The Question: Does waxing, plucking or shaving your pubic hair come with added risk for sexually transmitted infections?
Yes, according to new research that links the frequency of pubic grooming with the added risk of certain sexually transmitted infections.
The new study, which surveyed 7,580 nationally representative adults across the U.S., finds that people who practice “extreme grooming” ― removing all of their pubic hair more than 11 times per year ― or “high frequency” grooming ― trimming pubic hair daily or weekly ― have a 3.5- to four-fold heightened risk for contracting herpes, HPV and syphilis compared to those who had never groomed their pubes.
But if you tend to grow out your pubic hair a few months out of the year, that doesn’t mean you’re at a lower risk for STIs. The research also found that people who practiced “non-extreme” or “low-frequency” grooming — basically, any level of grooming between zero and 11 ― had double the risk of lice infestation compared to those who never groomed.
After controlling for age and number of sexual partners, the researchers determined those who groomed at any frequency had an 80 percent higher risk of having an STI than those who had never groomed at all.
So what gives?
Scientists aren’t sure what exactly is causing the higher risk of STIs in people who groom their pubic hair. They also can’t say whether it was the STIs or the grooming habits that came first, and the survey didn’t ask about safe sex practices.
But because pubic groomers were also younger, more sexually active, and have more lifetime sexual partners than non-groomers, it could simply be that they’re having more sex with more people than those who see no need to trim their pubes. This heightened sexual activity — not the grooming in and of itself — could be increasing their risk of an infection.
Conversely, the diagnosis of an STI may be prompting people to groom their pubic hair more thoroughly.
A more causal explanation could be that tiny nicks in the skin caused by the hair removal process could be making people more vulnerable to invading pathogens, but that would have to be explored in future research.
Lead researcher Dr. Benjamin Breyer of the University of California, San Francisco’s department urology notes in his study that because pubic grooming appears to be some kind of proxy for sexual activity in general, doctors who see that their patients groom should ask their patients about their safe sex practices during a checkup. And if future research shows a causal relationship between tiny tears in skin caused by grooming and the diagnosis of STIs, new guidelines could be created that advise people who shave and wax to take a few days off from sex after hair removal to let their skin recover.
In addition to identifying a heightened risk of STIs, Breyer’s survey confirmed what past research has already shown: pubic grooming is incredibly common. Seventy-four percent of respondents reported doing the deed at least once in their lifetime, and both men and women do it (66 percent and 84 percent, respectively). We also groom in many different ways: 17 percent were “extreme” groomers, 22 percent were “high frequency” groomers, and one in ten extreme groomers also fit into the “high frequency” club.
Men were more likely to use an electric razor compared to women (42 percent vs 12 percent), while women were more likely to use non-electric razors (61 percent vs. 34 percent). Scissor use was pretty equal across both genders (19 percent of men and 18 percent of women), while women were more likely to wax their pubes (five percent vs. zero percent).
No matter how you choose to groom, there are a few things to remember about safe pubic trimming. If you’re shaving, shave in the direction of hair growth to prevent nicks and ingrown hairs. Treat irritated or red skin with gentle antibacterial cleansers. Finally, if you think pubic hair is going to be a permanent part of your adult life, consider saving up for permanent hair removal methods like laser treatments and electrolysis. Interestingly, these permanent methods were extremely rare among the respondents in Breyer’s survey.
Breyer’s past research found that visits to the emergency room for genital injuries linked to pubic hair grooming increased fivefold from 2002 to 2010, and that, in total, they made up three percent of all genital injuries seen in the ER.
Horror stories about hair removal gone wrong are still rare, however, considering how common the practice is. But if you find yourself in the “extreme” or “high frequency” groomer categories, pause for a moment and take stock of your sexual health habits. At the very least, Breyer’s survey shows that lots of shaving and waxing down there is a pretty good sign you’re having lots of sex ― so make sure it’s safe sex.
The survey’s results were published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections.
“Ask Healthy Living” is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical advice.