There are myriad methods to choose from when it comes to hair removal—some more costly, some more complicated, some more painful, some longer-lasting than the next. In this guide to hair removal, Rachana Jani, MD, who practices at One Medical Group in New York, comments on the pros and cons of eight common fuzz-fighting techniques. Read on, then decide which one is right for you.
Shaving is one of the cheapest and most easily accessible methods of removing hair because you can do it yourself in the shower—and it only takes an extra minute or two to cover large areas such as your legs.
Best for: Legs, underarms, and possibly the bikini line (if you’re not prone to irritation, razor bumps, and ingrown hairs).
Safety concerns: Nicks and cuts are a possibility, but if you use a razor designed for a woman (which is designed to handle the curves around ankles and knees), replace the blade frequently, and lubricate skin well with a creamy shave gel or foam, you can minimize any potential damage.
How effective is it? With the right tool and technique (shave against the direction of hair growth), you can achieve very smooth skin. But because shaving only cuts the hair above the skin, it will grow back very quickly. Chances are you’ll need to shave every couple of days.
2. Depilatory Cream
“These products contain chemicals that work by breaking down the disulphide bonds in the keratin of the hair,” explains Jani. Once those bonds are broken, hair is weak enough that you can literally wipe or rinse it off your skin. One downside to this method is that those necessary chemicals can have an unpleasant odor.
Best for: Legs, bikini area, upper lip, and chin. Look for creams formulated just for the face, which are gentler than those formulated to use on coarser leg hair.
Safety concerns: Some people—especially those with sensitive skin—find that the chemicals in depilatories can cause irritation. In order to minimize redness and irritation, don’t leave the product on longer than necessary. Most require about five minutes on the skin in order to work, but if you’re sensitive, err on the side of less time.
How effective is it? Because depilatories work mainly above the surface of the skin, hair will likely regrow in a few days. They can be tricky to use on large areas—like the legs—because you have to spread the cream on and wait for it to work before you can get in the shower and rinse it off.
Warm, melted wax is applied to the skin in strips, following the same direction as hair growth, then pulled off in the opposite direction. The heat causes the hair follicles to dilate slightly, making it easier for the entire hair, including the root, to be removed.
Best for: Small areas such as the upper lips, eyebrows, and bikini area.
Safety concerns: You shouldn’t wax any areas on which you regularly apply Retin A. Because it helps shed dead layers, Retin A can thin the skin; waxing that skin can cause redness, irritation, and damage.
Waxing can also cause ingrown hairs, especially in the bikini area. To minimize the risk, exfoliate skin before waxing; dead skin cells can clog the hair follicles and contribute to the risk of ingrown hairs.
The biggest issue with waxing is the potential for bacterial infection. “Each time the applicator stick is dipped back into the wax it can spread infection,” warns Jani. Waxing practitioners should always use a new stick for each client, and should really use a new stick for each application. Double dipping—especially when it comes to Brazilian bikini waxes, which removes hair from the labia and around the anus—is asking for trouble. “Those areas have thinner, more sensitive skin, and by continuing to reuse the same stick, there is greater potential for translocation of bacteria,” she says.
How effective is it? Because waxing removes hair at the root, the results can last up to four weeks. You’ll need to let hair grow to about a quarter of an inch before you can wax again. And while you can safely wax at any time of the month, it may be more painful if you do so in the days leading up to your period because skin is more sensitive. Taking some ibuprofen before your appointment may help.
This ancient Middle Eastern technique of hair removal has recently gained popularity in the US. It uses a simple recipe of sugar, lemon juice and water to create a paste. The paste is spread over the skin—going against the direction of hair growth—and then pulled off in the direction of hair growth, making it less painful than waxing.
Best for: It can be done anywhere you would wax—for example, the legs, bikini area, and face.
Safety concerns: Sugaring paste contains only a few basic ingredients and typically doesn’t have added preservatives or fragrance, so it’s unlikely to cause any skin allergies or irritation. Because it’s gentler on the skin than waxing, going over the same area more than once (to remove stray hairs) generally won’t damage skin.
How effective is it? Done correctly, sugaring can provide smooth results similar to waxing. Also like waxing, results last about four weeks, and you’ll need to let hair regrow to about a quarter inch before treating it again.
Threading also comes from the Middle East and involves an elaborate method of using thread to grab and remove hair by the root.
Best for: Small areas like the eyebrows and upper lip.
Safety concerns: Threading is very sanitary and safe even for sensitive skin, although it can cause some irritation, as several hairs are plucked out by the root at the same time. “You often have to go over the same area multiple times, so that can increase the risk of irritation,” says Jani.
How effective is it? Done correctly, threading will remove an entire row of hairs at once (unlike tweezing, which removes only one hair at a time). Results last up to six weeks.
5. Laser Hair Removal
This high-tech method of hair removal targets hair follicles with heat from the laser, damaging them to prevent future hair growth. It’s the most expensive hair removal option, but also the most long-lasting. “It’s often billed as permanent, but there will be some fine hair regrowth,” says Jani.
Best for: Laser hair removal can be used anywhere on the body. But since it requires multiple treatments over the course of several months to see a dramatic reduction in hair growth, laser is best suited for smaller areas, like the bikini line and the face.
Safety concerns: Laser hair removal is safest when performed by a dermatologist who’s not only been trained to use the equipment, but also has extensive knowledge about skin. In inexperienced hands, lasers can easily cause skin damage ranging from burns to pigment changes.
How effective is it? Within six months (doing monthly treatments) most women see about a 50 percent reduction in hair growth. Periodic maintenance treatment every couple of months may be necessary to prevent regrowth.
Vaniqa is a topical cream—available by prescription only—that contains an enzyme that inhibits hair growth. It doesn’t remove hair on its own, but used in conjunction with hair removal methods, it’s designed to slow hair regrowth (meaning you’ll have to tweeze or wax less frequently).
Best for: Vaniqa is FDA approved for use on the face only.
Safety concerns: Some users experience temporary stinging, redness, and/or acne flare-ups where they apply Vaniqa.
How effective is it? Within four to eight weeks of using Vaniqa twice a day, hair should be less noticeable and you should have to tweeze or wax less often to keep your face smooth. If you stop using it, hair will start to grow at its normal rate within eight weeks.
Editor’s Note: Don’t miss these related summer health stories: