February 01, 2002
It's an odd fact that although we spend hours washing, styling and admiring our hair in an effort to look good, the presence of body hair does nothing more than repulse us. In this piece Jacqueline Head takes a look into why some people have more than others, and what can be done about it.
Most of us, especially women, spend time and money shaving, waxing and plucking unwanted areas of hair. However for some people, leg hair and bikini lines are not the main area of concern. A significant proportion of women suffer from excess hair, a condition known as hirsutism.
Hirsutism is a condition that only affects women, and it causes excess hair to grow in areas such as the armpits, chest, and the groin areas.
Although it is often a result of ethnicity, for example many southern European and Middle Eastern women have more hair than other origins, hirsutism can also be caused by an imbalance in hormones - meaning there are too many male sex hormones.
The most common cause of this is another condition known as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which affects 5 to 10 per cent of women between adolescence and menopause. It is a syndrome where the ovary, instead of releasing one egg each cycle, produces many eggs that are never released. This causes hormone levels to become abnormal and can also trigger conditions such as excess hair, acne, irregular menstrual periods, and later in life - obesity and diabetes.
Apart from genetic makeup or PCOS other factors can cause Hirsutism, such as:
- Cushing syndrome: which occurs when there is an excess of corticosteroid in the blood
- Tumours in the pituitary gland, the ovary, and the adrenal gland
- Medications that can cause hormone imbalances such as oral contraceptives, testosterone or steroids.
One other condition, known as hypertrichosis is another cause of excess body hair, and can affect both men and women. This condition is not related to hormones but can be caused by other factors including:
- Being born to a mother who drank alcohol, or used medications such as diphenylhydantoin, minoxidil, danazol, or corticosteroids during pregnancy
- Chronic inflammation of the skin such as eczema
- Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia, along with any other type of malnutrition,
- Spina Bifida, or
- Skin moles
Effect on self-esteem
"One client had excess facial hair under her chin," says Tanya Burton from the Australian Laser Clinic, "When she first came in it was a hot day and she was wearing a sweater. She wouldn't look at me and mostly kept her head down."
All experts agree that excess body hair can have a profound affect on a person's body image, confidence and self-esteem. Many women become distressed when they discover hair around their breasts, under their chin, on their lower back or buttocks. This level of distress can inhibit people from socialising, enjoying life and forming relationships.
However there is good news for those who suffer hirsutism or hypertrichosis. Various types of treatment, ranging from waxing, bleaching, laser therapy, electrolysis and hormone therapy are at hand.
Types of treatment:
Electrolysis uses electrical currents that cause a heat reaction with each individual hair gradually weakening them. It can be a slow process but the treatment will eventually destroy hair growth cells in the base of the follicle.
As far as side effects go, as long as you attend a professional clinic the only after effect will be a reddening of the skin around the treated area, which should calm down within an hour.
According to Katherine Stiric from the City Electrolysis Centre in Sydney, electrolysis can cause a slight stinging or burning sensation. However most people's reactions vary, in the same way they vary to having their ears pierced. Most though say the amount of pain is similar to that experienced when waxing.
Laser therapy works by employing a laser made up of red light, which is not harmful to the skin like UV light, and strips the hair of its pigment and then causes a heat reaction with the hair that destroys it down to the follicle. However laser therapy only works on dark hair and will have no effect on grey, white, or very blonde hair.
Hair must also be in the 'active growth phase' for the therapy to be successful. A treatment can be applied to the hair to help it enter a growth phase, before the therapy is conducted.
Laser therapy can cause some side effects, such as redness, and in some cases grazing, scabbing, or pigmentation of the skin. However these more severe side effects only occur on people with dark or sun-tanned skin.
Pain is also similar to that of electrolysis, but an anaesthetic cream can be applied to help numb the treated area.
Laser therapy is also much quicker than electrolysis, which in some cases, such as a hairy back, can take months of treatment.
Are usually prescribed for women with polycystic ovary syndrome or other conditions related to a hormone imbalance, such as acne. According to a study done in 1998 by endocrinologist Dr Warren Kidson, oral contraceptives work by suppressing hormones that stimulate hair follicle growth.
The oral contraceptive most commonly used for PCOS and acne in young women is Diane-35.
If you are worried about excess hair it is generally best to consult your doctor for advice before seeking other forms of treatment.
By Jacqueline Head
Reprinted with permission from Editforce