Hair removal

Originally Published: January 19, 1995 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: June 11, 2010
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Dear Alice,

What exactly does a depilatory cream or spray do? How does it work? Does hair grow back thicker and faster than before, like with shaving? For that matter, if you trim hair with a pair of scissors, does that also make it grow back thicker and faster? How about plucking with tweezers?

—Hairy and Curious

Dear Hairy and Curious,

As science continues its amazing journey, the number of options for a smoother body continues to grow. Examining the pros, cons, and permanency of the various choices can help you make the best choice for you. Are you looking for long or short term hair removal? How important is cost and convenience? What's your threshold for comfort and how much time do you want to invest in the process?

The options presented below should help you navigate your choices and don't forget to peruse some of the related Q &A's for more thoughts.

  • Depilatories cause hair to disintegrate while leaving the roots intact. Depilatories thus permit hair regrowth. By disintegrating chemical bonds in the hair shaft, a depilatory turns your hair into a gelatinous mass, which is then wiped away. Because these agents dissolve protein, they also affect the skin and can irritate if left on too long. Two types of depilatories are available-- the sulfide types are more effective, but their odor is pungent and they are more irritating. The thioglycolate types must be left on longer, but they are more easily perfumed and are not so irritating. There are also wax depilatories, which are comparable to widespread tweezing. Warm wax is placed on the skin, allowed to dry, and then peeled off with the hairs attached.
  • Shaving is a quick, easy and effective method of hair removal, and it is not true that it causes hair to grow back more abundantly or rapidly. However, it does leave the cut shaft of hair in place, as does trimming with a pair of scissors, so regrowth is inevitable. Tweezing can be painful, but is effective in hair removal. Each pluck starts another growing cycle in the hair root, so this is not a permanent method either.
  • Electrolysis is one permanent method of hair removal. With this procedure, the hair bulb is destroyed by an electric current so that hair cannot regrow. However, electrolysis may be complicated by temporary irritation from the procedure or later, by pitlike scarring. Also, incomplete destruction may allow hair to grow back. As with everything, the quality of the results depends on the skill of the operator; both cost and skill vary, but not necessarily in tandem.
  • Laser hair removal is a more recent addition and works by sending a low-energy beam into the skin. The beam is absorbed by darker-pigmented areas, such as hair follicles. The laser energy is converted to heat, destroying the hair root so it no longer grows. Several treatments are usually required to remove most of the hair in the treated area, and more may be needed for darker skin. The laser treatment may produce an irritating or painful feeling similar to the snap of a rubber band against the skin or a series of pricks with a warm needle. The treated area will might swell, turn red, or become slightly discolored for one to three days. Laser hair removal has become more affordable over time, but is still a considerable investment.

Hopefully, all this helps to make your decision a little less hairy.

Alice