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A new study from France suggests that Brazilian waxing, a form hair removal that gets rid of nearly "everything," may increase a woman's risk of contracting a sometimes-sexually transmitted disease called molluscum contagiosum, covering skin with bumps.

French researchers report that women who get a kind of bikini wax known as a Brazilian are at greater risk for catching a virus that causes molluscum contagiosum, which makes the skin in intimate areas break out in red, pink, or white bumps. Before getting into the news about this new STD, some basic definitions may be helpful.

What Is a Brazilian Wax?

A Brazilian wax is a hair removal technique in which the hair on and around the vulva (both the inner and outer folds, or labia), anus, perineum (region between the anus and vulva), and buttocks is completely removed by the application of a combination of hot beeswax and tall oil.

The recipient of the wax puts on a paper G string and then a technician puts talcum powder (baby powder) on the skin. Then the technician applies the hot wax. The wax is allowed to cool and stiffen, and then the technician removes both the hardened wax and body hair. Tall oil is added to the mix to make it easier to remove larger pubic hairs.

What Are the Types of Brazilian Waxes?

In the standard Brazilian, a tiny strip of pubic hair, also known as the "landing strip" (or in less polite company, as the "happy trail") is left untouched. In a "full Brazilian," also known as a Hollywood wax or "sphynx," all the pubic hair is removed.

What Is Molluscum Contagiosum?

Molluscum contagiosum is a viral infection of the skin. The virus only affects the outermost layer of the skin, causing it to form pink, red, or flesh-colored bumps that range from the size of a pinhead (less than 1 mm or 1/10 of an inch) to the size of a pencil eraser (2 to 5 mm or up to almost 1/4 inch in diameter). In the elderly and in people who have compromised immune system, the bumps may be as much as 12 mm (1/2 inch) in diameter.

The virus is spread by skin-to-skin contact, and on towels, damp clothes, and surfaces on which bare bottoms have sat. Entire elementary school gym classes can pick up the infection from contaminated exercise equipment. Children aged 10 to 12 and adults often pick up the infection around swimming pools. Although molluscum contagiosum is a sexually transmitted disease (STD), by no means all cases involve sexual contact. The infection tends to be especially severe in people who have eczema, hay fever, or asthma.

Bumps can occur almost anywhere on the body except the palms. Hundreds of bumps may appear where the skin has been shaved, and dozens of bumps may appear on the hands, arms, torso, neck, lips, and ears.

Molluscum Contagiosum Eventually Goes Away on Its Own

The virus that causes molluscum contagiosum eventually goes away on its own, but it may take as long as 4 years for the skin to return to normal. Molluscum contagiosum is never a serious medical condition except in people who have immune systems weakened by HIV, chemotherapy, or steroid use. The virus can result, however, in a considerable cosmetic challenge.

The bumps caused by molluscum contagiosum can be removed surgically, or they can be treated with a keratolytic agent, a chemical that dissolves the skin. Keratolytics are considered inappropriate for children. There are no EU- or FDA-approved antiviral medications for the condition, although people who have both HIV and this skin infection usually have changes in their antiretroviral drugs.

The Bane of Bare Beachgoer

A soon-to-be-published article in the Journal of Sexually Transmitted Diseases discusses a mini-epidemic of molluscum contagiosum on the French Riviera. Doctors report 30 cases of the infection, 24 in women and 6 in men, 93% of whom had removed pubic hair by getting a Brazilian wax. This report has led to a general warning to the public that Brazilian waxing and other traumatic depillatories increase the risk of skin infection. So what should the hair-conscious bare bather do to prepare for bikini season?

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Desruelles F, Cunningham SA, Dubois D. Pubic hair removal: a risk factor for 'minor' STI such as molluscum contagiosum? Sex Transm Infect. 2013 Mar 19. [Epub ahead of print].
  • Kim HK, Jang WS, Kim BJ, Kim MN. Rare manifestation of giant molluscum contagiosum on the scalp in old age. Ann Dermatol. 2013 Feb. 25(1):109-10. doi: 10.5021/ad.2013.25.1.109. Epub 2013 Feb 14. No abstract available. PMID: 23463830 [PubMed]
  • King I, Lipede C, Varma S. Always read the label: a case report of a penile burn. Int Wound J. 2012 Jun 21. doi: 10.1111/j.1742-481X.2012.01000.x. [Epub ahead of print]

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