Body hair is really just another normal part of being a woman. But, while we become accustomed at an early age to seeing hair on body parts like our legs and arms, it can be jarring to suddenly see hair sprouting on new—and unexpected—body parts.
So, if you notice your nipples or belly button have region started growing some hair, don’t fret yet! An estimated 30 percent of women have hair on their nipples. And, with happy trails, armpit hair and unshaved legs becoming increasingly more popular among women,it’s common to keep some extra hair in other places, too.
While being hairier than others in certain areas is sometimes simply hereditary, other times it’s aggravated by hormonal fluctuations or even having an excess of androgens (like the steroid hormone testosterone), which is also known as a condition called hyperandrogenism.
“You can get body hair anywhere that you see a male getting body hair, which can be on the chest, around the nipple, or the abdomen,” says Dr. Felice Gersh, an OB-GYN based in Irvine, California who specializes in hormonal management.
Yet, 5-10 percent of women grow terminal, coarse hair in a male-pattern distribution (like excess facial or back hair), which can cause insecurity. Although more women have become comfortable showcasing their leg and armpit hair, there is still a societal and even medical taboo around women who grow hair in more “masculine” places.
“It’s emotionally very devastating for women,” says Dr. Gersh. “No woman wants to wake up in the morning and pluck lots of nipple hairs or shave her abdomen.”
Albeit, having a few nipple hairs might be annoying, but it really is no big deal. But when hairs are excessive––it’s not just a cosmetic issue––it could actually signify a more concerning medical diagnosis.
When and if you should worry
While not always the case, sudden and excessive hair growth could be caused by a hormonal disorder called Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). Women with PCOS generally have higher amounts of testosterone, which can cause facial hair, nipple hair, and other excessive body hair.
“Excessive hair growth strikes at the femininity of women. We are talking about terminal hairs that are harder, more pigmented and thicker than the usual soft hairs you see,” says Dr. Ricardo Azziz, who has studied androgen excess disorders over the past 25 years.
One member of a PCOS support group on Facebook wrote that nipple hair made her feel unattractive, but dozens of other women chimed in, saying that they share the same insecurities about excessive hair symptoms.
Women with excessive hair growth often face weight gain, irregular menstrual cycles, irritable bowel syndrome, infertility, and even have higher chances of developing metabolic syndromes like diabetes and heart disease.
According to the Office on Women’s Health, one in 10 women has PCOS. But Dr. Gersh, who is also the author of PCOS SOS: A Gynecologist’s Lifeline to Naturally Restore Your Rhythms, Hormones, and Happiness, says that the condition is still commonly misunderstood in the medical world and is both underdiagnosed and misdiagnosed among women.
Early warning signs that you could have PCOS include visible manifestations of abnormal body hair, loss of scalp hair, cystic acne, or irregular menstrual cycles. There’s also a hereditary component, so ask the women in your family if they have it. As always, it’s best to see your doctor or OB-GYN about these concerns. Ask for a blood test to check your androgen levels and/or have an ultrasound to determine if you have PCOS.
“There’s no harm when you have a check-up to say, can you please check my androgen levels,” says Dr. Gersh.
The symptoms of PCOS are also similar to adrenal gland disorders, so don’t be quick to assume you could have the former. Excessive nipple hair could also be caused by many different factors, like puberty and menopause, or anytime that women have low estrogen.
“Estrogen is a woman’s best friend,” says Dr. Gersh. “It’s essential for metabolic function in women.”
Some healthy nipple maintenance tips
Plucking those lonely hairs with a tweezer around the areola is totally fine, although it might not be the most pleasant feeling. But you should never shave, wax, or bleach, because it could cause ingrown hairs, infections or even provoke hairs to grow in darker and more coarse.
An expensive but more effective option is laser hair removal (which women often find to be less painful than electrolysis) if the hair bothers you that much or is growing out of control. This option works better for women with darker hair. Generally, laser hair removal may require up to five treatments to fully get rid of the hair, and each treatment usually lasts about two months. But Dr. Gersh warns that most health insurance companies won’t cover electrolysis or laser hair removal, even for medical conditions.
If you’re really concerned about stubborn hair growth around your nipples, chest or belly button, it’s always best to get advice from your doctor or OB-GYN first.