I was 23, and just waking up to the morning light that poured into my modest bedroom in the eclectic Brooklyn neighbourhood of Williamsburg. I was comfortably curled up in the arms of a boy I’d been smitten with for months. He cradled my face with his palm and our eyes met. “You’re growing a beard,” he told me, without any attempt to mask his horrified tone.
What could have played out as a stroke of cinematic romance quickly became a mortifying episode that would erode my self-esteem for months to come.
I’d been living with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) for four years at the time, so I was painfully aware of my hirsutism—the trademark symptom of this hormonal disorder, which affects between 6% and 10% of women in Canada. But (unsurprisingly), this embarrassing encounter led me to embark on a whole new series of obsessive experiments with hair removal techniques, including electrolysis, waxing and plucking.
Unfortunately, my efforts didn’t just fail to remove the wiry black hairs that lined my chin—they also left me with semi-permanent scarring. Not only did the hairs continue to grow back, but now I had unsightly red blotches to accompany my persistent stubble, drawing even more attention to everything I was desperately trying to conceal.
The internet failed to warn me that compulsively plucking rogue hairs from my skin would result in post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation—a cluster of unsightly red blotches that occur because of repeated trauma to the epidermis. I didn’t realize what a mess I’d made of my face until I noticed that weeks later, the blotches weren’t going away. I went to a dermatologist, who informed me that post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation can take anywhere from three to 36 months to fade, and only a diligent skincare routine that focuses on skin-cell regeneration would eventually alleviate the damage.
Accelerating cell turnover became the core focus of my skincare routine. I turned to Drunk Elephant’s TLC Glycolic Night Serum, a chemical exfoliant. That… was a mistake. Although it improved my complexion as a whole, stripping the surface of my skin of dead cells and imbuing it with a natural glow, it also irritated my hyperpigmentation.
As it turns out, dermatologists don’t recommend using chemical exfoliants for women with PCOS. Lisa Kellett, a board-certified dermatologist in Toronto, explains that using chemical exfoliants invites the risk of inflammation because of the corrosive interaction between the compounds and the surface layer of your skin. “You want a mechanical exfoliator, not a chemical,” she says. “Chemical exfoliants are harsh. For patients with PCOS, they need to be aware of the vehicle of their products. I would avoid the acids.”
That said, granular mechanical exfoliants can be too abrasive for some women. In these cases, gel-based exfoliants that act as brightening agents are key. “There’s a trick you can use that does double duty. There are some formulations that have a combination of azelaic acid, lactic acid and arbutin,” says Kellett. “Those will do two things: they’ll help the acne, but two, all of those different agents act as lightening agents. It’s a pathway to what we call melanogenesis, which is the synthesis of melanin or brown spots.” This is advice that applies to all skin tones, but its effectiveness does depend on how light or dark your skin tone is.
Dermatologists can mix up a formulation suited to your skin to deal with the nature of your specific case, but there’s never a guarantee to how soon you’ll see results. In Kellett’s experience, hyperpigmentation fades the fastest in Caucasian skin. “It has to do with how long people retain pigment.” For example, she says, “Asian skin is interesting because it looks fair, but it will retain pigment for a longer period of time. It has to do with the resolution of melanin, and how melanin is transferred through the skin.”
I was curious to know how other women coped with PCOS-related hair growth—and the hyperpigmentation that can go with it—so I spoke with two other women who were also experiencing it.
Bridgette, who’s mixed race, knows just how long melanin deposits can take to fade. She has sensitive skin so, like many women of colour who struggle with post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, she turns to all-natural products. “[I use] a home remedy of matcha, apricot seed oil and rose water that I put on my face in the morning after washing. I break out super easily, so anything with artificial scents, I can’t use,” she says. The matcha reduces the overproduction of sebum that clogs her pores and causes breakouts, while the rose water has a calming effect on the surface of her skin, effectively soothing inflammation.
I also learned about another strategy from Vinsia, who is of Southeast Asian descent: she simply shaves her face to cope with the unwanted hair growth that results from her PCOS. “I use a sharp eyebrow razor to shave my face and neck, and I use coconut oil as a lubricant to avoid any sharp cuts. Makeup sits better, and the exfoliating effect of the sharp razor has helped improve the hyperpigmentation,” she explains.
Shaving can be an effective alternative because it prevents your skin from the trauma of pulling up the hair shaft, but it’s not a perfect solution. “The problem is that the more trauma you cause the pallecevacious unit—which is the follicle—the more likely you will have hyperpigmentation,” Kellett says. “Electrolysis, waxing, tweezing, plucking—those are all pretty traumatizing. Laser hair reduction is your best option.”
Living with the symptoms of polycystic ovarian syndrome made me painfully self-conscious. I was deeply embarrassed by my hirsutism—especially since I was ridiculed for it in such a vulnerable circumstance. That said, my experience with PCOS has inspired me to immerse myself in skincare. Understanding how products interact with your skin not only prevents allergic reactions and subsequent scarring down the road, but paves an early foundation for a lifetime of healthy and well-maintained skin.
More importantly, though, I’ve realized that natural imperfections are the details that distinguish your beauty, despite how difficult those quirks occasionally are to embrace. Bodies do strange things sometimes—but those who callously criticize you for things outside of your control are the root of the problem, not your unwanted hair growth.