Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: Does getting a bikini wax really increase the risk of getting a sexually transmitted disease? How would someone figure that out?

Dear Reader: Whether it's a bit of a trim for swimsuit season or the more extreme forms of waxing that leave you completely bare down there, millions of women (and a few men) engage in some type of pubic hair grooming. Now the results of new research that looked into the practice suggest that, for people who are sexually active, pubic grooming may make it easier to contract a sexually transmitted infection, or STI.

It sounds more than a little alarming, so we'll start by citing the lead investigator, an assistant professor of surgery at the University of Texas, who stated that while the study did reveal a correlation, it does not equal proof. The title itself uses the language "representative probability sample." That translates only to "if ... and," not to the certainty of "if ... therefore" when it comes to pubic grooming and STIs.

The researchers began with two statements -- STIs are the most common infections among adults, and many adults take part in trimming or outright removing some or all of their pubic hair. (Considering the millions of cases of influenza reported each year, we confess that we were skeptical about the first statement. But STIs encompass a wide range of infections. Digging into statistics kept by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- 14 million new cases of human papillomavirus, or HPV, per year; 1.4 million new cases of chlamydia annually, to name just two types of STI -- backed it up.)

The next step was a probability survey in which a group of U.S. residents between the ages of 18 and 65 were asked about pubic grooming habits, sexual activity and STIs. Extreme grooming was defined as having all pubic hair removed 11 or more times per year. Trimming pubic hair either weekly or daily was considered to be high-frequency grooming. STIs and pubic lice were tracked separately. A total of 7,580 people completed the questionnaires. The results, when analyzed, pointed to a correlation (again, an apparent connection, not a direct cause) between pubic grooming and STIs.

Among the respondents to the questionnaire, 84 percent of the women and 66 percent of the men reported taking part in some type of pubic grooming. Those who reported pubic grooming were 80 percent more likely to also report having dealt with an STI, according to the findings. A higher frequency of pubic grooming translated to a higher incidence of STIs. For those in the extreme grooming category, the link between the behavior and STIs was quadruple that of non-groomers. Interestingly, even those who simply trimmed their pubic hair had an uptick in STI reporting. Not part of the study was condom use, or time intervals between grooming, sex and STIs, all of which could affect the results.

As for what may be going on, the researchers posed two theories. One is that pubic grooming may cause microtears and abrasions in the skin that create multiple new pathways for pathogens to enter the body. The other is that the groomers were more sexually active than the non-groomers. The survey results were intriguing enough that more research is forthcoming.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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