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Can Pubic Grooming Increase Your Risk of Acquiring a STD?

UC San Francisco researchers have found a link between pubic hair grooming and sexually transmitted diseases.

There are a number of practices that individuals partake in as a way of meeting societal expectations of cleanliness and attractiveness; as the times change, so do these practices. However, there is one practice that is becoming increasingly more commonplace in modern-day society among both men and women around the world; a practice that may actually increase the risk of acquiring sexually transmitted diseases (STDs): pubic hair removal.

A recent study conducted by researchers at UC San Francisco has found a link between grooming practices and STDs. The national probability survey, given to residents within the United States between the ages of 18 and 65, found that pubic groomers are two times more likely than non-groomers to report having had an STD over the course of their life.

Furthermore, the researchers found that among the groomers, “extreme groomers,” or those individuals who remove all of their pubic hair more than 11 times each year, were at an even higher risk of infection.

In a press release about the study, Benjamin Breyer, MD, associate professor in the UCSF department of Urology and of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and senior author on the study, said, “We were surprised at how big the effect was. Right now, we have no way of knowing if grooming causes the increase in risk for infections. All we can say is that they appear to be associated. But I probably would avoid aggressive shaving right before having sex, and I would avoid having sex with an open cut or wound.” (Razor use can result in “epidermal microtears” and bacterial and viral STDs—such as herpes, syphilis, HPV—can then enter the body through these tears.)

According to researchers, it is well-known that hair removal contributes to injury and cutaneous infections, resulting in increased morbidity, but previous to this, the association between hair removal and STD risk has not been thoroughly explored on a large-scale.

For the study, 7,580 individuals answered a survey comprised of questions about the following: “grooming frequency; the amount of hair typically removed (trimming vs complete removal); grooming tools (razor, wax, scissors, electrolysis, laser hair removal, depilatories, tweezers); and history of STIs, including herpes, HPV, syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and HIV.” Fifty-six percent of those surveyed were men and 44% were women; 74% of the respondents (84% of the women and 66% of the men) reported grooming their pubic hair. Seventeen percent of the groomers were dubbed extreme groomers and 22% were classified as “high-frequency groomers,” or “those who performed daily or weekly trimming.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the groomers were younger than those who did not report a history of pubic grooming. In addition, the researchers found that groomers experienced more frequent sexual activity, and reported a higher number of sexual partners throughout their lifetime. The survey results also showed that the high-frequency or extreme groomers tended to be younger and female; they also reported more frequent sexual activity.

Interestingly enough, the researchers also found that grooming tool preference varied by sex. Forty-two percent of male groomers chose to use electric razors with only 12% of female groomers using that tool; 61% of female groomers preferred the use of “non-electric razor” tools versus 34% of male groomers reporting this preference.

According to the press release, extreme groomers were more likely to report having had a STD at least once in their lifetime. Thirteen percent of those who reported having STD histories either had herpes, HPV, gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, HIV, molluscum, or pubic lice at least once. The fact that gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis made it onto that list is no surprise: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported those three diseases as the most common STDs, and all together they accounted for a whopping total of 1.9 million cases last year.

The survey’s results regarding STD risk were troubling to say the least. High-frequency and extreme groomers had a four times higher risk of sexually-transmitted infections; the greatest risk being for herpes or HPV, which are transmitted via “skin-on-skin” contact. In addition, the researchers found that non-extreme and low-frequency groomers were more likely to report a history of pubic lice.

Almost half of Americans will acquire an STD within their lifetime, according to the researchers, and out of all of the industrialized countries, STD prevalence is highest within the United States. As a result, researchers have been putting their efforts into exploring how to cut down the number of infections. The study researchers believe that understanding the link between grooming practices and STD incidence can help guide the development of effective preventive strategies.

According to Dr. Breyer, “We need to examine the relationship of grooming and sexually transmitted infection [STI] in other populations and with different methods of exposure and outcome measurement. Grooming or not, people must remember that practicing safer sex and getting the human papilloma virus vaccine (according to CDC guidelines) are the most important things that can be done to prevent getting an STI.”