Body hair removal
Dear Dr. Jeff: Is there a safe, cheap, and effective way to get rid of body hair so that it doesn't grow back thicker and quicker?-MBE
Dear MBE: The only conventional hair removal modality that yields permanent results is electrolysis. Laser treatment would also very definitely be permanent, but it's very, very expensive, requires general anesthesia, and carries a certain amount of risk.
With electrolysis, the hair follicle itself is destroyed by an electric current, and new hair can no longer grow. Electrolysis can cause considerable local irritation, as well as pit-like scarring. The outcome depends primarily on the skill of the operator. The greater the skill, the more expensive the treatment. If you are considering electrolysis, make sure the operator is licensed and uses only sterilized instruments.
All other methods of body hair removal are temporary. The hair will eventually grow back, although not necessarily any thicker or quicker than before. Here are some of the pros and cons of commonly available alternatives to shaving.
Tweezing is obviously cheap and easy, but it can be painful and hard to recommend for more than a few stray hairs. Plucking a hair will not destroy its follicle, so a new hair will grow back quickly.
Chemical depilatories are inexpensive and easy to apply, but can be irritating to your skin. Depilatories should always be "test applied" first to a small area of skin, to judge your sensitivity to that particular product. Depilatories cause hair proteins to dissolve, but leave hair roots and follicles intact. New, replacement hairs will start growing almost immediately.
Waxing can be expensive, if done professionally, but you certainly can do it yourself at home. Most people rate its discomfort level as tolerable. Hair growth resumes after a few weeks, although it may diminish some over time. Regular, do-it-yourself waxing may well be the "safe," "cheap," and "effective" method you're seeking to control that unwanted body hair.
Medical alternatives to mechanical hair removal do exist. Spironolactone, for instance, a diuretic ("water pill") most often prescribed for high blood pressure, is sometimes used to treat facial hirsuitism in women. Birth control pills, especially those which contain one of the newer progestins, often have anti-androgenic activity that lessens excess hair growth (the same mechanism that works for acne.)
Remember, though, that the growth of excess facial or body hair can be a sign of a hormonal imbalance, either from an endocrine problem or a medication side effect. Certain birth control pills, for instance, can cause this kind of problem for particular individuals (and not for others). If the unwanted hair involves more than a few stray hairs, and they're new and increasing in number, you should probably seek medical evaluation.
Have you ever wondered, though, why we even have body hair at all? Leading theories focus on pheromones, those natural, odorless scents produced by our bodies to communicate with others. The idea is that pheromones are trapped by body hair, and then slowly released into the air. Maybe that's a useful function we shouldn't try to eliminate. Then again, our bodies have the same number of hair follicles as apes, but ours produce, for the most part, only very fine hairs in comparison. From an evolutionary point of view, where does that-and waxing-leave us?
Finally, consider this. Removing body hair from our legs, underarms, etc., etc. may be consonant with our own cultural biases and aesthetics. Obviously, if that's how you choose to look, that's your choice to make. Don't be inspired, though, by media-borne images of perfectly hairless (and otherwise perfectly perfect) bodies. What waxing doesn't accomplish, computer re-imaging does. Shouldn't it seem a little more peculiar to us all, that advertisers are trying to make us want to look like the re-engineered pictures of models who aren't even all there themselves?
To your health and happiness!
Jeff Benson, M.D.
Dudley Coe Health Center
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