The Nervous Googler writes Is It Just Me? for Health.com. She stays up at night searching health questions so you don’t have to. Send her the questions stressing you out at NervousGoogler@health.com.
Is it just me, or is armpit hair ridiculous? Like, why does it even grow there? And between shaving and waxing and lasers, can’t we just evolve out of it already?
The other morning I was casually shaving my armpits—Didn’t I just do this?—and I started seeing stars. Like, Looney Tunes stars. Silvery flecks danced at the corners of my vision as I strained to get my eyeballs far enough to the side to make sure I was banishing ever lingering bit of stubble. I very nearly chucked the razor out of the shower while screaming out loud, “This can’t be worth it!” (But let’s face it, razor blades are expensive and my bathroom walls are thin.)
Maybe I should be more bothered by those vision symptoms. But frankly, I’m more upset by the fact that I still have to shave my armpits. (Side note: Yes, I know, I don’t have to—lots of people with previously bare pits have recently begun embracing their underarm hair, not to mention dying it mermaid-approved shades of pink or purple. You do you, but I’m not there yet.) Could there really be a purpose for armpit hair? Because I’m over it.
So I posed this very question to American Academy of Dermatology board-certified dermatologist Shani Francis, MD, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine and medical director at Ashira Dermatology. She says there are actually quite a few theories about why humans still have armpit hair. However, even the most esteemed of armpit scientists couldn’t tell me with any real convincing evidence which theory is correct. Sigh.
There’s so little #science here, Dr. Francis combed the archives to talk me through a report that was published in 1953. That paper, Axillary Odor: Experimental Study of the Role of Bacteria, Apocrine Sweat, and Deodorants, concluded that one of the best ways to prevent underarm stink is to get rid of underarm hair.
Dr. Francis had to back up a bit to help me understand why. There are two kinds of sweat glands, apocrine and eccrine. Eccrine sweat glands are all over your body (lovely), while the apocrine type are concentrated in hairy spots, like your nether regions and those pits I am constantly shaving. Normal bacteria hanging out on your skin combine with apocrine sweat to produce an odor—the one you know as B.O.
“This paper published in 1953 actually says in summary that [armpit] hair is a collecting site to help the bacteria grow, a place that can hold sweat and help give off this odor,” Dr. Francis says. Why on earth would anyone need help smelling? The theory goes that our stank pits actually help us find potential mates.
“Different people make different odors, and believe it or not, odor is an attraction to the opposite sex,” Dr. Francis says. Anyone (me) who has ever stolen a boyfriend’s shirt to smell him later (oh c’mon, admit it) believes it. Just as pups greet each other with a rear-end sniff at the dog park, you might be turned on (or off) by the scent emanating from the pair of pits parked on the bar stool next to yours. “It’s nasty,” Dr. Francis admits, “but it’s cool!”
It’s so cool, in fact, that some poor human lab rats have actually sniffed armpit sweat in the name of science. The results of various armpit-smelling studies include crazy-but-apparently-true findings, such as women can smell high-testosterone men and men think women smell best during ovulation, or when we’re fertile.
The bad news is that a mating-related purpose for armpit hairs means it’s probably not going away. “Assuming that there is an evolutionary advantage of attracting a genetically compatible mate, then underarm hair is likely to remain!” Dr. Francis says.
This armpit-hair-as-dating-app theory makes sense, she says, considering that underarm hair doesn’t grow in until puberty—when we’re technically (but like, way not emotionally) ready to reproduce. Plus, it often gets thin and sparse after menopause. “One of the first signs of puberty is hair developing in the underarms and groin,” Dr. Francis says. “The apocrine glands and this hair are under hormonal control.” Hormones probably also make that pit hair course and dark, she adds.
And don't forget, there is hair all over your body, Malika Sloan, a medical aesthetician at Tribeca MedSpa in New York City, reminds me. It’s finer and fuzzier than the prickly stuff in your pits, but it’s definitely there.
What if you don’t want it there? No matter how many glitter pits you scroll past on Instagram, the decision to remove yours remains in your hands. If you’re a bare-under-there kind of gal, the method you choose to get rid of your armpit hair comes down to “a balance of cost, efficacy, and time,” Dr. Francis says.
Shaving, waxing, threading, and sugaring are known as manual options. They’re quick and usually cheap, but they can be irritating—physically and emotionally. “You can get ingrown hairs, and you have to shave practically every day,” Sloan commiserates. Chemical options like hair-removal creams dissolve the hair. They’re not too pricey either, but sensitive skin might not be too happy about ‘em.
Then there are the energy-based removal methods, like lasers and microwaves (no, not the kind in your kitchen), which are more expensive and sometimes require multiple office visits. Opting for laser armpit hair removal usually means you’re in for 6–10 treatments about 6–10 weeks apart, Sloan says. “After multiple sessions, there’s really no hair left to deal with,” Dr. Francis adds.
Microwave technology “kills” the sweat glands and destroys hair follicles at the same time, Sloan says, and the result is sweating under your arms about 80% less and sprouting about 70% less hair, she says. “We have clients who don’t even wear deodorant anymore” after microwave-it-away success, she says.
However, you’re probably still going to need deodorant after just about any other armpit hair-removal technique, despite what the authors of that 1953 study thought. “Cutting the hair only removes let’s say the ‘house’ for the bacteria,” Dr. Francis explains. The bacteria themselves remain, she says, so “if you have no armpit hair but don’t wash your armpits, you’re still going to have odor.”
Here’s where I landed after learning more than any human needs to know about pit hair: It’s (potentially) better at landing you a suitable date than Tinder, and unless I microwave my pits, I still need to use deodorant. Since we’re not evolving out of it anytime soon, I’m suddenly feeling much more inclined to just grow mine out. Just me?
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