Bikini waxes can be totally awkward — you are letting a complete stranger touch and closely examine your genitals under bright lights, after all. But it can be even more awkward for those of us who have STIs. Being newly diagnosed with an STI, particularly one that you’ll have with you for life — like genital herpes, HPV, or HIV — comes with a lot of questions. When I was diagnosed with genital herpes, my main questions centered around transmission. I wanted to know how I could avoid passing herpes along to partners. And like many people with STIs, I wondered in general what my STI diagnosis would mean for my life, and what parts of it would have to change because of my status. If you’ve never had an STI, these are probably things that you’ve never even had to consider. But because STIs are so stigmatized and therefore not often discussed, there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to living with one. And the fact is, a lot of us are living with one: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 6 people have genital herpes. Another estimated 1.2 million people ages 13 and older are living with HIV infection in the U.S., per the CDC's last count in 2012. And the CDC also notes: “HPV is so common that most sexually-active men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives.”
The point is, we’re taught a lot about how to prevent contracting an STI, but virtually nothing about how to live well once we have one. One area of confusion that really shocked me was whether or not it’s safe to get a bikini wax when you have an STI. When I first discovered the herpes support community online, I was surprised to see the number of posts from newly diagnosed women wondering if they could still get their beloved bikini wax now that they had herpes simplex virus (HSV). Diana* admits, "I was a little nervous at first about [the esthetician] being able to see everything, because I was thinking, ‘What if she sees something that I can't feel?’” Like Diana, many women said their anxiety often stemmed from whether or not it was safe to get waxed, whether or not they needed to disclose their status to the esthetician, or whether their diagnosis would change the experience for them. Research estimates that 38% of women 18 to 24 engage in total hair removal, and 29% engage in partial removal; numbers for women 25 to 39 are lower, but they are more likely to engage in partial removal than total removal.
We’re taught a lot about how to prevent contracting an STI, but virtually nothing about how to live well once we have one.
What difference does an STI diagnosis make when it comes to getting a professional bikini wax? Well, that depends. “Both herpes and HPV are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact,” while HIV is transmitted only through bodily fluids, according to Hilda Hutcherson, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University. Dr. Hutcherson adds, though, that the herpes virus can shed even without obvious sores or symptoms. However, at most reputable waxing salons, the esthetician performing the waxing will wear gloves, creating a barrier between the person’s vulva and vagina and her own skin. If she doesn’t, Dr. Hutcherson warns that you should find a salon where gloves are a given — and that's just as much to protect you as it is to protect the technicians. “Sometimes if the technicians don’t wear gloves, they can transmit a virus like HSV-1 (commonly referred to as oral herpes, but which can also be transmitted to someone’s genitals) from a cold sore if they touch their lip and then your genitals,” says Dr. Hutcherson. “They may be having symptoms and don’t realize it.”
Kasey Buono, esthetician and owner of Bare Skincare in Newton Centre, MA, advises that, “To be safe, a lot of places would like you to disclose if you have any type of STI.” One risk, Buono explains, is that at less careful salons, the stick used to apply the wax is sometimes dipped back into the wax. “If that wax isn't brought back to a boiling point after that particular client, there is a risk of cross contamination and spreading whatever virus present,” Buono says. In order to ensure the safest, most hygienic experience possible, Buono recommends calling ahead to ensure that the spa doesn’t “double dip” — instead, that they use a new stick for each application of wax. Jane*, who has HSV and gets waxed, agrees. “If your esthetician re-dips the stick into the wax, put on the brakes immediately and tell her you no longer want the rest of the waxing treatment,” because that’s a sign of an unhygienic establishment, she says. Something else important to know is that if you’re having any active symptoms of your STI — like genital warts due to HPV or sores due to herpes — you should avoid getting waxed until the symptoms subside. “The rule of thumb is you should never wax someone with an active STI, like a herpes outbreak,” explains Buono. Dr. Hutcherson adds that you should avoid being waxed if you have an active lesion, but also if you have prodromal herpes symptoms (signs that an outbreak is coming), like itching or tingling, as well. This is to avoid potential transmission (even though risk is low), but also because it can be incredibly painful for you, something Kelly* learned the hard way: ”I have gone in a couple times with an outbreak and the wax ripped the sore off. That was a little painful!” But, she says, “Even with an outbreak, [my esthetician] never said anything to me about it or made me feel uncomfortable.” Finally, rest assured that HIV transmission during a wax really isn’t something to worry about, Dr. Hutcherson says. “Sometimes you can get micro blood when waxing due to skin irritation, but it’s never enough for HIV transmission,” she says. Ultimately, “Women who have any sort of STI shouldn't feel judged if they are going to get waxed. I know if someone came to my spa, I wouldn't care,” Buono says. And most people don’t notice a difference before and after their diagnosis. Says Theresa*, “nothing has changed pre- and post-diagnosis. I still love to get waxed.” *Name changed at person’s request.