beat around the bush

What Are Pubes Actually For?

Photo: Photo Illustration by Stevie Remsberg/Photo Getty

Though you’d be hard-pressed to reach adulthood without having absorbed dozens and dozens of sometimes-contradictory and often unsolicited opinions on pubic hair (especially women’s) and what to do with it, it’s not surprising if you still don’t know why you have it in the first place. While there exists some research on pubic hair preferences, there is very little to be found on its purpose. But if one assumes there’s an evolutionary rationale for every part of our bodies, pubic hair must be there for a reason … right?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this isn’t a major area of interest for medical researchers, Dr. Raquel Dardik, a gynecologist at NYU Langone Health, tells me. (“Generally, we’re trying to focus on things that will have more of a public impact,” she says.) That said, there are a few evidence-based theories as to what pubic hair might be for.

Pubic hair is a mechanical barrier to your skin.

The best supported theory as to pubic hair’s function is probably also the most intuitive: it’s there to cover your skin. “The most common thought is that it’s used for protection of the pubic area, like a little bit of a cushion,” says Dardik. “It can prevent a lot of abrasions and other things that, when you don’t have any pubic hair, you’re more likely to get, like abrasions, irritation, exposure to dust, etc.”

But does that mean that removing one’s pubic hair also removes one’s protection? Sort of, says Dardik. “We know removal doesn’t cause any significant problems for women, as long as it’s done in a hygienic, proper way,” she says. It’s that last part that’s key — removing pubic hair can cause abrasions, irritation, and even infection, but it’s the removal itself that does it, says Dr. Jen Gunter, an OB/GYN and author of the upcoming book The Vagina Bible. “There are a lot of studies that talk about the trauma of pubic hair removal,” she says. “We see burns from hot wax, we see injuries from razors, abscesses, things like that. There definitely are a fair number of visits to the emergency department every year, and also to the gynecologist’s office, related to the actual injuries from pubic hair removal.” But again — it’s not being without pubic hair that’s risky, but the removal itself.

Pubic hair may be there to trap moisture.

According to Gunter, vulva skin has a higher moisture content than other parts of the body, and pubic hair might serve to maintain it. “Pubic hair probably helps keep the humidity or the moisture content high in vulva skin by trapping moisture,” she says.

Pubic hair seems to reduce the transmission of STDs and other infections.

While researchers and doctors caution that the relationship is not proven to be causative, there is evidence that the removal of pubic hair is correlated with nearly twice the risk of contracting an STD. “There is some emerging data showing that pubic hair removal is associated with an increased incidence of viral sexually transmitted diseases, so HPV, herpes, and potentially other STDs as well,” says Gunter. “Most recently there was a study linking it with dysplasia, which is pre-cancer, which is probably linked to HPV.” It is of course possible that people who remove their pubic hair are also engaging in sexual behaviors which increase their risk, says Gunter, but even after controlling for number of sexual partners, the increased risk remained.

Exactly how this works is still a mystery, but Gunter says it’s possible it has something to do with hair removal’s disruption of the acid mantle, a combination of sebum and bacteria which she describes as “the the final layer of waterproofing” on our skin. When we shave, or wax, or laser that skin, we might also remove that protective layer. Generally speaking, too, says Gunter, we know from surgery studies that hair removal (broadly) leads to increased risk of infection — so it makes sense this would apply to STDs, too.

Pubic hair might emit pheromones — but probably not.

Finally — and least scientifically — there is some speculation that pubic hair has something to do with the transmission of pheromones, an already dubious concept as applied to humans. “There’s no medical or scientific data” to back up the theory tying pubic hair to pheromones, says Dardik, and yet it’s one often suggested by women’s magazines.

“A lot of people really don’t believe that pheromones are a big part of the way we reproduce anymore,” adds Gunter. As a result, she says “I don’t really emphasize that component.”

What am I supposed to do with this information?

Ultimately, it’s up to you, says Dardik. “It’s very much a woman’s choice. Pubic hair has not caused any problems throughout the ages and it doesn’t cause any problems currently,” she says.

Still, Gunter encourages us to think of public hair removal as an “intervention,” much in the same way hair dye is an intervention. “You dye your hair, that’s an intervention — there’s a risk of reaction to the dye. There are risks with that,” she says. “We haven’t really spoken much about the risks of pubic hair removal until recently, so I think it’s important for people to know we don’t know what we don’t know.”

What Are Pubes Actually For?