Who benefits if pubic waxing is an environmental catastrophe for crab-lice?

The crab-louse is in apparent decline, a situation that some doctors and entomologists attribute to widespread Brazilian waxing. Though, as Skepchick points out, there's a huge industry that stands to make a lot of money from this claim, and not a lot of evidence to back it up:

“Pubic grooming has led to a severe depletion of crab louse populations,” said Ian F. Burgess, a medical entomologist with Insect Research & Development Ltd. in Cambridge, England. “Add to that other aspects of body hair depilation, and you can see an environmental disaster in the making for this species.”

...“We put the flag out, so to speak, if we see a case of pubic lice nowadays,” [Janet Wilson, a consultant in sexual health and HIV] said in an e-mailed response to questions. “The ‘habitat destruction’ of the pubic lice is increasing and they are becoming an endangered species.”

Brazilian Bikini Waxes Make Crab Lice Endangered Species [Jason Gale & Shannon Pettypiece/Bloomberg]

(via Reddit)

(Image: Crab Louse (Phthirus pubis), a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from euthman's photostream)


  1. didn’t the ancient Egyptians shave their heads supposedly to eliminate lice (and/or other hair based parasites)?  so it’s only taken us a few millennia to stubble back into this wisdom?

    1. it’s only taken us a few millennia

      Islam requires that underarms and pubic hair be shaved clean.  So your statement is true only if by “us”, you mean non-Muslims.

          1. He changed his name to Saddam Hussein to try to impress the religious right, but they saw right through him and so he went back to his old ways after a while.

            American Christians are not so clearsighted; throw Jesus’s name around a few times and a politician gets a guaranteed constituency regardless of actual behavior or true beliefs.

            Edit: Thanks, CW – I misidentified the teentsy picture, should have clicked through the link! At least the second half of my post wasn’t entirely offbase….

          2. “He changed his name to Saddam Hussein”

            Psssssssssssssssssssst-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khalid_Sheikh_Mohammed

    2. Fun fact: pubic lice and body lice and head lice are separate and distinct species (though the pubic louse can live on eyelashes, beards, mustaches, and occasionally underarms – as well as pubic hair).

      Eyelash lice.

      1. More fun fact: Pubic lice are closer related to gorilla lice, head lice are closer related to chimp lice.

        Human head lice appear to have diverged more or less when we did from our common ancestor with chimps, which makes sense. Pubic lice, on the other hand, we seem to have caught from gorillas /after/ our two lineages split (which is a more ancient split than the split from chimps).

        The strong indication is that humans had already lost our body hair when we caught a case of the gorilla crabs, which is how they’ve stayed a distinct population from head lice. The current boring theory is that we caught them by sleeping in used gorilla bedding, not by boinking gorillas, but there’s no proof either way ;)

        1. One argument is that boinking gorillas when one is not oneself a gorilla might have adverse effects on one’s chances for survival and reproduction.

          Gorillas boinking humans on the other hand…no, that’s still probably adverse effects on chances of survival and reproduction.

  2. I wonder what percentage of the species would have to shave our heads for a couple years to extinguish head lice.  Think of the water we’d save, and the time we’d save not combing. 

    1. Actually super long hair works similarly. You don’t wash it that often (once it gets to a certain length it really *wants* that scalp oil) and you don’t brush it that often (because brushing breaks the hair) so you end up with your hair down a couple times a week at most but typically wrapped up where it stays in a braid, bun, roll, however you style it. You also don’t bleach or dye it, treat it, straighten it, curl it, or other things much if you want it long. It’s kind of an effort parabola with hair. People ask me “isn’t it so much trouble to get your hair to grow that long” and actually it isn’t. It’s a disciplined neglect. Too much neglect and you have stinky dreadlocks. Too little neglect and you’ll have to cut an inch off every month or so.

  3. Kind of off-topic, but when I went to boingboing’s homepage today, it downloaded a file called “player” without asking me.  It appears to be a soundcloud widget.  Is this something that is supposed to load on the page, but is broken?  This happened under Safari and also under Google Chrome.  Chrome even asked “a site is trying to download multiple files to your computer” and asked me to deny it from happening, which I did.

    1. Sadly, it’s on topic.  Evolution happens.  That’s how crab lice are transmitted these days.  Your best bet is to shave your hard drive. 

  4. I thought having hairless pubes was mainly a female thing. But then again if all women were hairless that would cut down on the infection rate of hairy heterosexual males. Is it common for men to demand that prostitutes or promiscuous women be bald?

    Is it in demand for promiscuous gay men to be hairless:

    1. Hairless everyone below the neck seems to be a common meme at the moment, so that cuts down on carriers from all populations for everything except head lice.

      While I totally salute the hygiene aspect, I still miss the shag carpeting look on men.

  5. I do find it amusing that if you *cough* go to porn sites you’ll find ‘unshaven’ is a minority fetish category, rather than the 100% natural state of being it actually is. :)

    1. I don’t find the trend towards pubic depilation that disturbing (although I do find it saddening), it’s the people who are horrified at pubes that worry me. I mean, if you see an attractive naked person of your preferred sex and you react with “gross! Shave that thing!” then you have genuine damage.

        1. In college I had dated a couple of women that didn’t shave armpits or legs, and I dated a woman that had no head hair and instead wore a wig due to some kind of medical condition.  None of these differences from the statistical norm was really a problem, though did take some getting used to.

          Obviously everyone has their preferences, but I find those that are highly specific in the type of person that they’re willing to date to be fairly shallow.

        2. It always used to irk me that certain shampoo commercials made us think we were supposed to react with horror when someone scratches their head. If someone’s head looks like the inside of a shaken snow globe when they nod or if you can see bugs in their hair from across the elevator that may be off-putting, but, hey, we all scratch sometimes.

          1. Plus it is 100% natural.  You must have genuine damage to see dandruff or lice and say eww, shampoo that thing!

      1. 19th century painter John Ruskin was so taken aback by Euphemia Gray’s pubes on their wedding night that they never consummated their marriage. After the annulment, she eventually left him for Ruskin’s protege John Millais.

          1. Now that I read more about him, yeah, he did seem to have… issues. Nabokov got some mileage out of them, evidently.

  6. For a second, I thought that said “public waxing” – and I thought, I don’t want to see that.  
    OK, maybe in a few instances, but..

  7. “there’s a huge industry that stands to make a lot of money…”

    I’ve always warned people about big-merkin, maybe now they’ll listen.

  8. Y’know, sometimes species extinction isn’t always sad.  Anyone with a position of educational authority know if the pubic lice is important in any other ecosystems other than as a human parasite?

    1. I can’t think of a single vertebrate that depends on lice, and the only animals I can think of that eat them are primates (which can survive without them).

      Lice might possibly be a vector for beneficial skin bacteria, but so is anything else one touches.

      I’m not well read regarding lice, so anybody else with better knowledge I encourage to correct my conjecture.

    2. Doesn’t it seem likely that some other species of lice would jump ship and settle the newly vacant territory within a few decades?

  9. Please discuss conservationism’s covert (and deeply hypocritical) anthropocentrism in the light of poor crab-lice’s possible extinction. Would the public reaction be any different if, by some chance of evolution, crab-lice possessed features reminiscent of human babies?

    1.  im gonna go with….no. for a few reasons:
      1: people don’t see crabs except in very rare occasions
      2: crabs itch…and no one likes to itch.

      if we were talking the extinction of mosquitoes, who’s extinction most people also wouldn’t bemoan, it would be another story. while the laity would be happy to see the mosquitoes gone, most ecologists would realize the important role mosquitoes play in the environment and WOULD be worried.

      public lice is not useful to anyone, it doesnt contribute to any ecology other than making humans itch (by no fault of it’s own mind, it’s just trying to live) and so no one morns their passing any more than the extinction of smallpox. it’s less to do with the organism’s cuteness (at least to ecologists, perhaps the laity) and more to do with its usefulness either directly to us or to the ecosystem and thus indirectly to us.

      on an unrelated note, if you want cute microorganisms looks up “tardigrades” adorable and damn near indestructible!

      1. Was thinking the same. Mosquitoes though bothersome make up a large chunk of the food chain. If they go so do many birds & reptiles that depend on them. Pubic lice? We’d be the only ones to know or care. So good riddance.

      2. “public lice is not useful to anyone, it doesnt contribute to any ecology…”
        As is the case with most top predators since humans already fill that niche… Someone’s got to kill those baby seals – whether humans or polar bears do it is immaterial to both the seals and their ecology.
        Also with your two two premises you are basically condoning the anthropocentric approach where only “useful” animals should be protected. When this is taken to its logical conclusion, then there is no reason to preserve any animals except those directly “useful” – the domestic ones… Not to mention the ethical dubiousness of humans being the final arbiters on which species should live or die, according to whatever fashion is on at the moment. Who should decide which species should live or die and on what moral grounds? Cuteness? Usefulness? Being associated with some deity?

          1. humans are, and if smallpox had it’s choice it would say smallpox is, but all else being equal, there is nothing wrong with siding with your own species against a species that would otherwise do your species harm.

        1. “When this is taken to its logical conclusion”

          You mean if one takes the principle of being a conservationist to a ridiculous extreme.  That’s not the same as a logical conclusion.  The vast majority of conservationists still have survival instinct, and have other concerns and principles.  Otherwise, if all life entities are equal in the eyes of your ideal of a conservationist he/she would kill themselves to better harbor all the microbes who could happily live on their cadaver.

          1. he would also never wash himself lest he kill the large number of bacteria on his body, nor would he walk anywhere lest he step on a bug, nor would he eat anything since everything you could eat comes from something that was once alive. (leaving the conundrum of course that by not eating he starves the bacteria in his gut)

        2. Someone’s got to kill those baby seals – whether humans or polar bears do it is immaterial to both the seals and their ecology.

          You seem to be confusing extinction with killing individual animals.

          I’ll give you a little hint: if polar bears drove seals to extinction, polar bears would go extinct next.  Despite the best efforts of homo sapiens along these lines it seems that destroying one’s major source of food calories doesn’t have good outcomes.

          This difference is not “immaterial to both the seals and their ecology.”

          Who should decide which species should live or die and on what moral grounds? Cuteness? Usefulness? Being associated with some deity?

          Is it somehow better not to choose at all? How so?

        3. when i say pubic lice isn’t useful to anyone, i don’t just mean humans. i mean the rest of the world. if pubic lice disappeared, no other species would go extinct for their passing. compared to another annoying species, the mosquito, who’s passing would greatly disrupt many ecosystems that depend on those species.
          equally such, if seals went extinct species that fed on seals would also perish, species which were eaten by seals would proliferate in their absence, and this can cause a huge upset in that ecosystem.
          as for the question of “on what moral grounds [do we get to chose who lives and dies]” i would contend it is not a moral issue at all. some things are a mater of necessity not morality. we preserve species that are needed to maintain an ecosystem that we are happy with, this means some species not immediately useful to us like mosquitoes must be protected from humans because they are useful to other species that are vital to the ecosystem and to wipe them out would wipe out that ecosystem. we are the arbiters of this system only because we can be, because we can fight our own natural animalistic tendency to consume resources and destroy environments with wanton disregard. we are capable of understanding the role our actions play in the larger ecosystem and should be accountable for those actions. that is the point of conservation, not “killing other creatures is bad” or even “killing cute creatures is bad” but the recognition that our actions have consequences on the larger ecology and that we should work to minimize the harm of our interactions with those systems.

          if a creature is not beneficial to a certain system, or if we have by our actions introduced the creature to a system and they are wrecking it, it’s ok to take them out. we are equally justified in taking out creature which pose a harm to human health, so long as taking the creature out doesnt cause major harm to the ecosystem (as it would for mosquitoes, which are not only annoying but carry malaria.) so wiping out swaths of e-coli in your house is not genocide, or at the least it’s justified genocide.

          1. There may be lice specific microflora, but it’s not likely they’d be any more missed than the lice.  Here’s an article, largely looking if there are any lice pathogens that don’t also kill humans (sorry for the spoiler, but no).

            It does have the fun line: The use of louse predators on human beings does not seem feasible, since the predators would crawl over the skin and thus be generally unacceptable. 

            So you can use that for cocktail conversation.

    2. Good point. Indulge me in a dramatisation:

      ‘Why the fuck am I so itchy down there? Damn lice. I’m getting waxed. Death to those itchy bastards. I must destroy them all!’

      ‘Wait.. what the… awwwwwww!!! It’s a tiny little 3mm long human baby louse! Who’s a pretty crotch louse!’

      ‘More must be done to protect this precious creature. Ban Brazillian waxing now!’

      Yep. I’m pretty sure that’s how that would pan out.

        1. Yes, but they’d have to stop those “I’d rather go naked…” ads. No one wants to see naked celebrities with blistered, lice-ridden skin.

          Well, actually, having read a lot of de Sade, I guess I should say that there is a certain subset of the population that would pay dearly to see that.

  10. Are men getting Brazilian waxes too? Otherwise, are crabs only spread by women? There’s no male on male crab lice transmission? Seems very odd. Did not read, so maybe this was mentioned.

    1. FWIW I’m a sex worker and I would say about 40% of my clients (all male) are partially or completely waxed or shaved. Its a trend that crosses many age and social groups.

  11. “Now we know the little crablouse is a raver
    You can’t get rid of it unless you use a razor
    It’s unbearable, funky and so cool
    A real smartass and nobody’s fool”

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