Hairiness in women
Excess hair (hirsutism) in women often appears in the places where men have body hair, such as the upper lip and chin, the chest (including around the nipples), the tops of the shoulders and the lower abdomen. The excess hair is usually coarse and dark (different from the fine hair that some women have on their upper lip, chin, breasts and stomach). The hairs also grow longer than normal so, for example, hairs on the upper lip may grow to 1 cm long instead of remaining short, fine and fair.
Reasons for excess hair
- Often, it is inherited; your mother or aunts may have had the same problem.
Some drugs can be responsible, particularly phenobarbitone and phenytoin taken to control epilepsy. Long-term steroids (taken for conditions such as arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease) and ciclosporin (taken for psoriasis, dermatitis or arthritis) can also cause extra hair growth.
- Excess hair
- Scanty or irregular periods, or periods stop altogether (but periods may be normal)
- Acne and greasy hair
- Difficulty in getting pregnant
- Obesity (usually)
What you can do
- In general, it is not very suitable for black skin, because the pigment (melanin) in the skin will pick up the laser energy, causing scarring and loss of pigment. People with Mediterranean or pale Asian skin tones might be able to risk the treatment. However, new long-wavelength lasers that can be used on dark skin are now available.
- In general, red, grey or blonde hair, and hair that is very fine is unlikely to respond well. However, some new types of laser are able to treat pale hair.
- It is slightly uncomfortable – like having rubber bands flicked over the skin. Your skin may tingle for several hours afterwards.
- It takes time. Although an area 9 cm in diameter takes only 1 or 2 minutes to treat with the newest fast lasers, most people will need two or three treatments at intervals of a few months. This is because laser treatment works best on hair that is in the growing phase – at any time, only a proportion of hairs are in this phase. Also, at the first visit, the therapist should treat just a small area and wait at least 8 weeks before starting the full treatment.
- Complete and permanent removal of the hair is unlikely. The hair usually disappears for 2–3 months, and then slowly regrows (but the new hair is less dense and less coarse). Six months after the treatment, you would probably have about half the amount of hair you had originally.
- It is still a fairly new treatment, so no one knows if there are any bad effects in the long term.
- Almost anyone can get hold of the equipment and set themselves up as a therapist. It may be difficult to be sure that a therapist is properly trained. Find out who will actually be doing the procedure, and their qualifications. They should be a doctor (plastic surgeon or dermatologist). In the UK, check that the doctor is a member of the British Association of Plastic Surgeons or the British Dermatology Association.
It is expensive. Before embarking on it, ask the price of a complete treatment, and how large an area will be treated in each session.
- Electrolysis treatment can be uncomfortable. It is important that you use a qualified practitioner, registered with the Institute of Electrolysis.
- Treatments are given 2 weeks apart (to allow the skin to recover), and the whole process may take 6–9 months.
- Check that the practitioner uses new, disposable (not simply re-sterilized) needles.
- If it is too expensive for you, contact your local college of further education – they may have training courses for beauticians where you could be treated by trainees who will be supervised and have good equipment.
- Home kits for electrolysis are not a good idea; the current used is too low to destroy the hair root, so the effect is similar to plucking.
- Electrolysis is unsuitable for anyone with a heart pacemaker.
Try spearmint tea. A research study has suggested that drinking 2 cups of spearmint tea daily can reduce levels of testosterone in women, and might reduce hairiness (British Medical Journal 2007;334:482). This research involved only a small number of women, so its results need to be confirmed.
How your doctor can help
- you have any of the symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome, such as periods becoming irregular or stopping altogether
- you are taking any medications that might be responsible (check the information leaflet in the packet)
- excess hair starts to appear suddenly in adult life
- no one else in your family has excess hair
- if, at the same time, you are losing hair from your scalp, especially at the sides of your forehead
- you are having to spend a lot of money on electrolysis
- you are depressed and worried by your appearance.
Polycystic ovary syndrome. If this is a possibility, your doctor will refer you to an endocrinologist (hormone specialist). The endocrinologist will check for other problems, such as diabetes, that can sometimes accompany polycystic ovary syndrome. The medication used to treat polycystic ovary syndrome is effective, especially if you also lose weight; greasy skin and acne clear up in about 6 weeks, but it can take 12–18 months for maximum improvement in the hirsutism (hairiness).
June is a 43-year-old full time mother from the north of England
June first realised that she had some unwanted facial hair on her top lip when she was only 18 years old. However, in 2000, when she was 33 years old, June became more aware of hairs on her chin and neck.
"When I was younger, my facial hair made me feel like a bearded lady – like one of those women in the circus sideshows. To think that other people could think of me that way upset me", said June. Being so young when she first had unwanted facial hair, June thinks it's really important for other young girls to know they are not alone with this condition. "I worry for the young girls, knowing how it felt to be so self-conscious," says June.
To manage her facial hair and feel more comfortable in public, June explains, "I must check that I cannot see any hairs before I leave the house. I'm much more self-conscious of my facial hair before I go out."
Whilst June does not feel self-conscious every day, she is always aware of her facial hair and always worries that someone else may be able to see it. "I would be walking down the street and if someone looks at me I am always wondering, can they see the hairs, or is it just an ordinary passing glance. I know there would be no hairs left, because I would have checked them, but, it doesn't stop how I suddenly feel," says June.
"I think that there is a stigma attached to women with unwanted facial hair and this needs to change," she says. When offering advice to fellow sufferers, June encourages women to try not to let it bother them and be aware that there is a choice of treatment options available to them.
June spends over 3 hours a week checking for hairs, including checks both morning and evening every day, alongside two 30-minute sessions per week of plucking and using a special glove to remove the hairs.
June did not seek help from her GP until 2008 when her neck begun to look and feel sore from her frequent plucking regimen. She says, "I have only recently visited my GP as I didn't think there was anything he could do about my excess hair. I usually visit the chemist for wax strips and advice." June's GP doesn't believe her unwanted, facial hair is linked to any known condition; however, June feels that her dark hair and features may be a contributing factor.
June currently does not have contact with any support groups, but feels that knowing there are other people who are out there is a great source of comfort and it will help those that also suffer from the condition that are too shy and embarrassed to discuss it. "A good, supportive network is ideal," says June. Having recently attended a focus group about unwanted facial hair she says that since meeting other women with facial hair, "I feel more confident. Sitting in a room with other people who suffer from the condition was good fun – it made me aware that I am not alone".
Written by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Edited by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Last updated: Friday, February 1st 2013
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