How to Deal with Excess Hair Growth

Most women have only very fine hair on areas of the skin where men tend to grow thick, dark body hair, such as the upper lip, cheeks, chin, back, chest, and abdomen. But about 8 percent of women have a condition called hirsutism, which causes excess hair growth in those areas. Also called hypertrichosis, having excess hair is at best annoying and at worst embarrassing. Hair removal and bleaching are common treatment options, but there are some medications that can help as well as more permanent methods.

Symptoms and Causes of Excess Hair Growth

Symptoms besides the excess hair growth can help determine if there’s a medical cause for the hirsutism. You may also have:

  • Abnormal menstrual periods or having no period
  • A deep voice
  • Acne
  • Increased muscle mass
  • Decreased breast size

About half of all women with hirsutism have elevated levels of male sex hormones, which are known as androgens. Such increases in women's androgen levels may be due to:

  • Polycystic ovary syndrome, in which a hormone imbalance causes cysts to form on the ovaries
  • Cushing's syndrome, which occurs when your body overproduces the hormone cortisol for an extended period
  • Congenital adrenal hyperplasia, a group of disorders that interfere with the adrenal gland and cause the body to produce more androgen
  • Tumors growing in the ovaries and adrenal glands
  • Medications such as steroids, some hormones, and a drug used to treat endometriosis called Danocrine (danazol)

Excess hair growth also can occur if a woman's hair follicles are unusually sensitive to male hormones, although doctors have not figured out why. In many cases, the exact cause of a woman's excess hair growth is never figured out.

Are You at Risk for Excess Hair Growth?

There are certain risk factors for hirsutism, including:

  • Genetics — the condition tends to run in some families
  • Race or ethnicity — certain ethnic groups have an increased risk of hirsutism, such as women of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Mediterranean descent
  • Menopause

Treatments for Excess Hair Growth

Most treatments for excess hair growth involve short- or long-term hair removal methods:

  • Shaving. This is a safe and easy method, but you will have stubble if you don't shave regularly. Also, the hair may tend to look thicker as it regrows.
  • Waxing or plucking. You can use tweezers to pluck individual hairs or try waxing to remove larger patches. These are safe and inexpensive methods, but they can be painful and there might be some skin irritation.
  • Depilatories. Chemical creams can remove hair from the body, but they may irritate the skin. Always test any new depilatory on your wrist one day before you intend to use it to make sure you don't have an adverse reaction.
  • Electrolysis. This method burns away hair permanently using a small electrical current delivered into the hair follicle through a needle. Electrolysis tends to be expensive and takes a lot of time because only a limited amount can be done in one session.
  • Laser hair removal. A laser beam is used to damage the hair follicle, causing the hair to fall out. Like electrolysis, this is a time-consuming and expensive procedure. Unlike electrolysis, the hair might end up growing back.

Electrolysis and laser hair removal should only be performed by licensed professionals, such as a cosmetologist, aesthetician, or electrologist.

Rather than remove it, some women choose to bleach excess hair with a cream or paste. Bleaching ingredients can cause skin irritation and, depending on how thick the hair is, might not give you results that are as satisfying as actually getting rid of the hair.

Medications That Treat Excess Hair Growth

There are some medications that will help control excess hair growth:

  • Birth control pills can reduce androgen production.
  • Anti-androgen medications like Aldactone (spironolactone) and Proscar (finasteride) block androgenic hormones’ ability to affect the body, but may take between three and six months to work. They can cause birth defects if you become pregnant, so you must practice effective birth control while taking them.
  • Vaniqa (eflornithine) is a prescription cream that can be used to slow hair growth, although it does not get rid of existing hair. It can be used on the skin of your face and chin.
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