How a Brazilian Wax Made Me Physically Ill

I expected some pain, but nothing like this. Turns out, the negative effects of waxing pubic hair can go beyond a touch of tenderness.

popsicle stick dripping with red wax over a jar
Photo: juniorbeep/Getty Images.

A couple of stings, some sensitivity for up to three hours (as the receptionist said), and my first down-under waxing experience would be over — so I thought. Boy, was I wrong.

My Terrible Brazilian Waxing Experience

When 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 more ~adult~ waxing options. I decided to take the plunge because 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.

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 showed up alone, without any idea what the service would entail. But I had my game face on and was ready to cross this rite of passage from my list of "things I think all adults with vaginas 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 it the sixth one? The eighth?). I hurried out of the salon, a painful aching through my groin, and was struck with nausea and 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. I knew there were some minor negative effects of waxing pubic hair — a bit of pain and tenderness, perhaps — but this was an entirely new level.

Possible Negative Effects of Waxing Pubic Hair

Turns out, I'm not alone. Many people 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.

But why is this, and why it might have happened to me? "You're breaking down and removing an immune barrier (your hair) that is one line of defense against infections," explains Candice Fraser, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn based in NYC. Yep, infections — including 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.

That's because, even though society may want you to believe that it's unsightly, pubic hair is there for a very important reason. "Pubic hair protects the skin, vulva, and labia from irritants, allergens, and infectious microbes," says board-certified 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 when it happens 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, adds Dr. Frazer. "So at the cellular level, you're fighting a low-level or localized skin infection," she explains.

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," clarifies Dr. Fraser.

So, What Can You Do?

I've personally heard testimony from others that they eventually got used to the pain from waxing, but there was no way for me to know how my body would react if I tried again. "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-hydroxy 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," recommends Dr. Fraser. Many salons have included these before-and-after steps in their treatment (including the one I visited, which is a national chain).

Now, after the whole ordeal, I'll admit that I've thought about going back to the salon to get the wax done again. I've also 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.

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