All Jennifer (not her real name) wanted was a smooth bikini line. But within 24 hours of getting a wax at a reputable New York City salon, an infection crept in. She developed a fever of 102, chills, and pain in her left thigh. “I thought I’d caught a cold,” she says, “but after five days, the pain was worse.”
Her doctor diagnosed her with cellulitis, a potentially life-threatening bacterial infection of the skin and the underlying tissue. Jennifer spent the next 15 days in the hospital hooked up to an IV that pumped her full of antibiotics and heavy-duty painkillers. She also had surgery to drain the infection. “One doctor said I could have lost my leg!” she recalls. “It took me months to recover physically and emotionally from the whole ordeal —a steep price to pay for a little vanity.”
While there are no reliable stats on waxing-related complications, Jennifer’s experience wasn’t unique. This past March, the state of New Jersey nearly banned Brazilian waxes after two women landed in the hospital as a result of them (one of the women filed a lawsuit against the state cosmetology board). And in 2007, an Australian woman with type 1 diabetes almost died of a bacterial infection she got after a bare-it-all wax.
What makes them risky? “Pubic hair is there for a reason—to protect the sensitive skin and mucous membranes in the genital region,” explains Linda K. Franks, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the New York University School of Medicine. “Getting a wax literally strips away that layer of protection.”
Waxing can also pull off tiny pieces of the skin’s outermost layer, creating a portal through which bacteria can enter the body. What’s more, the process creates inflammation, which can trap bacteria beneath the skin. All of this sets the stage for skin infections (including staph), folliculitis (infection of the hair follicles), and ingrown hairs.
“Anytime you compromise the integrity of the skin, you’re going to increase your risk of infection,” Franks says. She advises people who have diabetes, chronic kidney or liver disease, skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis, or weakened immune systems to avoid waxing altogether