• Horticultural bikini wax (Flickr/ cc-by-nc)Source: Flickr/ cc-by-nc
Pubic grooming – think waxing, shaving, trimming and plucking – is linked to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), with the greatest risks to those who remove more hair, more often.
Ellen Sima

6 Dec 2016 - 12:34 PM  UPDATED 6 Dec 2016 - 12:35 PM

Your landing strip could be landing you with some unwanted risks, according to new research published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections. Dr Benjamin Breyer, an Associate Professor at UCSF School of Medicine, is a leading author in the study.

“We became interested in grooming after discovering how frequently people injure themselves and present to the emergency department after grooming”, Breyer told SBS Science. Their study interviewed over 14,000 people across the US about their grooming regimes and sexual health, with some 7,580 completing the survey.

Nearly 3 out of 4 respondents had groomed, 84 per cent of women and 66 per cent of men. After factoring in participants’ age and number of sexual partners, grooming was associated with a whopping 80 per cent heightened risk of STI. But not all groomers were equally at risk.

The researchers asked participants how often they groomed and the amount of hair removed – a trim versus complete removal.

If the participant removed all of their pubic hair more than 11 times a year, they were classified as an ‘extreme groomer’ – 17 per cent of all groomers fell into this category. 22 per cent of groomers undertook daily or weekly pubic hair maintenance, and were classified as ‘high-frequency groomers’.

One in ten groomers were both ‘extreme’ and ‘high-frequency’, regularly removing all their hair and trimming in between. 

The study also determined different sub-categories of STI. The cutaneous STIs (those transmitted through skin to skin contact) were herpes, HPV (human papilloma-virus), syphilis and molluscum contagiosum. The secretory STIs (those transmitted through an exchange of bodily fluids) were gonorrhea, chlamydia and HIV. Pubic lice (crabs) was analysed separately.

The results by the numbers

Of all participants, 14 percent of groomers and 8 per cent of non-groomers reported a history of STIs. Rates for extreme and high frequency groomers were even higher; they had a 3.5 to 4-fold heightened risk of STIs, especially for cutaneous infections.

Non-extreme and low frequency grooming was associated with a doubling of lice infestation risk, which suggests that heavy grooming could make it harder for the lice to live to breed. 

So, what’s the link between pubic grooming and STIs? 

The researchers think pubic grooming could be a proxy for higher levels of sexual activity (i.e. if you’re keeping your pubic area neat and trim, you’re more likely sharing it with other people more often), which is known to increase STI risk. Removing your hair can also cause tiny tears in the skin, which could make it easier for bacteria and viruses to pass through.

But while this study shows some interesting relationships between hair care and sexual health, it’s missing a pretty major piece of the puzzle: the survey didn’t collect data on safe sex. “This is a weakness of the work,” Breyer told SBS Science. “We don't have information on safe sex practices. This is an important variable and undoubtedly confounds the relationship.” 

The verdict: to groom, or not to groom?

Does this new research provide enough evidence to discourage people from grooming their pubes? Not yet, says Breyer. “We're still at the hypothesis exploration phase. I'd like to see the study replicated in other populations. We'd like to capture STI data from medical records, not patient self-report.”

Although it’s not a call to bin your razors and wax strips, Breyer suggests that giving your skin time to heal between grooming and sex couldn’t hurt: “I would discourage people from grooming and having sex immediately after with a partner they are unfamiliar with.”

And as always, using male and female condoms puts you in best stead for protecting against STIs. “I would encourage people to focus on safe sex practices first and foremost,” Bayer said.

So whatever you choose to make of your pubes, condoms and regular sexual health check-ups remain the mainstays in STI prevention and treatment.

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