When to Worry About Body Hair
Learn why some women may have more body hair, when hirsutism is considered worrisome, and how to get rid of it.
Here’s a topic that received a lot of clicks and comments when I wrote about it as the Girlfriend MD (in fact, more comments than I could keep up with) – so I thought I’d share it with my House Call Doctor listeners as well: hirsutism. This is just the medical term used to describe excess body hair.
American culture traditionally shuns hairiness in women but embraces it in men. Hair on men is a sign of their virility; hair on women—eh, not so much. Women who appear on TV shows, in movies, and on the pages of magazines wax, shave, pluck, and airbrush every millimeter of exposed skin, so the rest of us may feel as though we should look that way, too. It’s the same type of subtle brainwashing that tries to force women to seek the Kate Moss skin-and-bones look.
But in reality, not many of us are as sleek and bare as what we see on glossy magazine pages. The truth is that most women have some hair in places where they don’t want it. Many naturally house some whiskers above the upper lip, on their breasts, on the chin, hands, stomach, and even feet. Could this be normal? The answer is definitely yes. Being hairy is genetic and it can be more common in certain cultures and backgrounds—so you can thank your wonderful parents for passing on their furry genes to you.
However, there are some medical conditions that you should know about which can cause hirsutism.
What Is a Normal Amount of Hairiness?
It’s normal to be hairy…to some extent. Though most of us don’t naturally look like a Baywatch babe, it’s not normal to look like Cousin It from The Addams Family, either. Even though there is not a well-defined set of rules on what is considered medically “normal,” a good rule of thumb to go by is if the amount of hair growth is bothersome and interferes with your quality of life, then it’s time to get it checked out. In general, a little bit of peach fuzz here and there is common and normal in most women. A few stray on the chin, upper lip, or breasts may be normal. But if you are finding yourself having to actually shave or wax because there are just too many to simply pluck, seek your doctor.
What Can Cause My Hairiness?
Certain medical conditions can cause excess hair growth, so it’s important to make sure you don’t suffer from one of them:
PCOS: The most common health condition associated with hirsutism in women is a disorder called Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). PCOS affects up to 10% of women and typically causes irregular periods, acne, and excess weight gain in the mid-section. Women with PCOS have elevated testosterone levels—the typical “male” hormone that causes hair growth and acne. They are also at greater risk of getting diabetes. So it’s important to get tested for this condition if you’re experiencing these symptoms.
CAH: There’s another less common genetic disorder that can cause hairiness, called Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH), which is a defect in the adrenal gland, the gland that produces the body’s own natural steroids such as some derivatives of testosterone.
Ovarian Tumors: Tumors of the ovary can potentially cause hirsutism. However, this is very rare and accounts for less than one percent of those with excess hair.
Medication Side Effects: When visiting your doctor about this problem, it’s also important to discuss any medications (over the counter, herbal, or prescription) you may be taking, since many medications—such as anabolic steroids, hormones, and some anti-seizure drugs—can cause excess hair growth. Luckily, if medications are the cause, the hair growth is usually reversible once you stop taking them.
What Can I Do About Excess Hair Growth?
If you’ve got some hair on your body that you don’t want, you do have some options. No one type of treatment will completely eliminate hair growth, but it may help to reduce the amount of hair. And deciding on a specific treatment plan also depends on the underlying reason that is causing your hairiness.
Hormonal Contraception: Hormonal contraception, such as the pill, is the most common first line of defense. The pill normally contains two different types of hormones, progesterone and estrogen. It’s important when discussing your treatment plan with your doctor that you select a pill with a progesterone component with less “testosterone-like” activity, since testosterone may stimulate more hair growth. In general, the pills containing a progesterone component called levonorgestrel should be avoided. Ones containing the progesterone derivative called drospirenone may be more preferable since they act as “anti-testosterones” and will help combat the excess hair growth.
Spironolactone: There is also a medication called spironolactone, a drug that was originally prescribed to lower blood pressures, which has been shown to also decrease hair growth. There’s a generic for this drug and it’s cheap. On the downside, it can take anywhere from 3-6 months to start seeing a difference, however. Also, routine blood pressure and blood tests are advised.
Prescription Eflornithine Cream: This prescription cream may be prescribed for those with unwanted hair growth. This is not a hair removal cream, but does work to inhibit growth of hair—just very gradually. Unfortunately, it’s not cheap since there is no patented generic as of yet.
Traditional Non-Rx Methods: Of course, you can also go the more traditional route and try laser hair removal, electrolysis, plucking, waxing, and cream hair removal systems.
Just remember, no matter what method you select with your physician, results are gradual and may not be apparent for up to 6 months.
When Should You Worry About Your Unwanted Hair?
If the excess hair is uncomfortable for you, or if it is new or changed in any way, it may be time to consult your physician. You should also see your doctor if you suffer from any of the following symptoms in addition to your hirsutism:
difficulty losing excess weight
family history of diabetes
And remember, for some women it’s simply normal to have some fuzz here and there. If you have any concerns, however, don’t be embarrassed to ask your doctor! I guarantee that you aren’t the first or the last to come to them with this problem.
One more thing: I was very pleased to see so many men comment on my earlier episode on hirsutism in defense of hair on women. Despite the American media’s daily attempt to fit us all into a very narrow hair-less mold, thankfully not everyone out there shares those same limited views.
Always remember this – everyone is different, and you are beautiful just the way you are.