A Hairy Situation

by CHRISTOPHER PHAN

Did you know that the average human has over 100,000 hairs on his or her head alone? [1] Whether for practical or aesthetic reasons, hair removal is sometimes desirable or even necessary. With the advancement of technology, new treatment options have never been more abundant - so which one is right for you? Though no single method is perfect for everyone, deciding which one personally suits you best can help smooth out your experience. Read on to learn more about the pros and cons of different hair removal options; but first, let’s explore the different types of hair.

 

Types of Hair

While all hair is made of keratin, a fibrous protein also found in fingernails and toenails, there are three main types of hair on your body: lanugo, vellus, and terminal hairs. [2] Lanugo hair is a very fine, soft, colorless hair found on newborn babies that is shed by around three months after birth. Vellus hair, which is most easily seen in young children and women, is the fine, short, lightly colored hair found throughout the body that helps regulate body temperature. In addition to providing thermal insulation by keeping heat near the skin, vellus hair helps wick sweat to evaporate and cool skin. Terminal hair is coarser, longer, and darker than vellus hair. It grows on your head and develops in the face, armpits, and pubic regions during adolescence.

 

Where Does Hair Come From?

Whether growing out of your arms, legs, or head, all hair development begins in the same way. Hair starts growing from the follicle, or hair root, beneath the skin. Hair follicles can vary considerably in size and shape depending on their location on the body, but they all have the same basic structure. As hair continues to grow, it pushes out of the follicle where it then becomes visible. According to a 2004 study by the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, hair follicle density is highest in the forehead region (nearly 300 follicles/cm^2) compared to the back, chest, upper arm, forearm, thigh, and calf regions (around 20 follicles/cm^2) [3]

 

Hair Growth Cycle

Researchers who published a 1971 study in The Journal of the American Medical Association Dermatology observed that hair cells are among the fastest dividing cells in the human body. [4] Hair follicles undergo continuous cycles of growth, shedding, and rest–a process referred to as the hair growth cycle. After hair starts to grow, the four-stage hair growth cycle begins (anagen, catagen, telogen, and exogen). [5]

Similar to programmed cell death, keratinization causes hair cells to transform into keratinized cells [7] which eventually die, forming the visible hair outside of the skin. In later stages of life, people often undergo baldness or general thinning of the hair due to the effects of genetics and aging.

 

Ingrown hairs

What are they?

Ingrown hairs are inflamed pustular formations [8] that arise when hair in shaved areas regrows into the skin.

What causes them?

Ingrown hairs can be caused by grooming practices, hair type, and genetic predisposition. This condition is most prevalent in men of Sub-Saharan African descent, though men and women of different ethnicities can get it in body areas where hair is coarse, abundant, and subject to removal. [9]

How to prevent?

The most effective ways to prevent ingrown hairs are to avoid shaving, use topical depilatory creams, and laser hair removal. In extreme conditions when infection arises, medical treatments including topical corticosteroids and retinoids can help with inflammation and turnover of the skin. [10]

 

Body Image

In addition to affecting physical health, hair removal can negatively impact mental well-being. Broadly defined as a mental image of the body as it appears to others,  [20] body image can be constructed by images of models portraying a “perfect hairless figure” which propagate through the media. [21] Societal pressures from gender roles and the media often influence how people choose to idealize their body image. According to a 2014 study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, more than 50% of young women aged 18-24 in the United States remove pubic hair, mostly for aesthetic reasons. [22] Not only can this result in adverse health consequences such as genital burns from waxing or severe skin irritation, but it can also devastate the self-esteem of those not practicing the norm as they might be stigmatized.

All around the world men and women commonly adhere to different notions of beauty in their respective cultural traditions. Current trends suggest that hairlessness is becoming more popular among women from underrepresented minorities of diverse backgrounds, [22] indicative of the far reaching effecting of the media. On the flip side, in some cultures, hairiness is considered desirable. These hair grooming practices are not exclusive to women though; a 2013 report claims that between 60-70% of men remove at least some hair from the pubic area. [23] Despite the increase in social pressures, the decision to remove hair should be carefully examined and be a personal choice.


Additional Considerations

Health implications

According to a 2013 study in the American Journal of Men’s Health, hair removal may increase the risk of potentially contracting infectious diseases as well as cause psychological problems. Researchers found that shaving body hair with a razor leaves the skin more susceptible to these diseases due to skin irritation, nicks and cuts. Additionally, when pores are opened they become more susceptible to bacteria and prone to other infections. Another finding reported that 16% of participants would be disturbed if they were hypothetically unable to depilate and an additional 18% would have anxiety if they did not depilate for a few weeks. [18] Clearly, hair can affect more than just the appearance of one’s body.

While hair removal can sometimes be detrimental to health, it can also be helpful. A 2007 study published in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology details a case in which laser hair removal serves as a treatment option for trichotillomania, a compulsive hair pulling disorder. After 3 cycles of IPL treatment, a woman with trichotillomania overcame the habit of pulling out hairs - a testament to the therapeutic benefits of hair removal. [19]

 

BOTTOM LINE 

From medical-grade laser treatments to homemade sugaring pastes, there are many different ways to remove hair. People around the world have varying ideas of beauty, and styling hair (or the lack thereof) is just one medium of expression. There are many additional considerations to ponder before deciding to remove hair or not, but it is most importantly a matter of personal preference. So whether you are trying to be functional or going for the latest fashion trend, consider the various ways you have to look and feel great.

 

Summer 2015 | Vol. 15 | Issue 2

references ⌄

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  4. “Methotrexate for Psoriasis.” JAMA Dermatol. (1971).
  5. “Clock genes, hair growth and aging.” Impact J: Aging. (2010).
  6. “Improving stable isotopic interpretations made from human hair through reduction of growth cycle error.” Am J Phys Antro. (2011).
  7. “Outer root sheath keratinization in anagen and catagen of the mammalian hair follicle. A seventh distinct type of keratinization in the hair follicle: trichilemmal keratinization.” J Anat. (1981).
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  19. “Body, Image and Affect in Consumer Culture.” Body & Soc. (2010).
  20. “Tips for Maintaining a Healthy Body Image.” pamf.org. (2013).
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  22. “To let hair be, or to not let hair be? Gender and body hair removal practices in Aotearoa/New Zealand.” Body Image. (2013).