health

A GP answers all the straggly nipple hair questions you've been too embarrassed to ask.

Fact: Most women have nipples.

Also fact: Some of those nipples have hairs.

Yes, that’s right. You’re not an anomaly nor a hairy beast, walking the path of unwanted body hair alone. Nipple hair is actually very common and there’s a good chance someone you know with breasts has them too.

Stigma keeps many women from seeking help or simply even asking questions about the hairs around their nipples, like why do I have them, what purpose do they serve and should I be worried about them?

So let’s whip them out from behind the shadow of your bra – and internalised shame – and shine a sensitive and knowledgeable light on the entirely normal existence of nipple hairs.

Whether you’ve got a lot, a few, long and wiry ones or they’re soft and fluffy, here’s what you need to know about the hairs on your nipples from an expert.

What do nipple hairs do?

Short answer – bugger all.

Like many great (or in this case, not so great) things in life, we just don’t know why on earth someone/thing decided it’d be fun for some women to grow hairs around their nipples. Dr Ginni Mansberg is equally baffled.

“We just don’t know what in our history made our grand designer think ‘oh some hair on their nipples would be useful’,” she said with the exact amount of tone you’re imagining.

“It’s a bit unknown – why they started, why we have them and what use they could possibly serve. All we know is they’re there and they’re annoying.”

What causes nipple hairs?

nipple hair
Yes, we're using two hairy coconuts to depict your breasts. Apologies. Image: Supplied/Getty.

Dr Mansberg explained "there's a whole combination of things" that go into the magical soup as to why your areola was chosen out of all the areolae to house nipple hairs. Essentially it comes down to three factors: genetics, testosterone receptors and hormone levels.

"Whether you'll get nipple hairs or not is genetically predetermined. There are either hair follicles on your breasts, or there aren't," she explained.

"There are generally two types of hairs on our bodies - the fluffy, light hairs and the pubic hairs, which are much thicker, darker and get much longer (you'll find these on the mons pubis or pubic area, tops of your thighs, anus, under the armpit).

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"If you genetically grow a lot of hair on your arms and legs that's thicker, darker and coarser, you might see these pubic style hairs around your nipples because that's the way your hair follicles are and that's genetic."

Secondly, whether you have nipple hair or not depends on the number of testosterone receptors (cells which respond to and/or are stimulated by testosterone) those genetically pre-disposed hair follicles have. The third piece of the puzzle is how much testosterone you have in your body at any given time.

"On each hair follicle there are hormone receptors for testosterone, which is the male hormone. We all have some testosterone produced by the ovaries and the adrenal glands in our bodies, but the amount varies."

"A combination of the number of hair follicles that you have, the amount of testosterone receptors in those follicles and the amount of testosterone in your body are the critical pieces to consider."

Can nipple hairs appear at different times in your life?

Yes, but also no.

"The testosterone receptors in your [nipple hair] follicles are static so they will never change, but the amount of testosterone in your body can change throughout different periods of your life," Dr Mansberg said.

Translated: if you don't have hair follicles around your nipples in the first place, or the ones you do have don't hold many testosterone receptors, it's unlikely you'll ever sprout nipple hairs out of the blue.

If you do have those hair follicles, times in your life when your hormones might be out of whack - say puberty, pregnancy or menopause - could potentially cause an unexpected hair or two. These hormonal changes may also cause the colour and texture of the hairs to become darker and wiry.

Have you ever been injured when removing pubes? You’re not alone. The Mamaia Out Loud team discuss hairy injuries. Post continues after audio.

Should I be worried about nipple hairs?

"Really for the vast majority of women who have nipple hair, it's just because they're hairy - they have hairy arms, legs, possibly a snail trail," Dr Mansberg said. Fun.

"[But] if you've never had nipple hairs before and you develop them in conjunction with other symptoms like oilier skin, acne, heavy sweating and thinning on the top of your head, that's when we would be concerned the amount of testosterone in your body has increased."

On a whole, Dr Mansberg said there are two conditions your GP would explore if you develop sudden nipple hairs, as well as some of the above additional symptoms. One is more common, and the other very rare.

1. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

"The biggest culprit [of nipple hair] is polycystic ovary syndrome, which in Australia affects one in five women to a greater or lesser degree," she said.

Polycystic Ovary (Ovarian) Syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal disorder characterised by several symptoms caused by high levels of androgens (male hormones) in your body, the main one being testosterone, the Jean Hailes For Women's Health reports.

Symptoms of PCOS can include but are not limited to irregular or no periods, excess facial and/or body hair (hirsutism), mood changes, mental health issues, cysts on your ovaries and struggling to conceive.

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Dr Mansberg's advice for any woman who is concerned about their nipple hair in conjunction with other PCOS symptoms is to consult their GP.

"Everybody who finds themselves experiencing these symptoms should go to the doctor, not because of a value judgement against nipple hair - some women really don't care, that's not the thing that would worry me."

"The thing that would worry me is often with PCOS we see reduced fertility, women struggling with their weight - it's much harder to lose weight and easier to put it on - and then they are at an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and possibly some cancers, particularly bowel and breast cancer, so we would really want to diagnose that purely for health purposes."

2. Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia

Dr Mansberg also explained there's another condition nipple hair can relate to, it is however extremely rare.

"There's a very rare condition called Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, but generally that doesn't come out of nowhere, most people have it diagnosed in childhood," she said.

"You're born with it when you have overactive adrenal glands that produce a lot more testosterone than usual. Normally the ovaries process and render most of it inactive by turning it into progesterone in the second half of your cycle, but if the amount of testosterone being produced by the adrenal glands overwhelms the ovaries' ability to deal with it, you get a build up of testosterone."

Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH) refers to an inherited group of disorders by which men and women don't have any one of the enzymes necessary to make the hormones cortisol and aldosterone, so an excess of androgens, mainly testosterone, are made.

Again, this condition is very rare and Dr Mansberg said she's never treated a patient for it in relation to nipple hair.

How to remove nipple hair.

There are a few different ways to remove your nipple hair, should you want to.

Dr Mansberg again said there's no real physiological reason to keep it or get rid of it, it comes down to personal choice.

Plucking

If you only have one or two hairs, plucking can be an affective method of hair removal. However there are some things to remember.

"Plucking damages the hair follicle, generally on chin hairs we say don't pluck because you can end up getting ingrown hairs and damaging the hair follicle, but one or two is fine. It's much worse when you pluck hairs on your chin than the areola," she said.

Plucking does increase your risk of developing ingrown hairs, however Dr Mansberg urged women not confusing ingrown hairs with the other bumps on your areolae called montgomery tubercles.

"Most people's areolae will often have what some women think are ingrown hairs, but they're actually little raised bumps - one can be much bigger than the other and I've seen women hacking at themselves trying to pick them thinking they're ingrowns."

"They're called montgomery tubercles and they actually produce a lubricating fluid which will help you when you're breast feeding. So please don't squeeze those. If you want to cause yourself a big fat scar, that's how to do it.

"They are really normal, they often don't have hairs coming out of them, and I would just be really concerned about women picking them with their fingernails [thinking they're ingrown hairs]."

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Trimming

nipple hair removal
Ah, the joys of hair removal, right? Image: Supplied/Getty.

Trimming any nipple hairs rather than shaving them is advised - "I'd be concerned if you had enough hairs to warrant shaving," Dr Mansberg added.

The easiest way is to use small, sharp nail scissors in direct natural light. Although trimming may require more maintenance as the hair won't be removed from the follicle shaft, there is no risk of developing ingrown hairs with this method.

Laser or Electrolysis

"If you've got quite a lot of nipple hairs or they're dark in colour, you might want to look at more permanent hair removal options like laser or electrolysis," Dr Mansberg said.

For darker hairs, laser hair removal can be an efficient, permanent option. The process uses cosmetic lasers to exposes your hair follicles to pulses of laser light destroying their ability to regrow. This will only work on darker hair as blonde, red and fair hair doesn't contain enough melanin (pigment) to attract the laser. Prices start from $49 for your areola, however you will require multiple sessions to achieve a long lasting result.

Alternatively, electrolysis works by zapping each individual hair follicle with an electric current via a small needle. As each follicle must be done individually, electrolysis on the areola can be painful for some women. There may also be a risk of scarring. However the service works on all hair colours.

The final word on nipple hair.

"Some women feel really awkward about talking to their GP about nipple hair. If your GP is a man and you feel like you couldn't possibly talk about it to him, go to a woman GP because we've seen hundreds of women with this problem," Dr Mansberg said.

But when it comes down to it, she's not bothered by your nipple hair unless it's bothering you. Then you can talk.

"If it doesn't worry you, it doesn't worry me, there's no medical reason to get rid of it. But if you don't like [your nipple hair], feel free to get rid of it."

Like everything else on, in or to do with your body, your nipple hair is your choice.

And your genetics'. You have mum and dad to thank for that.

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