Brazilian waxing and other methods of removing pubic hair may increase the risk of catching certain skin infections through sex, preliminary research from France suggests.
Specifically, the study looked at the risk of catching Molluscum contagiosum,a skin infection that causes raised, pearl-like spots. The infection can spread through any type of contact and is most commonly seen in children, but in recent years, cases of Molluscum contagiosum spread through sex have been on the rise in certain parts of the world.
Researchers at a private health clinic in Nice, France wondered whether the increasing popularity of pubic hair removal may have played a role in this increase.
Of the 30 patients (6 women and 24 men) who visited their clinic with sexually transmitted Molluscum contagiosum in 2011 and 2012, 93 percent had removed their pubic hair, either through shaving (70 percent), clipping (13 percent) or waxing (10 percent). Ten of the 30 patients had at least one other skin condition, such as warts or a bacterial infection.
The researchers only found an association, and cannot prove that removing pubic hair increases the risk of contracting Molluscum contagiosum or other skin infections. The study was limited in that is was small and did not include a comparison group of people who are skin-infection free, so more research is needed to investigate the link.
However, experts not involved with the study say that, in theory, removing pubic hair could increase the risk of genital skin infections.
Small nicks or cuts in the skin, which could occur with hair removal, can make it easier for viruses to establish infections, researchers say.
"The body has a number of defense mechanisms to prevent infection. One of those mechanisms is normal, healthy skin," said Dr. Robert Brodell, chief of the University of Mississippi Medical Center's Division of Dermatology. Aberrations in the skin "open the door for catching the infection," Brodell said.
Dr. Jonathan Zenilman, chief of the Infectious Diseases Division at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, agreed and said that the herpes virus is known to be more transmissible if small trauma occurs to the skin during sex.
"From my standpoint, it makes sense," Zenilman said of the findings. However, he cautioned that the new study is not conclusive. For instance, it could be that other factors shared by the patients besides pubic hair removal increased their risk Molluscum contagiosum infection.
Certain factors increase the risk of catching Molluscum contagiosum, such as having another sexually transmitted infection that causes open sores, or sharing towels, sheets and clothing, said study researcher Solveig Cunningham, an assistant professor of global health at Emory University in Atlanta. "Hair removal may magnify the risk of MC infections in all of these settings," Cunningham said, referring to the skin infection.
Dr. Mary Gail Mercurio, an associate professor of dermatology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, said she often sees Molluscum contagiosum in people who remove pubic hair.
"I instruct the patients to stop shaving until the condition is brought under control, because shaving just spreads it further," Mercurio said. Further studies comparing different methods of hair removal may shed light on the link, she said. For instance, laser hair removal would not be expected to increase the risk of infection because it doesn't abrade the skin.
It may be that shaving increases the risk of Molluscum contagiosum because the razor spreads the virus from one part of the body to another, Brodell said.
Brodell said he has not seen the link in his practice, but plans to ask people with Molluscum contagiosum infections if they've shaved in the recent past.
The new study will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections.
Pass it on: Shaving and waxing may increase the risk of the skin infection Molluscum contagiosum.
Editor's note: This article was updated on March 19 to include quotes from Prof. Cunningham.