Excessive Hair Growth

Rarely do men complain about having too much hair-even if it grows dark and dense on arms, chest, and legs. But for women, the tendency of hair to crop up in places other than the scalp can be a decided cosmetic liability. For some women, it goes beyond a cosmetic problem; it is a serious psychological handicap that can result in extreme self-consciousness and social isolation.

Women with markedly abnormal hair growth in the same distribution as that of a normal postpubertal male are called hirsute. Some eight to ten percent of all adult women in the United States face this problem.

We’re not talking about vellus hair-the “peach fuzz,” or downy growth, present over most of the human body. Hirsutism refers to an excess of terminal hair-thick, pigmented hair that, before puberty, is present only on the scalp, eyebrows, and eyelashes. In a hirsute woman, once she becomes sexually mature, terminal hair grows in unwanted locations, such as the upper lip and chin.

In some cases, hirsutism may reflect an abnormality that can be medically corrected. Often, however, hirsutism is simply a matter of heredity, and a problem that can be controlled cosmetically.

Here are your choices:

Make up a solution. For a mild case of excess facial hair, a heavy base of cosmetics can cover up the problem. If your skin tends to be oily or is acne prone, look for foundations and blushes that are water based or noncomedogenic.

Try a close shave. The most obvious way to rid yourself of unwanted hair is to shave it away. It may not be the best choice for removing facial hair, however, since one wrong move can have you sporting a snippet of bathroom tissue over a bleeding nick. There’s another drawback to shaving facial hair. “Shaving mows the hairs down at skin level and may leave an unsightly dark line,” says Donald Rudikoff, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

Still, shaving can be a viable option for removing hair on other parts of the body. It’s the easiest and cheapest method, says Rudikoff, and, contrary to popular belief, “shaving does not make hair coarser or cause it to grow faster.”

Use a little pluck. Tweezing works well if the overgrowth problem is confined to a specific area, such as a few errant hairs around the eyebrows or on the chin. “It is time consuming, uncomfortable, and impractical for areas like the legs and underarms,” notes Elizabeth Knobler, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York.

Tweezing can hurt a bit and leave the area red and irritated for a time. New hairs may appear within 4 to 13 weeks. However, there is no medical basis for the belief that nine new hairs will grow in place of one that is plucked.

Lighten up. Bleaching to make hairs colorless and less prominent is probably the most common home treatment for unwanted facial hair. Several bleaches are sold in drugstores. Most involve mixing together a powder with a cream to activate the bleaching agent. Be sure to ask if the bleach is fresh, because it can lose strength if it has been on the shelf for several months. For women with very dark facial hair, the bleaching process may not be 100 percent successful on the first pass; a repeat bleaching will usually do the trick. As the hairs grow out, they’ll have to be bleached again.

Wax it away. One technique that is similar to plucking involves the use of wax to pull hairs out by the roots. Once the wax has been heated to a fluid state, it is spread on one swath of skin at a time, then stripped off a few seconds later, taking hundreds of hairs with it. Waxing is not without its sore spots, however. “As you can imagine, this method can be painful and time consuming,” says Bruce R. Carr, M.D., Paul C. MacDonald Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. Surface skin can sometimes be pulled off in the bargain, and even if the skin remains intact, the waxing can create long-lasting irritation and redness. Indeed, as Carr points out, the skin can become so irritated that infection can develop. So if you want to try waxing, be sure to follow package instructions carefully.

Cream off the crop. Drugstores offer a variety of creams and lotions that chemically remove hair; these are generally as cheap and easy to use as bleach. “Depilatories take off all the hair on the leg or lip-the dark, terminal hair and the lighter vellus hair-so regrowth feels unusually thick and stubbly. But it still holds true that only one hair will grow back where a hair was removed,” says Carr. Depilatories come in different types for use on different parts of the body. Be sure you use the appropriate type for the body area you will be applying it to. Since a depilatory can irritate sensitive skin, always test it on a small patch of skin before using it on a larger area.

Get to the root of the problem. There is only one method of permanent hair removal: electrolysis. In this procedure, a trained electrologist inserts a very fine probe into the hair follicle. A small amount of electrical current is then applied through the probe to destroy the hair root and render it useless for future growth. Does it hurt? “That’s relative to each individual being treated and the area being worked on,” says RudikotI “Typically, electrolysis on the upper lip and inner thigh are most uncomfortable, while treatment on the forearms and chest area hurt least.” If performed improperly, electrolysis can cause scarring and infection. When performed by a trained operator, there are generally few side effects. A slight swelling or redness may occur that should subside in a matter of hours. Occasionally, slight scabbing may appear two to four days after treatment; if left alone, it will fall off. This procedure is safe if performed by a trained operator; ask to see credentials-such as certification by the Society of Clinical and Medical Electrologists.

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