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Much of this information was gathered from Dr. Sara
Rosenthal's recent book Women and Unwanted Hair, as well as Sheila
Godfrey's Principles and Practice of Electrical Epilation. While this
information is no substitute for consulting a physician, we are dedicated to
helping everyone learn about unwanted hair. This page discusses different
aspects of unwanted hair and targets females. Many men also deal with unwanted
hair, we are by no means ignoring their issues. For more information, please
contact your physician.
That Is "Not Supposed to Be There"
Excessive hair growth can be identified by many different terms. You have
probably run across the term Hirsutism, perhaps Hypertrichosis, and even
superfluous hair. In many resources these terms are used interchangeably
but there are important distinctions.
Excessive hair (key word here is excessive) on the face,
especially around the chin, upper lip, breasts or chests, or basically hair on a
woman that matches a male hair pattern on a female body is known as
hirsutism. Men can have hirsutism when their
hair is truly excessive in hormonally dependent areas. A diabetic woman with a
full male pattern beard would be said to have hirsutism.
basically excessive hair on men or women that tends to be in places that are
outside the pattern areas described above. Someone who has a cast on their leg
who grows unusually large patches of hair under the cast could be said to have
Hypertrichosis (hyper=excessive/accelerated trich=hair).
Superfluous hair or
garden variety “unwanted hair” is considered such whenever it appears on areas
of the body that are considered to be either culturally unacceptable, or
unattractive. It isn't an abnormal amount or location when considering the
makeup of the whole population, it is just undesirable for a woman to have a
noticeable light mustache. The color of the unwanted hair is also key; the
darker it is, the more visible—which makes it more of a problem for dark haired
women than for fair haired women. If you are dark haired, for example, the fine
hair on the upper lip or around the hairline may feel abnormal but it’s not;
it’s merely visible. And even though excessive hair growth on the face or
male-patterned hair growth on the body is considered “abnormal” in women, it’s
actually very, very common.
Common Causes of
Abnormally Excessive Hair Growth
- Too much androgen secretion:
Many women secrete too much androgen as a result of conditions such as
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) or Polycystic Ovarian Disease (PCOD), which
affects 6-10 percent of the general female population and accounts for half of
all hormonal disorders affecting female fertility. Because androgen levels
are out of whack, PCOS sufferers can develop abnormally excessive facial or
body hair. For more information on PCOS, visit
- Genetics: Some
clinicians will cite “racial” or “familial” genes as a cause of hirsutism, but
this isn’t an authentic cause per se. Having said that, if you’re of
Mediterranean descent, you are more likely to experience noticeable or
“unwanted” hair growth that a blonde Scandinavian woman may not.
- Stress: In
response to stress, your adrenal glands pump out “stress hormones” or
catecholamines that speed up your body. But since your adrenal glands also
make androgen, increased stress can also increase circulating androgens in
your bloodstream, which can cause hirsutism.
- Obesity: Certain
body types (wherein more of the weight is carried in the upper body) are more
susceptible to hirsutism because they are associated with insulin resistance.
Also, fat cells can make androgen just as they can make estrogen.
- Overactive adrenal glands:
This is a side effect of tumors resulting from certain pituitary diseases,
such as Cushing’s Disease (for more information, visit the National Adrenal
Disease Foundation at
www.medhelp.org/nadf). Cushing’s Disease and PCOS are often accompanied
by irregular periods.
- Oversensitive hair follicles:
Some of us are genetically wired with hair follicles that are simply more
sensitive to androgens.
- Side effects of certain drugs:
Many drugs can cause either androgen secretion and hirsutism, or the
opposite—hair loss or alopecia. As a general rule, when taking either a
prescription or an over-the-counter drug, be sure to ask about common side
effects. Drugs that commonly cause hair growth in women include: Dilantin
(used to control seizures), Danazol (used in extreme cases of endometriosis),
Cyclosporine, Steroids (used in a variety of drugs, particularly asthma
- Oral contraceptives:
Certain OCs can increase circulating androgen levels, while others decrease
them. For a list, please
click here to view the PDF article on drug induced hirsutism by
International Hair Route Magazine or read the appropriate section in Dr.
Rosenthal's book Women and Unwanted Hair.
- Insulin resistance & Diabetes:
This is when your cells stop responding to the insulin your pancreas makes.
Too much insulin can actually cause hirsutism. For more information, see
The Diabetes Page
located on Dr. Rosenthal's web page.
- Thyroid disorders:
Certain thyroid disorders could cause hirsutism. Once your thyroid problem is
treated, however, it’s likely no new hairs will be stimulated to grow.
- Rare endocrine disorders:
An increase in androgen levels can result from a number of very rare endocrine
diseases, such as Hyperandrogenic-Insulin Resistant-Acanthosis Nigricans
for Unwanted Hair
Much unwanted hair growth occurs as a result of hormonal imbalances, which are
correctable. Ironically, many women actually uncover a potential underlying
hormonal problem during a visit with an electrologist (a person who performs
electrolysis). And while hormone therapy will not make the hairs you already
have disappear, it can stop the growth of new hairs. Be sure to ask your doctor
about common side effects of each of the following therapies before you say
“yes” to hormone therapy.
- Oral contraceptives (OCs): The most common form of
hormone therapy used to treat hirsutism, OCs tend to improve what are called
“androgen-related side effects,” such as acne and unwanted facial hair. That
said, too much progestin, which is synthetic progesterone, can also cause
these kinds of side effects. If your acne and/or unwanted facial hair predates
your use of OCs, you may notice a marked improvement; however, if these
“symptoms” occur after you’ve started an oral contraceptive program, you may
be on the wrong pill, and should consult with your doctor about alternatives.
- Spironolactone: This is a diuretic that appears to
counteract the effects of androgen hormones in the skin. Frequently called an
antiandrogen drug, spironolactone is not recommended if you’re at risk for
- Cortocisteroids: These will prevent your adrenal gland
from making androgens, but they’re not recommended as a first-line hormone
therapy for hirsutism.
- GnRH analogs: GnRH (gonadotropin releasing hormone)
analogs are normally used in fertility treatment and—because they come with
many menopausal-type side effects—should be reserved for more severe cases of
hirsutism where OCs are not appropriate.
- Natural progesterone therapy: If birth control is not
an issue, this may be an appropriate means of correcting an underlying
hormonal imbalance. For more information, see Natural Progesterone: The
Natural Way to Alleviate Symptoms of Menopause, PMS, and Other Hormone-Related
Problems by Anna Rushton, Shirley A. Bond and John Lee.
Removing Unwanted Hair
The following are methods most people consider once an underlying hormonal
problem causing excessive, unwanted hair growth has been ruled out, or dealt
- Tweezing: Tweezing
is the cheapest method of removal, and is generally considered appropriate for
eyebrows, since you may want to alter their shape from time to time and allow
the hairs to grow back. "However, tweezing can cause scar tissue to form and
can also stimulate the hairs to grow back stronger and coarser. Avoid using
tweezers on sparse facial hair or as a way of removing large areas of unwanted
hair on the legs and underarms."--Dr. Sara Rosenthal, Women and Unwanted
- “Tweezer-like” Products:
Although these devices are relatively cheap and convenient, the hair removal
is temporary and, like regular tweezing, stimulates the hair follicle to grow
- Shaving: The
problem with shaving for women is where they are shaving and where, on their
bodies, stubble is socially and culturally acceptable. Shaving facial hair,
for example, is stigmatizing; shaving underarm hair is not. In light of this,
experts understand if women refrain from shaving the face if it doesn’t feel
right, but they do not discourage shaving if the goal is to remove the hair
without stimulating the roots. And if the goal is to permanently remove the
hair, shaving is a better option than waxing, tweezing or sugaring if you’re
having electrolysis treatment because of the potential skin damage associated
with these alternate methods.
- Waxing: Waxing is
basically large scale tweezing. It removes the hair for long periods of time
without producing stubble. With the exception of hair that has been
hormonally stimulated, hair that is waxed on areas such as the lower leg or
underarm, may grow back fine or sometimes finer. However, like tweezing,
waxing can negatively stimulate the roots and hair follicles on areas like the
chin, breast, abdomen, and upper lip.
- Sugaring: Sugaring
produces the same results as waxing, but doesn’t require as much heating. It
can be messy and, as a result, is not exactly convenient. It is also a
large-scale tweezing method.
- Threading: This is
an ancient technique popular in places like India and the Middle East. It
involves the use of a regular thread to remove hair from the surface of the
skin. It is a variation on tweezing.
- Hair Removal Creams:
These creams (also called depilatories) remove surface hair but they tend to
have less of an effect on the follicle than methods like tweezing. Think of
them as a chemical shave. And while they don’t provide a permanent solution,
the hair may take longer to grow back than it would if you were shaving, and
hair doesn’t grow back as stubbly.
Bleaching kits do not remove hair at all, but can lighten the dark, fine hairs
of the upper lip or arm to conceal hirsutism. Use with caution as on some
hair colors, it make it catch the light and ends up making it more noticeable,
- Home Electrolysis Kits:
These tend not to live up to their claims, nor do any “patch” devices you may
have come across on the home shopping network; both end up actually “tweezing”
out the hairs instead of removing them via electrolysis. The good news is the
DC battery that powers home electrolysis kits is not strong enough to do any
real damage to your skin. We've tried them all and none of them work. Hair
is just not a conductor of electricity, sorry.
- Laser: Laser
treatment for hair removal is gaining popularity, but its success is really
dependent on the hair and skin pigment. If you’re a person of color, the
pigment in your skin will likely interfere with the laser beam’s reach.
Similarly, if you’re fair-haired, the laser will likely be unable to grasp the
pigment in your hair. This is an adequate method if you’re fair skinned, but
dark haired. However, it is extremely costly, and its permanence is not
guaranteed and can not be legally represented as permanent. It might work
well in conjunction with a permanent method like electrolysis on large areas
like a man's back or full beard removal. Make sure you are having laser
treatments done by a trained medical doctor, not just a "certified"
technician, certification can be as simple as a 4 hour course on how to
operate the machine. Visit the
FDA Laser Facts
page for more information.
Electrolysis is the only permanent way of removing hair, but it does require a
time commitment. The electrologist uses a very fine filament or needle,
placing it alongside the hair shaft and into the hair follicle. A mild
electric current then destroys the hair-growth cells within the follicle. The
process is charged by units of time and, unfortunately, doesn’t come dirt
cheap like shaving does. We frequently have clients say they thought it would
be much more expensive and that is why they hadn't come in sooner, it is
definitely an investment you are making in yourself. If you are dealing with
unwanted hair frequently then it is very worthwhile to investigate it to see
what your actual costs will be. Compared with laser, it is an absolute
bargain as far as price goes. An hour of body waxing in our area costs a
little more than electrolysis for an hour. Remember when you are done with
electrolysis, you are done with the hair. As with any method, your results
will be largely determined by the skill of your practitioner. Shop around and
don't hesitate to set up consultations at several places and decide which
works best for you. See the
FAQ section of our site for tips on choosing an electrologist.
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