Chances are, your preteen son or daughter has begun to sprout some body hair — and may be asking about removing it. Helping your son learn to shave his beard is one thing, and if your daughter’s underarm hair is embarrassing her in swim class, you’re probably fine about her shaving it off. But what about hair on the back, legs and arms and in the pubic area?
Tara Johnson is a sexuality education specialist with Peel Region Public Health in Brampton, Ont. In her experience, kids are often a bit shy and nervous about this sudden growth of more visible hair, no matter how well educated they are about the changes that come with puberty.
Types of body hair
There are two types of body hair, explains paediatrician Krishna White of Wilmington, Del., who is a contributing editor to kidshealth.org. “Vellus hair is soft, downy and usually light in colour. Terminal hairs are the darker hairs that appear as the beard, under arms and in the pubic area, and on the trunk. As hormonal activity increases during puberty, you get more terminal hair,” she explains.
Pubic hair is a sign that puberty is well under way. It’s not the first sign; often pungent body odour is, says Johnson. Nocturnal emissions and menstruation tend to come along after pubic and underarm hair.
There’s lots of variation in the colour, amount, coarseness and texture of body hair. “In Peel Region, where we have a very ethnically diverse population, we see very different hair growth patterns,” says Johnson. Some boys have hair sprouting on their backs and shoulders, on the chest. For girls, highly visible hair on the legs, arms or upper lip is often a concern.
Is it OK to shave it? “There’s no medical indication to shave, but there’s no problem with shaving either,” says White. “The idea that shaving makes the hair grow in more quickly and thicker is a myth.”
Both Johnson and White are surprised by the number of young teens who want to shave more than their beards, underarms and legs. “Boys and girls are shaving their pubic hair a lot more than in the past, especially at younger ages,” says White. “Hairlessness is the desirable state.” If that’s the case, then as important as talking about the pros and cons of hair removal is a conversation about self-acceptance and why we’re embarrassed by body hair.
Both White and Johnson recommend against shaving or waxing the pubic area. “You do need to use caution because bacteria are more prominent in this area and there’s a greater risk of infection,” explains White. And pubic hair does have a purpose, providing warmth and protection to vulnerable parts of the body.
Then there’s the prickly business of regrowth, which carries a risk of ingrown hairs, or infection of the hair follicles, especially on the arms, chest, back or groin. Johnson has heard from boys that chest hair growing back is unbearably itchy. And when clothing rubs against stubble, or kids scratch, the skin can become irritated or even infected. Some of these problems can be kept at bay with careful hygiene and proper tools.
Hair today, gone tomorrow
Paediatrician Krishna White encourages parents to give their kids shaving lessons: “When you first notice hair, bring up the topic and see if it’s something they are interested in.” Here are the steps:
1. Use the proper equipment — razors need to be clean and sharp.
2. The best time to shave is right after you get out of the bath or shower.
3. Use a shaving gel or cream rather than soap, to protect and moisturize the skin.
4. Shave in the direction of hair growth to prevent ingrown hairs.
What about waxing or using a depilatory? The plus side of these hair removal products is that it takes longer for hair to regrow.
However, wax can be too hot and cause a burn, and depilatories can cause an allergic reaction or irritate sensitive skin. “In general, there is no problem, but it’s important to read all the instructions and follow them carefully,” says White. “Kids using these products should be supervised by their parents.”