Talk True is a Zikoko limited series for medical myth-busting. With each episode, we’ll talk to medical professionals about commonly misunderstood health issues to get the actual facts.
Like most things in our society, men and women have different experiences — relationships, even — with facial hair. For men, facial hair is usually associated with maturity and good looks. For women, the situation is different.
And more than a little odd
It’s not uncommon for people to claim that facial hair in women is a sign of masculinity, “wickedness”, and even infertility linked to hormonal imbalance. Are these claims based on scientific fact, or are they just myths? Dr Henrietta Quarshie provides answers.
What causes facial hair growth in women?
“I’ve heard the funniest beliefs about facial hair; how it indicates riches, wickedness, infertility, or that it means the women would beat their husbands,” Henrietta says.
Henrietta explains that there’s actually a medical term for this unusual hair growth.
“It’s called hirsutism, and it’s characterised by excess hair growth in women that occurs in a male pattern distribution: face, arms, chest, abdomen and back. The hair is usually excessive, coarse, curly, and pigmented. Hirsutism is quite common and mostly implies abnormal androgen (hormone) action.”
Androgens are hormones typically found in men but are also produced in small quantities in women. Abnormal androgen action, in this case, means that the hormone is produced at a higher level than it should be.
But before you get scared, not all facial hair is a sign of this condition.
“Some people are just naturally hairy. Sparse hair growth on the chin, for example, doesn’t necessarily indicate hirsutism.
However, we must note that some people might present with only facial hair in hirsutism, but it is often as described; excessive, coarse, curly and really dark.”
Is every woman with facial hair at risk of a medical issue like hormonal imbalance?
In a word, no. Henrietta explains further.
“Not all facial hair is related to hormonal imbalance, and it doesn’t indicate masculinity. But when facial hair is caused by hirsutism, the person has high testosterone levels. This doesn’t always represent a serious medical problem, but if it does, it’ll have to be investigated and managed.
Some serious medical problems that can cause hirsutism include adrenal gland disorders, ovarian tumours or Cushing disease
Sometimes, the cause of hirsutism is unknown. But Henrietta notes that there are certain risk factors for the condition.
“Obesity can influence the way the body produces and processes hormones. If someone in your family also has excess hair, you can have it too.”
Should you be worried?
“While facial hair can be a very emotionally distressing experience for most women, excess hair in itself is not harmful. The concern most women have is due to cosmetic reasons and appearance. However, it’s necessary to rule out any potential or underlying health issue,” Henrietta notes.
Do you need to see a doctor?
Henrietta emphasises that while it’s not always a concern, excess hair may need to be investigated.
“The clinician needs to confirm that the underlying condition that caused the hirsutism, if any, isn’t harmful to the person. For example, while facial hair growth doesn’t mean the woman has Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), it’s one of the commonest causes of facial hair growth. PCOS leads to ovarian cysts, which can lead to defective hormone production in a biological female and thus can cause fertility problems if not managed.
Whatever the cause, it doesn’t mean the patient is losing her femininity.”
Can facial hair growth be stopped or treated?
Yes. Depending on the cause of the hair growth, different strategies can be effective in its removal.
“Systemic therapy, like the use of oral contraceptives, can help to reduce the production of androgens. You can also go the mechanical depilation way via shaving, plucking, waxing or laser hair removal.”
Facial hair growth doesn’t make you less feminine and probably doesn’t indicate a serious medical issue. If there’s excess hair in other parts of your body, or you just don’t feel comfortable with it, please visit a doctor to rule out any underlying medical issue.
The next time someone says, “You have beards/a moustache? That means you’re wicked o”, feel free to hit them with the facts … Or just show them real wickedness.
NEXT READ: Talk True: Can Sex “Loosen” the Vagina?