How a Brazilian Wax Made Me Physically Ill
I expected some pain, but nothing like this. Turns out, there's a biological reason why your bikini wax might make you sick.
A couple stings, some sensitivity for up to three hours (as the receptionist said), and my first down-under waxing experience would be over.
Last month, I scheduled my first-ever bikini-area waxing. I went from 0 to 100, asking for a Brazilian. Note: If you ask for a bikini wax, they'll take off any hair you might see while wearing a bikini. However, volunteer for a Brazilian and expect to have strips applied to your vaginal lips and your behind. (Nobody really explained the gravity of the situation to me.)
As someone who's only ever waxed her legs in sixth grade before a school dance, I was a virgin to the world of adult waxing. Too scared to set an appointment at the salon in advance, I found a day-of slot in the afternoon (after drinking copious iced coffees-a big no-no when waxing, I would later find out, because caffeine increases sensitivity to pain).
I wanted a wax in prep for a beach vacation, so I wouldn't have to shave (adios, razor burn, won't miss you), and to see what all the hype was about.
I showed up alone, without any idea what the procedure would be like. But I had my game face on and was ready to cross this rite of passage from my list of "things I think all grown women do." The esthetician welcomed me into her room and had me free-bird it from the waist down. Then I lay on a massage-style table in yoga Savasana. She applied the wax and explained the process quickly. Here it comes…the first strip.
Yes, it was quick, but not quick enough. After finishing the bikini line, she touched up the sides, the bottom, and one lip. That's when I asked her to stop. I was bleeding some, which she said was normal, but nothing seemed worth one more strip (was that #6 or #8?). I hurried out of the salon, a painful aching through my groin, and was struck with a nauseous dizziness. This continued for over half an hour-feeling like I could faint and as if my blood sugar had plummeted.
I spent the rest of that day and the next three curled on the couch in baggy sweats, thinking to myself, "There's no way this is normal." I had an achy and tense body, increased fatigue, and was dazed as if I had just been injured.
Turns out, I'm not alone. Many women feel physically ill after getting a Brazilian (or any bikini wax for that matter), with some attesting to symptoms such as fever, nausea, and fatigue in the days that follow. In fact, one 2014 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology found that 60 percent of women experienced at least one health complication related to pubic hair removal. So I asked Candice Fraser, M.D., an ob-gyn based in NYC, why this is, and why it might have happened to me. Dr. Fraser says, "You're breaking down and removing an immune barrier (your hair) that is one line of defense against infections," such as yeast infections or even a staph infection (caused by bacteria commonly found on the skin). "If you're having an immune response-a fever, for instance-it could be your body's response to fighting the infection," she says. (DYK that you can get a staph infection by sitting around in your sweaty clothes post-workout?)
Although you might not find it pretty in a bikini, "pubic hair protects the skin, vulva, and labia from irritants, allergens, and infectious microbes," says ob-gyn Vandna Jerath, M.D., medical director of Optima Women's Healthcare of Colorado. So although you can experience hair follicle inflammation from any kind of waxing, there's more at stake down there than in your armpit. "Complications from any waxing can include irritation, burns, cuts, abrasions, scars, bruising, rashes, contact dermatitis, hyperpigmentation, ingrown hairs, and folliculitis," adds Dr. Jerath.
Another physical response from the "harmless" bikini wax? You could develop an infection in the hair follicles themselves. "The follicle gets inflamed, swollen, may create pus bubbles-similar to razor burn-and then increases your risk of skin-to-skin infections such as molluscum, herpes, and other STDs," says Dr. Fraser. Whoa.
Mild inflammation of the hair follicles as a result of a Brazilian wax (which is to be expected for nearly everyone, to be fair) can also drain into your lymph nodes and make you feel generally unwell and tired, she adds. "So at the cellular level, you're fighting a low-level or localized skin infection." (FYI, you can also get a skin infection from your hair tie.)
But what about my experience of feeling almost instantly light-headed and sick in the half hour following my appointment?
"When some people experience pain, they have a vasovagal response," says Fraser. This type of response, which should typically only last a short while following the discomfort, makes your blood pressure drop. It can cause nausea, lightheadedness, paleness, and rapid heart rate. It can even cause you to faint. Although, "I can't say if people will have these responses every single time they get a wax," she clarifies.
I've personally heard testimony from other women that they eventually got used to the pain from waxing, but there was no way for me to know how my body would react.
"Although it is hard to predict if a woman will have an adverse effect, it is a bigger concern and potential risk for women who are immunocompromised or taking steroids," says Dr. Jerath. "It's important to make sure you are going to a reliable salon and esthetician, which is clean, hygienic, maintains high standards, and does not double dip into the wax tub. Also, mildly exfoliating the area with a lotion with alpha-hydroxyl acids or using an antiseptic moisturizer before waxing may help reduce the risk of infection, and using a soothing gel, occlusive dressing like Vaseline or Neosporin, or an antibiotic ointment afterward may help, too." Many salons have included these before and after steps into their treatment (including the one I visited, which is a national chain).
Now, three weeks post-Brazilian, I'm torn about going in for the waxer to remove that final strip of hair. I've considered trying some all-natural wax formulas that say they'll make the experience less painful, since I do still enjoy the "bare" feeling down there. Yet, the more I consider the trade-off and the possible risk of feeling so ill again in the name of hairless skin, the less I find it worth my money or sense of womanhood and beauty. After all, if Emma Watson doesn't wax, why should I?