However, in some cases, it spreads through the body.

Safety

The FDA issued a safety update in 2011 and said silicone gel breast implants are reasonably safe when used as labeled. They stated there is "no apparent association between silicone gel-filled breast implants and connective tissue disease, breast cancer, or reproductive problems."

There have been ongoing studies to continue to monitor safety risks. In 2019, the FDA gave recommendations to increase the safety of silicone implants including:

  • Better product labeling with a boxed warning to inform patients of significant risks of breast implants
  • Updated silicone gel-filled breast implant rupture screening recommendations
  • A patient decision checklist
  • Description of materials and chemicals used in breast implants
  • Patient device cards

One 2016 review published in the Annals of Internal Medicine concluded, "The evidence remains inconclusive about any association between silicone gel implants and long-term health outcomes. Better evidence is needed from existing large studies, which can be reanalyzed to clarify the strength of associations between silicone gel implants and health outcomes".

Summary

Silicone is a substance that comes in liquid, gel, or rubber-like form. It is used in breast implants during augmentation or reconstructive surgery. All breast implants have a silicone sac, some contain saline (salt water) while others are filled with silicone. 

Silicone implants are known for their soft feel which is an advantage as it feels more like real breast tissue. They also have less rippling under the skin than saline implants. 

Overall, the FDA has deemed silicone implants safe. However, there are risk factors including pain in the breast, decreased nipple sensation, poor cosmetic outcomes, and more. Most saline implants last 10-20 years before needing to be replaced.

A Word From Verywell

Deciding to have breast augmentation or reconstruction are big decisions that require a lot of choices, including the type of breast implant. Saline is a popular choice as many people say they look and feel more like a natural breast.

If you are considering implants, talk with a plastic surgeon who specializes in breast surgeries. They can show you different implants and before and after photos. This will give you a better idea of what may best suit your body type and desired results.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long do silicone breast implants last?

    The typical lifespan of breast implants ranges from 10 to 20 years. When an implant leaks, shifts, or doesn't look right, you will have to have it surgically replaced or removed.

  • Do silicone breast implants feel like natural breasts?

    Many women have noted that silicone implants are the softest type of implant which helps them feel and look like more natural breast tissue.

  • What is the most common silicone breast implant size?

    Silicone implants usually come in 100-800 cc. The most common silicone implant size is 300-400 cc. For every 150-200 cc most brands of implants will increase your bra cup size by one and a half.

16 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  4. Wan D, Rohrich RJ. Making sense of implant “profile” in breast augmentationPlast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. 2017;5(5):e1343. doi:10.1097/GOX.0000000000001343

  5. North Raleigh Plastic Surgery. How do I choose the right breast implant size?

  6. Love Plastic Surgery & Aesthetics. Saline v. silicone breast implants and the gummy bear implant: Choosing your new boobs.

  7. Hillard C, Fowler JD, Barta R, Cunningham B. Silicone breast implant rupture: A reviewGland Surg. 2017;6(2):163-168. doi:10.21037/gs.2016.09.12

  8. Salzman, M. Silent rupture of silicone gel breast implants: High-resolution ultrasound scans and surveys of 584 women. Plast Reconstr Surg. 2022;149(1): 7–14. doi: 10.1097/PRS.0000000000008632

  9. U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration (FDA). What to know about breast implants.

  10. Headon H, Kasem A, Mokbel K. Capsular contracture after breast augmentation: An update for clinical practiceArch Plast Surg. 2015;42(5):532-543. doi:10.5999/aps.2015.42.5.532

  11. American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Will your breast implants last a lifetime?

  12. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Questions and answers about breast implant-associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma (BIA-ALCL).

  13. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). FDA update on the safety of silicone gel-filled breast implants.

  14. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Risks and complications of breast implants.

  15. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). FDA strengthens safety requirements and updates study results for breast implants.

  16. Balk EM, Earley A, Avendano EA, Raman G. Long-term health outcomes in women with silicone gel breast implants: A systematic review. Ann Intern Med. 2016;164(3):164-75. doi:10.7326/M15-1169

Additional Reading

By Brandi Jones, MSN-ED RN-BC
Brandi is a nurse and the owner of Brandi Jones LLC. She specializes in health and wellness writing including blogs, articles, and education.

Originally written by Natalie Kita