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Hairy belle

 Excessive hair can be perceived as a problem, especially for women. Aside from aesthetics, hirsutism could also be a sign of an underlying health problem.

IT’S one of the quirks of humanity – the way we are obsessed with removing our body hair. It’s amusing to compare ourselves with other mammals, who probably wonder why we spend so much time and effort to pluck, shave or strip ourselves of our “fur”. Imagine cats plucking out their whiskers every day! The removal of body hair (known as “depilation”) is not a modern invention either; techniques like waxing, shaving and plucking are believed to have existed for thousands of years.

For women, hair removal has always been a more complex issue, than it is for men (who only need shave their faces every morning). Women may choose to pluck their eyebrows, put depilatory creams on any facial hair they have, shave their armpits, shave or wax their legs and arms, and, following recent trends, wax their hair-down-there. Oh, the things we do for vanity!

Removing body hair

Although we are motivated by aesthetics, safety and hygiene are still important factors to keep in mind when looking at ways to remove body and facial hair. The common, domestic methods of hair removal are the safest. However, as the methods grow more complex and technologically-sophisticated, there will be more risks involved. Shaving is the quickest and most fuss-free method, although women will need to shave often to avoid having stubble (the short, bristly hairs that grow out). However, this can lead to shaving rash, so try to use a shaving cream or gel, and shave in the direction that your hair grows.

Depilatory creams are also easy to use because they only involve putting on the cream and rinsing or wiping it off. However, these creams contain chemicals that smell rather unpleasant, and may cause skin irritation or allergies in some people. Be sure to test the cream on a small area on your forearm before using it – see a doctor if you get a bad reaction. Waxing is exactly what it sounds like – applying hot or cold wax on the skin and pulling it off when it has dried, to remove the hair. It sounds painful, but that’s what women do for a longer lasting method of hair removal!

Although waxing is generally safe, I would caution women not to overdo it, as there is a risk of skin irritation and infection. People who have diabetes, problems with blood circulation and increased risk of infection should avoid waxing. Some new-fangled methods of hair removal have been developed, such as electrolysis (using a small electrical current to destroy the hair roots), laser treatment (using laser to zap the hair follicles), intense pulsed light (using filtered light to destroy the hair follicles) and rotary epilation (using a device with a rotating head to pluck hairs out at the roots).

All these methods are considerably more expensive than the home methods, and should only be done by trained, qualified professionals. Talk to a dermatologist for advice, don’t rely on the word of a beauty therapist alone.

Hirsutism… when waxing doesn’t do the trick

Periodic waxing and shaving is often sufficient for most women who want to put on a pretty dress or a sleeveless top. But what about women who have so much facial and body hair that a simple razor won’t suffice? Hirsutism, or excess hairiness, affects about 5% to 10% of all women, and can be terribly distressing. Women with this condition usually have dense, coarse, dark hair on the face, chest, abdomen and back.

What causes such overgrowth of hair? Usually, it is due to abnormally high levels of androgen hormones. These are the so-called “male” hormones like testosterone, although they are naturally present in both men and women, albeit at different levels. In hirsute women, these androgen levels are higher than in other women. In some women, the hormone levels are normal, but their hair follicles may be overly sensitive to these hormones.

In some cases, excessive hair growth can be an important sign of an underlying condition called polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Women with PCOS develop small cysts in their ovaries and are usually infertile. Other signs of PCOS include acne and irregular periods. There are some medications that can cause excessive hair growth in some women, including minoxidil, phenytoin, cyclosporine and anabolic steroids.

Can the doctor help?

Women with excessive hair growth may be tempted to hide away, but they should seek treatment from their doctor. Hirsutism caused by obesity or certain medications can be resolved by losing weight or switching medications, respectively. For severe hormone-related cases, your doctor may prescribe hormone-based medications that rebalance the levels of androgen hormones in your body.

Hirsutism is not a disease in itself; it is often a symptom of an underlying condition. Don’t be afraid to seek medical advice to discover what the real problem is. That is the only way to treat hirsutism effectively and prevent any complications from the underlying condition.

The Star Newspaper, Sunday April 6, 2008

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