By Dr. Mercola
According to a recent survey, a large percentage of US college students remove some or all of their pubic hair,1 as does a sizable portion of the rest of the population. It's a growing trend that may actually have ancient roots, as pubic hair removal was thought to have been practiced among women in ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome.2
In modern times, both men and women use a variety of methods (shaving, waxing, clipping, lasers) to remove pubic hair, and describe various motivations for doing so.
Among women, the most popular reasons include the belief that it looks better in a bathing suit, increases feelings of attractiveness, feels more comfortable and the belief that it's cleaner.
Ironically, this latter reasoning may be contradictory, as new research suggests shaving your pubic hair may actually increase your risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD) known as molluscum contagiosum.
The Viral STD Risk of Shaving Your Pubic Hair
Shaving or waxing can cause irritation and micro-trauma to your skin that increases your risk of contracting a viral infection. Researchers of a new case study observed that the number of cases of molluscum contagiosum have risen along with rates of pubic hair removal.
To look into the link, they observed 30 patients at a private skin care clinic in Nice, France, all of whom were infected with the molluscum virus. Nearly all of them had removed their pubic hair, the vast majority by shaving, followed by waxing and then clipping.
The finding supports the researchers theory that hairless genitals may provide an opportunity for sexually transmitted diseases like molluscum to take hold, with shaving showing the strongest association.
Molluscum contagiosum is spread easily, and the researchers suggested the virus may have spread primarily through self-infection caused by scratching skin irritated by shaving. Other skin issues were also noted among the study participants, which may also have been related to the pubic hair removal. These included:
- Warts (the researchers suggested shaving your pubic hair may also increase the risk of genital warts caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV))
- Bacterial skin infections
- Ingrown hairs
What is Molluscum Contagiosum?
Despite its prevalence, molluscum contagiosum is one of the lesser-known STDs. A type of pox virus, molluscum is actually most common in children, although it also affects adults with weakened immune systems and can be spread through sexual contact. The virus causes firm, pearl-like bumps on the skin, which, though painless, can become easily red and inflamed.
If the bumps are scratched, the infection spreads easily person-to-person as well as through contaminated objects. Shaving over the bumps can also cause the virus to spread. In most cases the infection will resolve within six to 12 months with no treatment, so keeping your immune system strong is important. The bumps can also be removed to help prevent spread of the infection.
Other STDs and Infections May Also be Linked to Pubic Hair Removal
Is the spread of viruses like molluscum contagiosum and the human papillomavirus the only downside to removing your pubic hair, or are there other consequences? Quite possibly, yes. Last year, a family physician called for an end to the "war on pubic hair," claiming the practice of removing pubic hair increases risks of infection and sexually transmitted diseases. As reported by The Independent:3
"As director of the health centre at Western University in Washington State, US, she has seen the consequences. 'Pubic hair removal naturally irritates and inflames the hair follicles, leaving microscopic open wounds. Frequent hair removal is necessary to stay smooth, causing regular irritation of the shaved or waxed area. When that is combined with the warm, moist environment of the genitals, it becomes a happy culture media for some of the nastiest bacterial pathogens.'...
In her practice it is not unusual to find patients with boils and abscesses on their genitals from shaving as well as cellulitis, an infection of the scrotum, labia or penis from shaving or from having sex with someone infected. Herpes is also an increased risk 'due to the microscopic wounds being exposed to virus carried by mouth or genitals.' 'It follows that there may be vulnerability to the spread of other sexually transmitted diseases as well,' she says.
Does Pubic Hair Have a Purpose?
The hairless ideal sought by so many people is in truth both unattainable and probably not entirely healthful. Body hair will always grow back (even laser hair removal will only subdue hair growth and thickness by 50 percent or so with repeated treatments), and each time you remove the hair you're causing some damage to your skin. Plus, hair does serve important functions, including in the genital region, such as:
- Protection: helping to prevent foreign particles like dust and pathogenic bacteria from entering your body
- Temperature control: hair captures the air surrounding your body to reduce the loss of heat
- Reduces friction, which prevents skin irritation, abrasion and injury
- Promotes touch reception
So there are some arguments for keeping your pubic hair, and it's likely that a reduced risk of sexually transmitted infections is one of them. Of course, the best way to prevent the spread of STDs is to follow safe-sex practices, or wait to have sex until you're in a committed relationship. Then, keep your immune system in tip-top shape, and it will be better able to fight off any viruses that do come its way. That said, if you're in a committed relationship in which the threat of STDs has been removed, then there is probably little harm in shaving your pubic hair, if that is your preference. (And there is one potential benefit that we haven't discussed: a much lower risk of pubic lice.)