Lousy Science Behind Waxing, Lice Debate

Credit: Corbis

Despite reports to the contrary, pubic lice will not be joining the Karner Blue Butterfly or the Hine's Emerald Dragonfly on the endangered species list any time soon. No need to save phthirus pubis from crabpocalypse.

A Bloomberg article says Brazilian bikini waxes may be causing a decrease in cases of pubic lice, or crabs, because it destroys their habitat (pubic hair) and makes them an "endangered species," and it's been picked up by a Gizmodo, the Huffington Post and other news outlets. But it's also drawn criticism from Business Insider because it's not based on a study, which makes the crabs trend a little hard to swallow. Slate Magazine even made a fake timeline called "Pubic Lice in Crisis." (It ends on Aug. 15, 2013 with the world's last pubic louse dying in captivity at the National Zoo's Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia.)

"It's very difficult for most insects to be pushed to extinction - short of some catastrophic event," said Lee Townsend, an entomologist at the University of Kentucky. He said habitat destruction would be one of those events, but it would have to be an extremely specialized habitat, "like an obscure tropical lily where the needed resources or conditions are very limited."

In other words, not pubic hair.

The scientific data behind crabpocalypse is hard to come by. It turns out that neither the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nor the World Health Organization track pubic lice cases. Planned Parenthood, which treated 4.5 million people nationwide for sexually transmitted diseases in 2011, doesn't keep crab-specific data either. (The Bloomberg story acknowledges a lack of data in a section called "Lousy Data.")

The article relies heavily on the fact that a clinic in Sydney, Australia, says it hasn't seen a case of pubic lice since 2008. It also cites a 2006 letter to a medical journal called, "Did the 'Brazilian' kill the pubic louse?" which contained a chart that showed a hospital in the United Kingdom had a drop in pubic lice between 1997 and 2003. But that data is between 10 and 15 years old.

Townsend - who clarified that he has no practical knowledge of bikini waxing - said it's unlikely that the circles of people who choose to undergo bikini waxes and those associated with pubic lice would overlap regardless.

"I suspect the incidence of pubic lice is relatively low in this country but is not likely to be threatened by waxing," Townsend said. "Pubic lice were more prevalent when standards of hygiene and changing clothes were less common. Naturally, sexual activity plays a great role, too."

Still, it's possible that waxing has played a role, some doctors say.

Dr. Jennifer Ashton, a senior medical contributor at ABC News, said pubic lice can't survive long without hair to grab onto, though she added that studies about whether waxing actually reduces the chances of getting them haven't been done.

"I still see public lice, but not that much of it," said Ashton, who has her own OB/GYN practice in New Jersey where she says 90 percent of her patients are partially or completely waxed. "If there is a decrease, I believe it is possible to attribute it to waxing because lice can remain hidden in hair before attaching to skin. But that is just my opinion and not based on science."

Even if the six-legged creatures were decreasing in population, they wouldn't make the endangered species list, according to a fact sheet about the Endangered Species Act, which reads, "All species of plants and animals, except pest insects, are eligible for listing as endangered or threatened." Since pubic lice are pests, they don't count.

But there's no need to feel lousy about the tiny creatures.

"I do not think pubic lice will become endangered simply because the host is abundant and many people in the world still lack access to hot water," said Changlu Wang, an urban entomologist at Rutgers University. "It is the bath, not bikini wax, [that] causes their death."