Most women can relate to the experience of finding a rogue chin hair or two, usually at the worst time possible. For me, there’s something about the sunlight hitting my rear-view mirror while stopped at a red light that usually leads me to spot my own unwanted hairs— of course, when I don’t have tweezers around.
There’s nothing wrong with facial hair, but it can be annoying or even feel embarrassing if it’s unwelcome, especially if you're among the 5-10% of women who experience thicker, male pattern growth that typically shows up on the cheeks, upper lip, and neck. But, beyond being an issue of aesthetic preference, unwanted hair growth can also be a sign that something else might be going on beneath the surface.
What Causes Unwanted Facial Hair in Women?
All women have some level of male sex hormones, but when these hormones (most notably, testosterone) become imbalanced, issues can arise.
“Certain imbalances, such as increased testosterone and insulin-resistance, can cause overall hormone imbalances that result in facial hair,” says Tianna Trinidad, PCOS Hormone Health Coach and the founder of Love Served Warm. In the case of the hormone insulin, Trinidad explains that high-sugar diets or “the typical American diet, if we want to be honest” can cause blood sugar to rise, leading to decreased insulin-resistance (aka more glucose in the blood), which in turn elevates levels of testosterone which can lead to unwanted facial hair.
Basically, all unwanted facial hair is tied in some way to hormone imbalances.
PCOS & Unwanted Facial Hair
If you’re experiencing an increase in unwanted facial hair along with other symptoms, like difficulty maintaining your weight or trouble conceiving, the problem could be Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). While there's no official test for PCOS, Trinidad, who has PCOS herself, says the criteria for diagnosis involves having two out of three symptoms.
The first is related to the menstrual cycle: 70% of women with PCOS experience an irregular period and the syndrome is the leading cause of infertility worldwide, Trinidad says.
Another is the presence of cysts on your ovaries, which can be confirmed by an ultrasound. “I know the name ‘Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome’ leads you to believe that you need to have polycystic ovaries to be diagnosed. However, polycystic ovaries are not the hallmark symptom for PCOS; it's irregular periods and increased androgens,” she says.
And that brings us to our final of the big three PCOS symptoms: increased androgens, or male sex hormones. While you can test your hormones to confirm if they are out of balance, heightened levels of testosterone are also “evidenced by facial hair,” Trinidad says. “There are other symptoms of increased androgens but that's the most common.” This is one explanation for why PCOS is the most common cause of hirsutism, a condition in which there is excessive and dark hair growth on the face, arms, chest, or back.
Stress & Facial Hair Growth
While high testosterone and PCOS are the main causes of unwanted hair growth, they aren’t the only explanation for an increase in facial hair.
“I like to describe hormones as small kids lined up after recess,” Trinidad says. “Kids do their absolute best to follow directions and stay in line. However, once one of them gets out of line it creates a domino effect.
An example of this domino effect? Stress increases the amount of the hormone cortisol pumping through the body, which strains the adrenal glands and causes a decrease in estrogen and progesterone. This chain of events can sometimes lead to unwanted hair growth. These hormones want to stay balanced and “in line,” but when one goes haywire (in this example: cortisol) it has a ripple effect.
Because of this, Cushing’s Syndrome, a disorder caused by increased exposure to cortisol (often from too much corticosteroid medication), can also be an explanation for unwanted hair growth.
So, What Can You Do About It?
Shaving or waxing helps in a pinch, but if you’re experiencing hirsutism, you are probably interested in a more permanent solution. If PCOS is the issue, a doctor may prescribe birth control pills to level out your hormones, which could lead to a decrease in hair growth. However, birth control isn’t an optimal solution for everyone.
There is emerging research showing that curcumin, the active compound found in turmeric, combined with the medication metformin, or its natural counterpart berberine, have an anti-androgen effect and positive effects on insulin for people with PCOS. This could in turn also help with excessive hair growth.
But no matter which approach you take, or which hormone is to blame for a hairy predicament, it’s important to also take a holistic look at your lifestyle. Some small changes can help rebalance the hormones at the root of these issues.
The first step is to cut down (or eliminate) your use of products with known endocrine disruptors, or chemicals known to cause hormonal imbalances. Trinidad explains that some of these are responsible “specifically [for] an increase in estrogen which causes an imbalance in testosterone [and can] further drive more facial hair.” Once your home shelves have been cleaned up, some small tweaks to your broader habits can also make a difference. According to Trinidad, “When [striving for] hormone balance, it's important to look at the body as a whole and focus on clean eating, clean beauty, conscious movement, and stress management.”
These small steps can hopefully help you manage any unwelcome hair growth, with the added upside of paying off with a more balanced and healthier lifestyle.