Sudden hair growth?

Dear Alice,

Help! My body hair has suddenly gotten out of control!

I am a 23 year old college student with a "general health" problem which is a bit unique — my worries may even seem vain. My problem is with my body hair. In the past year, my body hair has proliferated and darkened in places I have never had hair, or in places where I could barely see my hair. I am an Asian woman, and as you may know, Asians typically have a very small amount of body hair.

In this past year, the hair on my arms and legs has darkened and multiplied so much so that I have had to (gasp!) shave my legs. Also, I now have hair growing on my breasts (!!!!), my chin (!!), my toes, etc. I know it is perfectly natural for most people to have a fair amount of hair in these areas. However, I have never had hair in these areas until very recently. And yes, I am mortified at the hair on my breasts and my chin!

I must note that I have a lot of eczema, for which I have taken lots and lots of hydrocortisone in the years. I also take the medication Tegretol, to control my epilepsy. I have read up on Tegretol, and I have never read anything about hair growth. Oh, I also am on the pill.

— Freaky Follicles

Dear Freaky Follicles,

Sudden hair growth can certainly be alarming. It has a number of apparent causes and occasionally, no specific cause can be identified. You are spot on with your inclination to ask for advice on this one. The only way to really find out what's behind your hair growth is to see a health care provider — especially since your hair growth has appeared rather recently. Extra body hair may seem primarily like a cosmetic issue, but it could be indicative of an underlying health concern.

As children, most people have fine, colorless hair covering their bodies. At puberty, the follicles are stimulated, causing these hairs to grow and become darker, course, and curly. How much these hairs transform depends largely on sex as well as genetic make-up. Hair growth does indeed vary across ethnic groups, with those of European, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Mediterranean descent ringing as the hairiest and those with Native American, African, Latino, and East Asian heritage sporting the least body hair. It is common for most women to have fine, color-less hair on their face, chest, back, and other areas. Sometimes referred to as hirsutism, male patterns of hair growth can have a number of causes relating to androgen levels in your system or the sensitivity of your follicles to androgen. Here are a few:

  • Medications. Some medications can cause increased hair growth, including medications containing cortisol and some birth control.
  • Polycystic ovaries. Ovarian cysts are very common condition and can cause weight gain, irregular periods, and hair growth.
  • Cushing's syndrome. Cushing's syndrome is a condition that occurs when your body is exposed to high levels of cortisol, a hormone the body produces primarily in response to stress. Cortisol is also present in some medications and can disrupt the balance of hormones in the body, which can result in hirsutism.
  • Congenital adrenal hyperplasia. This inherited condition results in increased production of cortisol and testosterone by your adrenal glands.
  • Tumors. Hirsutism can be caused by androgen-secreting tumors in the ovaries or adrenal glands, though this is one of the more rare causes.

You may find some peace by speaking with a health care professional. Whatever the cause, if it bothers you, there are a number of hair removal options to consider. Incidentally, it is a myth that shaving causes more hair growth; this is the easiest and cheapest option. For less, prickly grow-back there's waxing, plucking, and depilatories. And for permanent removal, there are electrolysis and laser treatments. Additionally, there are some medications that can decrease hair growth. And finding the underlying cause of your new found body hair may help, since addressing the underlying issue may also help thin out the hair.

Social messages about how an "ideal woman's" body should look are strong and numerous. The notion that women should be completely hairless (except of course, on their heads) is unfair and unrealistic. It can cause a lot of distress for hairier humans. As cheesy and cliché as it sounds, there's nothing wrong with having hair — humans are mammals, after all. Either way, see below for more info about handling hair.

Best of luck,

Last updated Mar 20, 2015
Originally published Oct 01, 1994