Unwanted Hair & PCOS
Hair: You can color it, curl it, straighten it, braid it, cut it, etc. but what about “unwanted hair”? You know – the hair above your upper lip, chin, neck, toes, belly, or even your back. If you are a young woman with PCOS, you can probably relate. Having to deal with the embarrassment of unwanted hair is no joke. Depending on the amount of extra hair you have, it can range from being mildly annoying to severely distressing.
Unwanted hair is one of the “signs” of PCOS. It’s caused by an excess amount of hormones called “androgens”. ALL women make female and male hormones, but girls with PCOS make a little more of the androgens. Testosterone (pronounced test-toss-ter-own) is mostly to blame. This extra hair tends to be coarse and dark. There are other things besides PCOS that can cause hirsutism (pronounced her-suit-is-im), the medical word for excess or unwanted hair in women. Hirsutism can be hereditary, ethnic (females of Mediterranean decent often have darker and thicker hair on their arms, legs, upper lips, toes, etc.) and there are other medical reasons too.
So, what are the options for dealing with the kind of hair you don’t want? If you have PCOS, you may already be taking medicine that helps. Oral contraceptive pills or “the Pill” is typically prescribed to treat polycystic ovary syndrome. The Pill is used to regulate the menstrual cycle and balance hormones. By doing this, it lowers the levels of androgens, the male hormones linked with excess hair growth. Metformin (Glucophage®) is another medication that is often prescribed to help lower insulin levels in women with PCOS. High levels of insulin stimulate the ovaries to make androgens, so by decreasing these levels, hair growth can be lessened, but not as much as with the “Pill”. Spirnolactone® is yet another medication that is often used to treat hirsutism. It works by blocking androgens from working.
Aside from prescription medicine taken by mouth, there are a handful of other methods that temporarily remove hair. Only one method – electrolysis – permanently removes hair, but it can take up to 25 sessions and the cost can range from about $40-$90 per treatment. Laser treatments can also be pricey and take 5 or more sessions. This method destroys the hair, not the root. The hair doesn’t come out right away, but it eventually falls out. Over-the-counter creams such as depilatories work by dissolving the proteins that make up hair. The average cost of this type of product is a few dollars per application. Vaniqa®, on the other hand, is a topical cream that requires a prescription. It works by blocking an enzyme that normally stimulates hair growth. It is safe to use with oral contraceptives. The cost ranges from $80-$225 per tube. Depending on your health insurance coverage, the cost to you may vary. It is recommended for small areas such as the upper lip, chin,and side burns, but would not be practical for use on large areas of the body.
Some older methods of hair removal that are still used today include waxing and of course, shaving. A soy-based wax is now available. This product is better than old school facial waxes because the wax doesn’t stick to your skin, only the hair, so removing the paper strips isn’t the same as the famous scene from the movie, “The 40 Year Old Virgin”. Although fairly inexpensive to do at home (a few dollars per application), waxing is best done in a salon or spa where the temperature of the wax is controlled, so there is less of a chance of burning your skin and causing scarring. Since waxing removes the entire hair root, it is also necessary to apply an antibacterial lotion after each treatment.
Shaving is basically like trimming or cutting the hair. It doesn’t affect hair growth at all. In fact, it’s a myth that shaving hair causes it to grow back thicker. It doesn’t cost much, but shaving can cause ingrown hairs which can lead to “folliculitis” (inflammation of a hair follicle), ranging from a few red bumps on the skin to a severe rash. To avoid problems, you should; always shave in the direction that the hair grows in, don’t repeat strokes, and wet the hair or use a shaving cream before you begin.
Tweezing is the cheapest method but it can take a lot of time. If a decent pair of tweezers is used, it will pull out the hair at the root, but eventually the hair will grow back at the same thickness. Sometimes girls can develop an irritation where they tweeze which can become infected. Finally, bleaching hair is not the same as removing it, but it is a popular and inexpensive way to make dark hair on the places such as the face, arms, and neck less noticeable. Be aware though, that bleach is a chemical which can cause irritation and even burns.
Having to get rid of unwanted hair is definitely something you’d rather not have to deal with, but there are ways to make it go away, at least temporarily. It’s still very important to be aware that certain methods are NOT safe for all skin types and colors. Reactions such as scarring and burns can be far more unsightly than the hair, so it is very important that you talk with your health care provider first and find out information from local salons and spas that might offer some of the services I mentioned. Lastly, there can be other reasons for unwanted hair growth besides PCOS, so be sure to talk with your health care provider.