Hirsutism is the excessive growth of hair on various parts of the body and it usually follows a male pattern of hair growth. Hair is usually coarse, dark and appears on the face (i.e. upper lip, chin) chest and back.

The following sections offer detailed information for some common questions and different elements of hirsutism.

As with any kind of unwanted hair, the options to deal with it are usually removal or lightening hair colour to make it less visible. [SEE HAIR REMOVAL]

Medications may sometimes be used to control excess hair growth if the underlying cause is related to hormones. Oral contraceptives or anti-androgens may be prescribed to control androgen production. Topical products (e.g. Vaniqa) may be prescribed to slow the cycle of hair growth. All medications potentially have unwanted side effects which you should discuss with your doctor prior to starting any treatment.

* Please note the mention of a specific brand name does not constitute a formal recommendation of the product by the Canadian Dermatology Association.

The first step to dealing with excess female hair growth is having your doctor assess the potential cause or if there is no identifiable underlying reason (idiopathic hirsutism). Testing may include a physical exam to check for excess hair growth and hormonal imbalance; blood tests to measure androgen levels; and imaging (e.g. ultrasound) to examine ovaries and adrenal glands for abnormalities.

Some conditions marked by high androgen levels include:

Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is the most common underlying medical reason for hirsutism. Caused by hormonal imbalance, symptoms include irregular periods, obesity, infertility, ovarian cysts and hirsutism.

Cushing’s syndrome is condition whereby the adrenals produce too much cortisol, a steroid hormone in response to stress. Abnormal levels of cortisol can affect the levels of other sex hormones.

Tumours may be present in the ovaries or adrenal glands, albeit rarely. These tumours will produce androgens.

Hirsutism can be caused by a hormonal imbalance, namely the overproduction of male androgens, testosterone in particular. Sometimes, excess testosterone is not the culprit, but hair follicles that are overly sensitive to testosterone even in normal amounts.

Another reason for hirsutism is simply genetics and ethnicity. Certain ethnic groups tend to have more body hair than others, so it is not unusual for women of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern or South Asian heritage to have hirsutism. This is more of a cosmetic concern in North American society than in countries where hirsutism is common in women.