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Wax, shave or go au naturel? While it’s usually beauty magazines that talk about grooming and hygiene for “down there,” UW Health dermatologist Apple Bodemer, MD shares that there are medical reasons to consider personal habits.
“The areas of the body we’re talking about are delicate and efforts to remove hair – whether through shaving, waxing or the use of a depilatory [hair removal] cream – can lead to skin irritation and possibly even infection,” she says.
Keeping Things Clean
But first, let’s talk about keeping things clean.
Bodemer explains that the genital area and underarm areas produce a different type of sweat than the rest of the body. In these areas, the apocrine glands produce an oily substance that is odorless at first, but as it stays on the body and breaks down, it starts to smell and cause body odor. Simply using soap and lukewarm water is all that is necessary to clean these parts, and no more than twice a day.
“It’s important to stick with a basic gentle cleanser. Using your hands and a bar of soap is generally sufficient,” Bodemer says. “Harsher soaps, like antibacterial soaps, or more frequent washing can lead to dry skin and irritation.”
Wipes and odor-blocking soaps often just mask odors with a perfume and don’t actually clean the areas. They also put users at risk for a rash (or contact dermatitis), even in individuals who have been using the products for months or even years. Contact dermatitis will show up as severe itching, redness in the area and possibly even blisters. If any of those symptoms appear, it’s important to stop using the product and see a physician for treatment. For women especially - powders, douches, scented feminine hygiene products and even bubble baths can lead to yeast or bacterial infections, so again, Bodemer recommends just sticking with the basics.
As for the hair – the reality is that it’s there for a reason. It protects sensitive skin and the genital area. The hair helps keep skin folds from sticking together, which can result in intertrigo – a rash that develops between the folds. It also helps cushion certain areas during sexual contact. While leaving things untended is best, clipping the hair is another option as it doesn’t affect the skin. There are special razors for trimming the pubic region because electric trimmers meant for facial hair or hair clippers should not be used.
For those that prefer shaving, Bodemer shares a few rules:
Use a clean razor with sharp blades
Use a shaving cream or shaving gel and let it sit for about 5-10 minutes so it softens the skin (especially if you shave with dry skin). Hair conditioner can even work in a pinch.
Shave in the direction of the hair to reduce the risk of small tears in the skin, or microabrasions Bacteria can enter through the small tears and lead to infection. That is why a clean razor is so important.
And when it comes to disposable razors – to borrow an old phrase, “when in doubt, throw it out.” It’s hard to say just how long a disposable razor will last, although keeping it dry between shaves can help prolong the life. A well-used razor can have bacteria, yeast and even mold on it.
As for whether those four-, five- or even six-blade razors are best, Bodemer explains that they all work in a similar way (and some commercials even illustrate this) – the first blade lifts the hair while the following blades cut it. The cutting action leaves the blade of hair blunt and slightly wider at the end. When it drops back down below the skin, the hair shaft has to break back through the skin. The blunt end of the hair makes it harder to do so, which can lead to folliculitis, or infected hair follicles.
Most people who shave will likely have experienced those little white bumps that look like acne. In most cases the bumps will go away. In other cases, a small cyst – or invagination – forms. When that happens, the cysts don’t go away and ultimately have to be removed through surgical or laser treatment.
Although it can be more painful, some individuals prefer waxing. But, Bodemer explains there are several things to keep in mind.
Visit a trained and licensed aesthetician for waxing, particularly for styles that are near the delicate genital area.
And watch out for practices that aren’t hygienic – make sure the practitioner scrubs hands and avoids “double dipping” the waxing stick into the pot of wax. A new waxing stick should be used each time the wax is applied to the body. If the same waxing stick is used, it can transfer bacteria to the waxing pot, which can then spread the infection to different areas of the body or even different individuals.
The genital area is also very susceptible to getting burned, so it’s important the practitioner knows how to keep the wax hot enough without hurting the skin.
As with shaving, waxing affects the integrity of the skin. When the hair is removed, bacteria can become trapped in the small tears in the skin and lead to serious infections. Given the risks, it’s best if individuals with diabetes, weakened immune systems, or who have skin conditions like eczema avoid waxing.
Individuals still in search of a hair removal option may turn to depilatory creams. These chemicals break down bonds in the hair and turn it into a jelly like substance that can then be wiped away. Before using more widely on the body it’s best to test the chemical on a small patch to see if you have a reaction. And Bodemer cautions that it is important to follow directions. Leaving the chemical on too long can result in burns.
“While personal care is a matter of choice, taking some extra, simple precautions can prevent discomfort and potentially serious side effects,” comments Bodemer.