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Why Am I So Hairy?

Learn why some women have hair in places they shouldn’t.

By
Sanaz Majd, MD,
October 14, 2010

Hair on men is a sign of their virility; hair on women—eh, not so much. Many of my patients often look a tad embarrassed when asking me about finding hair in places they don’t think it belongs.  So that’s why today I want to talk about hirsutism, which is the fancy medical term used to describe excess hair on the body or hair found in various parts of the body that women often feel ashamed to have. For instance, many of my patients complain that they find hair growth on the breasts, above the upper lip, on the chin, on the fingers, stomach, or feet. Could this be normal? After all, these are locations where men are supposed to grow hair, “not women,” right? Wrong! And ladies, if you’re wondering if you’re normal for having hair in these places, I’m here to tell you you’re not alone.

Why Am I So Hairy?

First of all, remember that television and magazines wax, shave, pluck, and airbrush every millimeter of exposed skin. Not many real women look like the hairless and perfectly-smooth-appearing women who seem to so effortlessly float on the beach on shows like the old classic, Baywatch. Television just makes it appear as though they are naturally hair-free. The truth is most women have some hair in places where they don’t want it. It’s so common that I see it almost every day in the office. Being hairy is genetic and it can be more common in certain cultures and backgrounds--and you can thank your wonderful parent’s for passing on their super hairy genes to you. 

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 hairs 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, it may be time to get it checked out.

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. The most common health condition associated with hirsutism in women is a disorder called Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). PCOS affects up to ten percent 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 feeling hairy.

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. 

Additionally, 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. 

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 My 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, 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.

There is also a medication called spironolactone, a drug that was originally prescribed to lower blood pressure, which has been shown to also decrease hair growth.   If you tend to have lower blood pressures, however, this may not be the right method of hair control for you.

Also, a special cream, with the brand name Vaniqa, may be prescribed for those with unwanted hair growth. This is not a hair removal cream, but does work to inhibit growth of hair—but just very gradually. 

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 six 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:

  • irregular periods

  • acne

  • difficulty losing excess weight

  • voice deepening

  • family history of diabetes

  • male-pattern baldness

  • nipple discharge

And remember, for some women it’s simply normal to have a little hair here and there. If you have any concerns while trying to embrace your hairiness, however, don’t be embarrassed to ask your doc! They likely see this every day!

Tweezers image courtesy of Shutterstock

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