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Abnormal hair growth (hirsutism) in women: causes, related health conditions, and more

Medically reviewed by William Ross Perlman, PhD, CMPP on January 10, 2020. Written by Caitlin Boyd. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


Noticing a more-than-usual amount of hair growing on parts of your body it normally doesn’t—like your chest, back, or face? If “yes,” then it could be due to hirsutism—a condition that can result from imbalances in certain hormones.

Find out more about hirsutism here—including possible causes, related health conditions, answers to common questions, and more.

Causes of hirsutism

Androgen excess

Androgens are a group of hormones that are responsible for the development of male traits, such as thick facial hair. Though men's bodies typically have much higher levels of androgens than women's bodies, these hormones also play an essential role in women's health.

Testosterone, the most widely-known androgen, helps maintain tissue and bone mass in your body. If your body doesn't produce enough testosterone, you may feel sluggish or lethargic. But if you have too much testosterone, you may develop:

  • Acne
  • Excess facial hair
  • Excess body hair
  • Hair loss
  • Irregular periods

Wondering how to test testosterone levels at home? Check how high your testosterone is with the Everlywell at-home Testosterone Test or Women’s Health Test.


High cortisol

Cortisol is another hormone that controls many important physical processes. In particular, cortisol plays a role in your body's fight-or-flight response, which kicks in when you're in a crisis or a dangerous situation.

Cortisol helps regulate inflammation, blood pressure, and the sleep/wake cycle. These processes can impact your weight and appetite.

If your body produces too much cortisol over a prolonged period of time, however, you may experience:

  • Weight gain
  • Excess hair growth
  • Mood changes
  • Memory problems
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes or insulin resistance

Prolonged stress can contribute to chronically high cortisol levels, and certain medications, genetic conditions, and other factors can, as well.


Check your cortisol levels—plus 9 other key hormones (including testosterone)—from the convenience of home with the Everlywell at-home Women’s Health Test.


Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)

PCOS is one of the most common hormonal disorders in women. Medical experts aren't sure what causes PCOS, but the condition seems to be linked to androgen excess—and high androgen levels (hyperandrogenism) can trigger hirsutism.

Hyperandrogenism, or high androgen levels, can trigger hirsutism.

Other symptoms of PCOS include:

  • Heavy or irregular periods
  • Pelvic pain
  • Acne
  • Balding

PCOS also causes your ovaries to develop small, fluid-filled cysts. These cysts can interfere with ovulation and cause infertility].

Cushing’s syndrome

Cushing’s syndrome (or hypercortisolism) develops when your body has chronically high levels of cortisol. This can result from certain prescription medications or hormonal imbalances in your body (though some cases of Cushing’s syndrome are linked to adrenal tumors or adrenal gland disease, which may require medication and/or surgery for treatment).

Symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome can include:

  • Weight gain
  • Round face
  • Stretch marks
  • Excessive hair growth
  • Irregular periods

Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH)

CAH is a rare genetic disorder that affects the body’s ability to produce certain hormones. People with CAH can have high levels of androgen hormones and not enough cortisol.

If you have CAH, you may experience:

  • Irregular or missed periods
  • Excess facial and body hair
  • Deepening voice
  • Severe acne

Seeking medical care for hirsutism

Many cases of hirsutism are linked to hormone imbalances. To help determine the cause of hirsutism, a healthcare provider may recommend laboratory testing to assess hormone levels. (The Everlywell at-home hormone test for women lets you check 10 key hormones—including testosterone and cortisol—from the convenience of home.) They may also perform a physical exam (which may include a pelvic exam) and ask about your periods, as many hormone imbalances can affect menstrual cycle regularity.

In some cases, further testing may be needed—such as imaging tests like ultrasounds, CT scans, or MRIs. These tests can help diagnose conditions like PCOS or adrenal tumors.

If you have a hormone imbalance, your healthcare provider may refer you to an endocrinologist, a kind of specialist who focuses on hormone disorders. An endocrinologist may help you explore treatment options (fortunately, many hormone imbalances respond well to medications like oral contraceptives).

Remedies for hirsutism

Cosmetic remedies can help remove unwanted hair. For someone with mild hirsutism, these remedies may reduce symptoms and improve one’s self-image.

Hair removal options can include:

  • Shaving
  • Waxing
  • Depilatory creams
  • Laser hair removal
  • Electrolysis

A dermatologist or aesthetician can help you choose the best method for hair removal. If you're taking any prescription medications, be sure to let your dermatologist or aesthetician know; some prescription medicines can interfere with procedures like laser hair removal.

Common questions about hirsutism

What is hirsutism?

Hirsutism is the medical term for excess hair in women that grows in a male-like pattern (such as growth on the face and chest). Women with hirsutism may develop excess hair on the jaw, chest, back, or near the upper lip.

What causes hirsutism?

Hirsutism is frequently caused by a hormone imbalance, such as high levels of androgen hormones or cortisol.

How is hirsutism treated?

Hirsutism is often treated with hormone medications. A healthcare provider may recommend hormonal birth control or androgen-blocking medications. Topical creams can also reduce hair growth in some cases.


Test 10 key hormones from the convenience of home—including testosterone and cortisol—with the Everlywell at-home Women’s Health Test.


References

1. Ovarian overproduction of androgens. MedlinePlus. URL. Accessed January 10, 2020.

2. Mohamad NV, Soelaiman IN, Chin KY. A concise review of testosterone and bone health. Clin Interv Aging. 2016;11:1317-1324. doi:10.2147/CIA.S115472

3. What is Cortisol?. Endocrine Society. URL. Accessed January 10, 2020.

4. Cushings Disease. Endocrine Society. URL. Accessed January 10, 2020.

5. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed January 10, 2020.

6. Ndefo UA, Eaton A, Green MR. Polycystic ovary syndrome: a review of treatment options with a focus on pharmacological approaches. P T. 2013;38(6):336-355.

7. Cushing's Syndrome. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. URL. Accessed January 10, 2020.

8. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed January 10, 2020.