In my mid-twenties, I got my first bikini wax. About six weeks after that, I got my first Brazilian. I remember the odd feeling of leaving that appointment, realizing that nobody I passed on the street had any idea I was completely bare down there. In some way, it felt like a rite of passage; an entrance into a superficial lady tribe. I had braved my first Brazilian. Despite the actual process, I liked the end result. It wasn’t until about six months later that I had pause about the whole operation. One morning, I discovered two or three strange bumps along my labia — this is the most I’ve ever divulged publicly about my lady parts, so bear with me — they were small and looked almost like zits. I went into instant hysterics. I racked my brain for previous sexual partners who could have given me an STD and made an appointment with my gynecologist immediately, bracing myself for bad news. When I told my gyno what was happening, she did what looked — or maybe just felt — like an eye roll. (She wasn't the warmest, so I stopped going to her shortly after this.) But what she told me stuck in my mind: "I'm not convinced it’s an STD," she said, and, thankfully, she was right. Then she went on to tell me how she always discouraged her patients from getting waxed. "It’s not normal to rip the hairs out of your skin, especially in a place as sensitive as the vagina. And those waxing places almost always double dip." I was horrified. Double dipped? Like with guacamole at a party? Even that is kind of gross. I told her the place I go to is a really clean, reputable salon and... "Doesn’t matter" — she cut me off, gave me some antibiotic cream, and sent me on my way. The bumps subsided in a few weeks and all was right with my va-gine. But I kept thinking about how, in her mind, the wax, the materials, the facilities, were all just bastions of infestation (I guess it made sense why my vagina and my gyno were a little irritated). But I wasn't sure if she was completely right — at least not in a grand, sweeping “every woman should stop waxing” way. Frankly, I didn’t need the grief, or the breakouts, so I decided to find alternate methods of down-there grooming. But should I really have given up waxing? In a 2014 study of 333 women ages 16-40, 87% have a current pubic-hair-removal regimen of some kind, and the other 13% have tried hair removal in the past. Yup, 100% percent of the women have groomed at least once, and out of those women, 60% admitted to having some kind of problem relating to hair removal — but very few (4%) talked to a doctor about it. Anytime we wax or shave, we are opening up the pores and making ourselves more susceptible to infection, says Whitney Bowe, MD, a dermatologist in New York City. We have hair down there to “protect the fragile, delicate mucosal tissue of the vagina and the urethra,” she says. “These openings are lined by very delicate tissue that needs protection from allergens, pollutants, irritants, and infectious microbes. The hairs act like a protective barrier.” But Bowe is also not a huge fan of waxing, mainly because of all the ingrown hairs. “Waxing not only pulls the hair by the root, but it can also disrupt the [follicle] that helps guide the hair from the root to the surface," she says. "So when a new hair tries to grow from the root, it can get stuck beneath the surface, causing an ingrown.” Bowe has also encountered occasional cases of bacterial or viral infections, like molluscum contagiosum, which results in tiny, pearly bumps that eventually turn into whitehead-looking papules. These can be treated with prescription cream or physical removal (such as liquid nitrogen). This is much more likely to happen if you go to a “dirty” salon, but is still pretty rare. Whitney Lieb, MD, a resident in obstetrics and gynecology at New York's Brooklyn Hospital Center, thinks waxing should be examined on a case-by-case basis. "Every person is different," she says. "For some people, waxing works just fine, while others may get really bad ingrown hairs, causing painful blister-like boils that can get infected." Lieb is a big fan of laser hair removal. “Laser is the best thing you can do, in my opinion,” she says. “You don’t have a source of infection, like with waxing. The hairs just fall out of the follicles, so you don’t have ingrown hairs. It is more expensive, but it lasts longer." Laser is definitely an alternative, though it’s advised that you go to a medical doctor or board-certified dermatologist to have the treatments. Then, there is always good-old shaving (be mindful of the clippers, though). Trimming, which can leave a little stubble, is safer than using a blade. Depilatories — alkaline lotions that dissolve hair from skin’s surface — also work. Another option is sugaring, which involves using a warm (not hot, as in waxing) mixture of sugar, lemon juice, water, and sometimes, essential oils. The paste is applied against the hair growth and then in the direction of growth. After a few minutes, hair can be removed with one's fingers. Unlike bikini wax, the sugaring gel and paste can be cleaned away from the skin with plain water and do not contain any chemical additives that might irritate the skin. Also, the sugar paste doesn’t harden, so you can spread it on a larger area and remove it all at once, rather than in small sections. All in all, my gynecologist was not wrong, though her approach may have been a little gruff. Anything we do at a salon (nails, waxing, threading, etc.) can potentially irritate the skin or cause infection if the facilities aren’t up to par — or if your body doesn’t agree with it. But that’s not to say you should write it off all together. “Be sure to do your research,” advises Lieb, “Read the reviews and stay in tune with what feels right for you.” And if all else fails, the au naturel look is very on trend this season.
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