Did you know there are approximately five million hair follicles on the human body? And each one of those follicles serves a number of significant roles when it comes to the overall function of the human anatomy. So why exactly have we been removing our body hair for the last few hundreds of years? Well, you can chock that up to societal and cultural norms.
In the latest episode of The Science of Beauty, co-hosts Michelle Lee, editor in chief, and Jenny Bailly, executive beauty director, welcomed Nina Jablonski, an Evan Pugh University professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, to learn more about the fascinating origin of body hair, its true purpose, and why it occurred to us to get rid of it in the first place. Then dermatologist Kavita Mariwalla stopped by to chat about what’s going on beneath the surface, and share the pros and cons of the many ways to remove body hair, if you so choose. Either way, after reading the below — and hearing even more on our episode — you’ll never look at your body hair the same way again.
The Origin of Body Hair
Now, before we talk about the what of body hair, we have to speak to the why. Why do we have body hair? Well, to answer that, we have to go back to the beginning. Millions of years ago, the ancestors of human beings were covered in hair. The reason for this was due to a number of functional purposes, explains Jablonski.
“[Body hair] keeps mammals warm. It protects their skin from a lot of external influences, from abrasion, from water, from chemical attack, all sorts of things,” she says. “Hair is really, really useful.” Most mammals, including our closest relatives, the bonobo and the chimpanzee, are covered in hair. So for us to not have much body hair now is pretty noteworthy, Jablonski says.
At what point in time did humans begin to lose hair? The short story, says Jablonski, is that we lost most of our body hair probably beginning around two million years ago due to the adoption of an active lifestyle. “Our ancestors were not couch potatoes — they weren’t just sitting around or hanging around in trees,” she says in a pretty sick burn on the bonobo. “They were active, walking, running, really, really active creatures.”
And with all of that activity, plus the steamy climate in equatorial Africa, where our ancestors came from, they built up a lot of body heat, says Jablonski. “So what happened, and this was such a cool transition, is that we see our skin becoming increasingly more naked,” she says. “Instead of being covered with body hair, it's covered with more and more sweat glands that help us lose heat through the evaporation of sweat.”
Jablonski estimates that we lost our body hair over a half a million-year period, evolving from fairly hairy beings to almost completely hairless ones, with the exception of a few areas.
Why do we have body hair?
Today, we have an estimated five million follicles of hair on our bodies — from our scalp to our pubic area to our toes — that we have today. “You're born with all of them,” says Mariwalla. “You don't develop more as you get older.”
While you may not grow more hair as you age, the hair that you do have — and its distribution — changes over time. For example, when babies are born, they’re often covered in soft peach fuzz called lanugo that eventually falls off, says Mariwalla. As you get older, your hair matures and differentiates depending on where it is on your body, she says.
For instance, pubic and underarm hair, as well as the hair on your head, is known as terminal hair, which is noticeably stronger and thicker than the rest of the hair on the body. The lighter, thinner hair, found over most of the rest of your body is what’s known as vellus hair.
However, thanks to hormones, vellus hair can transform into terminal hair as you get older, says Mariwalla. “You have vellus hair and then you go through puberty, when you have a lot of androgens or testosterone,” she explains. “[Hormones] change the hair follicle to grow hair that's coarser and thicker.” A classic example of this is when a young boy has light-colored hair on his face, but after reaching the age of puberty, his facial hair becomes thicker and more noticeable.
But going back to why we have hair in specific places in our bodies is actually quite fascinating. For example, the most significant reason for the hair on our heads, says Jablonski, is to regulate our brain’s temperature. “We have these really big brains, and in order to keep them cool, we need to keep our whole body temperature within a fairly narrow window,” she says. “It turns out that especially really curly hair is remarkably effective at protecting the scalp and the brain from excess heat, and it also allows the evaporation of sweat very efficiently. So it’s this remarkable, important structure.”
Along with the hair on our heads, you’ve probably noticed it densely grows in a few key places on the body: the underarms, the pubic region, and the eyebrows. Underarm and pubic hair may have stuck around because they helped disperse odor molecules. “Today, most of us try to get rid of all of this odor that's produced in our armpits and in our pubic regions,” says Jablonski. “But those odor molecules, at least some of them, are really important for communication about our reproductive status and our attractiveness.”
Eyebrows, on the other hand, provide an entirely different purpose than that of underarm or pubic hair. “Our eyebrows allow our expressions and moods to be determined or communicated from one person to another, even at a great distance,” says Jablonski.
And what about the hair you can’t noticeably see on the body? Just know it’s still there — and its function is substantial. “There are tiny, tiny, tiny hairs coming out of hair follicles all over our body,” says Jablonski. “These turned out to be remarkably important for us because they allow our skin to heal properly—they are little repositories of stem cells, which help us to heal our wounds.”
To note, while the majority of your body is covered in these minuscule hairs, there are three areas of your body that don’t grow hair: your palms, your soles, and the red of your lips. As you’ve learned from listening to earlier episodes of The Science of Beauty (ahem), oil glands are attached to hair follicles. In these three areas, however, “you can have glands that produce sweat but don't necessarily produce sebum,” says Mariwalla. “So you'll never get pimples on your palms and soles."
As for your lips, we don’t grow hair there because our lips are made up of “a different type of cell,” as they’re considered to be an extension of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, says Mariwalla.
The History of Body Hair Removal
If having hair is so crucial to the function of our bodies, why have we been removing it for hundreds of years? Well, we have no one to blame but ourselves. “We have, through communication with one another, established a globalized practice of removing hair to make women especially look very smooth and have baby-like skin; and for men to retain their body hair,” says Jablonski. “We tend to think, ‘Oh, these signals are very ancient. These practices are very ancient.’ They're not. This is a pretty recent obsession.” Jablonski estimates the practice of body hair removal started about only 500 years ago.
While modern societal standards of what femininity and masculinity are still very much linked to hairiness or lack of hairiness, we’ve begun to see a shift in the acceptance and normalization of body hair, thanks in part to social media, which has even helped us celebrate body hair for the first time. (Remember #freeyourpits?)
“It's really wonderful when people examine those social norms and say, hold on, who started this? This is a bunch of nonsense,” says Jablonski. “And they realize, ‘Hey, I can be a beautiful person inside and out without following these practices.’ It is tremendously liberating.”
That sense of celebration seems to be more prevalent than ever before, as we’re living through a pandemic, which has put physical interactions between people on pause. Because of this, many of the performances we put on for others, like body hair removal, have become one-woman shows, with one-woman audiences.
“So then you realize, in your heart of hearts, this is a waste of time,” says Jablonski. “‘Why should I take this time to do this thing that is socially acceptable and allows me to cleave towards a social norm? I'm doing just fine.’ People feel a lot of freedom now.”
Types of Hair Removal
Of course, if you do choose to remove your body hair — and that’s fine too! — depending on the location of the hair, there are a number of methods that will get the job done, says Mariwalla.
For starters, there’s shaving, the act of removing hair with a razor. When you shave the hair on your body (typically on the legs, underarms, and face), you’re removing hair from above the top layer of skin, says Mariwalla. She recommends shaving with a cream or gel to keep the skin hydrated. “The process of shaving is almost like exfoliating that top layer of skin,” she says. “So, it's like a two for one.”
Tweezing, on the other hand, pulls the hair directly from the follicle. “When you think about a hair follicle, it's like the little house that your hair lives in,” explains Mariwalla. “Any time you pull a hair from a follicle, it's always going to grow back.” But it’s going to take longer than when you only remove it from above the skin.
Waxing and sugaring use the same mechanism as tweezing but with warm substances (i.e. wax and sugar) that sit on top of the skin and around the hair to coax it out of the follicle. “It’s a process that is trying to warm the skin, so that the hair follicle opens up a little bit and the wax solidifies around the hair,” says Mariwalla. “When you remove the wax… you basically rip the hair out of the follicle as you're doing it.”
There are also depilatory creams. “Instead of grabbing onto the hair and pulling it, you're putting on a chemical that's dissolving the hair at the root,” explains Mariwalla. “So then you basically then just wipe it away.”
Depilatory creams, while efficient at removing hair, come with a bit of added risk, adds Mariwalla: “If some of the chemicals get into the follicle, which they do, you can get a lot of skin irritation because your follicles get affected by the chemical.”
Mariwalla’s favorite hair-removal technique, especially for people who have to shave almost every day to stay smooth, is laser hair removal. Lasers target the pigment in the hair follicle and because of that, they’re not effective on light hair. “If your [body] hair is blonde, there's nothing really for the laser to target,” explains Mariwalla “The people who do the best with laser hair removal are those who are really fair and have jet-black hair because the difference is so stark.”
Technology has now advanced enough to safely target dark hair on darker skin tones, but “blonde hair and red hair still elude us, regardless of your skin tone,” says Mariwalla.
Laser hair removal is expensive, averaging around $2,000 for a treatment plan of four to five sessions, each about four to six weeks apart. “You get an 80 percent reduction in hair, and you might need a touch-up once a year,” says Mariwalla. “It's an investment, but it's one that will last a lifetime.”
No matter which hair-removal technique you choose (if you so choose), Mariwalla recommends exfoliating before and after treatment “so that the hair has its best chance of breaking through underneath the surface and coming out of the skin.” Otherwise, you run the risk of experiencing ingrown hairs, which are hairs which have grown under the skin rather than on top of it. While fairly common, ingrown hairs can become quite painful and possibly lead to infection if left untreated.
The Bottom Line
Body hair is a natural, functional part of the human anatomy. Whether you choose to embrace it or remove it, your body hair — and what you do with it — is entirely up to you.
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