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Many women think shaving pubic hair is 'hygienic'

3:30pm Friday 1st July 2016 content supplied byNHS Choices

"More women think shaving pubic hair is 'hygenic' [sic] despite greater health risks," The Independent reports.

A US survey found more than half of women who groomed their public hair did so for hygiene reasons, despite evidence that shaving pubic hair can make the vagina more vulnerable to irritation and infection.

The online survey involved more than 3,000 US women. It asked them about their grooming habits, the reasons they shaved (if they did), as well as factors such as their race, income and relationships.

A key finding was that 59% of women who reported grooming their pubic region said they did so because they thought it would make their vagina "cleaner" or "more hygienic".

However, like most things we have on the body, pubic hair does have a purpose. It acts as a barrier, protecting against potentially harmful bacteria and viruses entering the body. And the regular act of shaving can lead to skin irritation and damage.

While you may decide to shave your public hair for aesthetic reasons, you should be aware that there are no health benefits, with the exception of preventing pubic lice, now uncommon in England.

These warnings aside, the survey did not look at the impact of pubic grooming on sexual or vaginal health, so no firm conclusions can be drawn.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of California, San Francisco and was funded by a grant from the US National Institutes of Health.

It was published in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Dermatology on an open-access basis, so it is free to read online.

The Independent's reporting was broadly accurate, despite the typo in the headline ("hygenic").

The Mail Online's coverage of this study was also generally accurate. However, the headline, which links shaving to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), was based on comments made by one of the researchers about their previous work, rather than the findings of this particular study.

What kind of research was this?

This cross-sectional study aimed to characterise current pubic hair grooming practices in the US.

Pubic hair grooming is a prevalent modern practice in the developed world, thought to have become widespread in the late 1990s, being popularised by TV shows of the time, such as Sex and the City.

Some feminist critics have argued that the trend has been driven by pornography, where shaved actors are the norm, rather than for any legitimate health reasons.

Cross-sectional studies are useful for investigating the incidence and prevalence of lifestyle behaviours or disease, but are unable to confirm cause and effect between an exposure and outcome.

For example, in this case it would be the idea that pubic hair grooming leaves you at increased risk of developing an STI. Many other factors are likely to be at play, however.

A prospective cohort study would be one of the best ways to validate these findings.

What did the research involve?

The researchers surveyed 3,372 women between the ages of 18 and 65 residing in the US. The participants were broadly representative in terms of age and racial diversity.

The questionnaire asked about demographic characteristics (age, race, educational level, method of grooming); motivation behind grooming (who do you groom for? why do you groom? preference about ideal hairiness); and frequency (how often they groom).

Of the women who completed the questionnaire, 3,316 women were included in the analysis. Differences in characteristics between groomers and non-groomers were explored.

The data was then analysed to see which factors had the greatest influence for grooming. Potential confounders were controlled for.

What were the basic results?

Overall, 83.8% of women reported a history of pubic hair grooming, and 16.2% reported having no history of pubic grooming. The mean frequency was monthly.

Common motivations for grooming included for hygiene purposes (59%), being part of their routine (46%), and partner preference (21%).

When asked about the situations for which they groom, common reasons were for sex (56%), holidays (46%), and visits to the doctor (40%).

During further analysis, significant links to grooming were found:

  • older women aged above 45-55 years were less likely to report grooming compared with women aged 18-24 (odds ratio [OR] 0.05, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.01 to 0.49)
  • women with a bachelor's degree (OR 2.39, 95% CI: 1.17 to 4.88) or some college education (OR 3.36, 95% CI 1.65 to 6.84) were more likely to report grooming than those with less than high school education
  • white women were more likely to report grooming than black or Hispanic women
  • women who groomed had twice the mean number of lifetime partners compared with those who did not groom (9.0 versus 4.4 respectively)
  • no association was found between grooming and income, relationship status or geographical location

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers conclude: "Overall, the prevalence of pubic hair grooming in women is substantial.

"We found many factors associated with pubic hair grooming, including age, race, educational level, and the number of lifetime partners." 

Conclusion

This study aimed to characterise current pubic hair grooming practices in the US. It found that race, age, educational level and the number of lifetime partners were associated with grooming.

The study had a large sample size, which was nationally representative and therefore generalisable to the US population of women.

However, cross-sectional studies like this one are unable to confirm a causal link between grooming practices and sexual health, as reported in the media. We cannot know the exact reasons why women choose to employ certain grooming practices.

The analysis also only looked at women - results may be very different among men. And we also don't know whether these findings are representative of women in the UK.

This survey is sensitive in nature, and some participants may not have felt comfortable answering questions about their grooming practices and sexual relations, which may have introduced some reporting bias.

This study provides a useful database revealing the common pubic grooming habits of women in the US. The researchers hope this study can inform healthcare professionals so they can offer advice about the risks of pubic grooming.

One of the researchers, Dr Benjamin Breyer, told the media: "We believe grooming practices are also associated with personal injury and potentially sexually transmitted infection.

"We're analysing these associations in the hope of finding risk factors that can be modified, such as instrument use."

It would be useful if women who do choose to shave received evidence-based advice about the safest ways to do so.  

Summary

"More women think shaving pubic hair is 'hygenic' [sic] despite greater health risks," The Independent reports. A US survey found more than half of women who groomed their public hair did so for hygiene reasons, despite evidence that shaving.

Links to Headlines

More women think shaving pubic hair is 'hygenic' despite greater health risks. The Independent, July 1 2016

More women are grooming down below, for sex, holidays and seeing the doctor - but experts warn of a 'greater risk of injury and STDs'. Mail Online, June 29 2016

Most Women Prefer to Go Bare, Citing Hygiene (and Baffling Doctors). The New York Times, June 29 2016

Links to Science

Rowen T, Gaither TW, Awad MA, et al. Pubic Hair Grooming Prevalence and Motivation Among Women in the United States. JAMA Dermatology. Published online June 29 2016

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