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. For everyone else, there are simple ways to ward off danger:
Choose a facility carefully
Before you make an appointment, drop by to see how clean the place is, or ask a friend to recommend a salon she trusts. Be sure the cosmetologist or aesthetician you choose is licensed by your state and has received training in Brazilian waxing, says Rosanne Kinley, past president of the National Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology.
Ask about the wax
"Hard wax is best. It's gentler and adheres to the hair, not the skin," Kinley says. "Speed wax, which is soft and sticky, is applied with a roller applicator, and while it's fast and easy, it's more painful and more likely to tear skin." Sugaring, a natural method that's kinder to the skin than waxing, is a good alternative. Look for products that are chemical-free; Shobha ($22, myshobha.com) contains nothing but sugar, water, lemon juice, and glycerin.
Keep an eye on hygiene
Before beginning the process, the practitioner should scrub up or (at least) apply hand sanitizer. Double dipping into the wax is taboo because it introduces bacteria into the pot. "The waxer should have brand-new spatulas available for each swipe to your skin," Kinley says. To prevent burns, she should check the wax's temperature on the inside of her wrist before applying it to your skin. If you don't see the practitioner taking these steps, speak up.
For a few days following your wax, apply an over-the-counter topical antibiotic cream and an anti-inflammatory 1 percent hydrocortisone cream to the area, says Bruce Robinson, M.D., an associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. This will ease irritation and help ward off potential infection.
Know the signs of infection
Check yourself with a hand mirror (look for inflamed ingrown hairs, rashes, or raw, open sores or cuts). "See a doctor ASAP if you develop redness or swelling in the area, an itching or burning sensation, peeling of the skin, or a fever," Robinson says.