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Hair Removal Creams 101

        Health | Hair Removal

Personal Hygiene ­Image Gallery Hair removal creams can be a simple alternative to shaving. See more personal hygiene pictures.
©iStockphoto.com/Carlo Dapino

Some people just have more hair than they'd like. Long, flowing tresses may be appealing, but a full body of hair -- on men or women -- may not be. If you're feeling too hirsute and looking for a way to remove unwanted patches of body hair, hair removal creams may be the answer.

Many people remove body hair by shaving, but the effect of razors may be too temporary. It can also be challenging to reach some of those difficult spots, like your back, and shaving too often in one spot can cause irritation and make you more susceptible to cuts. Other hair removal options include lasers and electrolysis, but these methods are time-consuming, expensive and perhaps too permanent. They also often carry many potential side effects. Depilatories, more commonly known as hair removal creams, offer a reasonable alternative. Depilatories work by breaking down the hair's protein structure so that the hair comes out of the skin easily when you rub off the cream [source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration].

Wipe on, wipe off -- it sounds easy, right? Hair removal creams may seem like a pretty simple solution, but as with any skin treatment, you should know your products before you run out to buy them and start slathering them on. Whether or not hair removal creams will work for you depends on your hair and skin type. The body part on which you're applying cream and the amount of hair you have are factors, too. You should consider how often you are willing to apply cream, as most people need to use depilatories once a week. Hair removal creams also have potential side effects, some of which can be painful.

If you think depilatories might work for you, then read on to learn more about how they work, what ingredients they contain, and their advantages and disadvantages.

Chemistry of Hair Removal Cream

Before you put something on your skin, you might want to know what's in it and what it does. The term "depilatory" actually refers to any method for removing hair. The hair removal creams discussed in this article are called chemical depilatories because they contain a few different alkaline chemicals, such as sodium thioglycolate, strontium sulfide and calcium thioglycolate, that react with the hair on your body.

So what exactly do these chemicals do? Depilatories are usually available as creams, but they also can come as gels, lotions, aerosols or roll-ons. Once rubbed or sprayed onto the skin, the formulation breaks down the chemical bonds that hold the protein structure of your hair together. These proteins are known as keratins. Once a depilatory dissolves the keratin, the hair becomes weak enough to fall loose from its follicle. The resulting substance is a bit like jelly, and it's possible to rub or wash off patches of hair with ease [source: Cressy].

The combination of calcium thioglycolate and sodium hydroxide in most hair removal creams is the main chemical reaction that usually causes such a strong and often unpleasant odor. Some creams, however, now contain additional ingredients that mask the sulfuric scent, but it's important to bear in mind that even these fragrances can be chemical irritants.

To choose the right cream, it's important to consider the type of skin you have. If you have especially sensitive skin, you should consult your doctor or a dermatologist before picking out a product. When using hair removal creams or any topical ointment, it's a good idea to test a small patch of skin before applying the substance to a large area. This way, if you do have a reaction, it's localized and won't affect large areas.

Now that you know how hair removal creams work, it's time to consider the reasons for using one.

Benefits of Hair Removal Creams

The foremost benefit of hair removal cream, of course, is the removal of unwanted hair. However, there are several ways to remove body hair, so it helps to compare depilatories to other methods.

Consumers often look for cheap and easy fixes to just about every dilemma. Hair removal creams can be both. Prices range from $4 to $15 for most chemical depilatories, so you should have little trouble finding an affordable option. Moreover, if you pick a cream that doesn't work well for you, you haven't wasted a great deal of money, and you can probably afford to try another brand.

It also doesn't get much easier than spreading cream over a patch of hair, waiting a few minutes, and then using a washcloth soaked in warm water to rub off the cream. Unlike waxing, this easy method is also pain-free if you follow the directions and avoid sensitive areas. Hair removal creams come in roll-on, rub-on and gel forms, each of which reduces the mess associated with application.

An added benefit to using hair removal creams is that when you rub off the cream and hair, you're also exfoliating your skin. Exfoliation removes dead skin cells that build up on the surface of your skin -- when you've finished rubbing, your skin will be not only hairless but also glowing, because you've revealed new cells.

Finally, and most importantly, chemical depilatories get under your skin. They remove hair from just below the surface, so you won't feel stubble as soon. Hair removal creams usually get rid of hair for a week, which is less time than waxing but more than shaving. Studies have also shown that using creams can slow hair growth in affected areas.

So far, hair removal creams may sound like a pretty good option, but you should always consider the potential side affects. Find out the downsides to chemical depilatories on the next page.

Problems with Hair Removal Creams

Aside from the smell, you still might face a few small problems and one potentially big problem with hair removal creams.

First, you might make a mess. Creams can be messy before they start working, and getting rid of the cream plus broken-down hair is a challenge. Another problem results from uneven application. If you don't spread the cream on smoothly over an entire area, such as your leg, then you might end up with a patchy look in which some spots are hairless and others are not.

The potentially big problem associated with hair removal creams has to do with chemistry. Depilatory creams contain harsh chemicals, and the alkalis that dissolve hair can irritate or burn skin and cause allergic reactions. Just like hair, skin contains keratin, the protein targeted by alkaline chemicals.

When using a hair removal cream, make sure that you follow the directions and read any warnings on the product. You should conduct a patch skin test at least 24 hours before applying the cream over a large area, especially if you have not used hair removal cream before. The skin test will indicate whether you have a reaction or are allergic to the chemicals in the cream. Depilatory users have reported suffering from burns, blisters, rashes, stinging sensations and skin peeling [source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration]. If redness or itching develops in the application area, throw out the cream and try something else. In the event of a chemical burn, you should wash the area thoroughly and remove all traces of the cream, then wrap the affected area in a loose, clean, dry cloth. You may want to consult a physician for further treatment.

If your skin shows no reaction to the cream, then examine the target area for cuts, scrapes and any other surface damage. Don't use a depilatory if you've shaved recently. You may have razor nicks and cuts that you can't see. If the cream gets into them, it will irritate your skin. Depilatories should not be used around the eyes, including on the eyebrows. Remember, above all, that hair removal creams are topical ointments meant for the surface of your skin.

So you've made up your mind to try a hair removal cream. Before you head to the store, read on to find out how to make an informed choice among the many available options.

Choosing Hair Removal Creams

Deciding which hair removal cream to use depends on a number of factors. Believe it or not, your gender is the least important issue. Certainly, men tend to have coarser hair, and that may affect which product they buy, but there are several other issues to consider.

The most important factors in selecting a chemical depilatory are skin sensitivities and allergies. If you are prone to rashes and breakouts or have had reactions to other topical ointments and skin products, you should check with your doctor before trying any hair removal cream. Some creams are formulated specifically for sensitive skin, and they may include moisturizer and aloe to soothe irritated skin. Other creams contain stronger formulations for coarser hair that may cause greater skin irritation.

The next factor to consider is the area of unwanted hair. For example, you should never use hair removal cream designed for your back on your pubic area. You're best off using a depilatory specifically designed for your bikini line, because the skin around your genitals is so sensitive. You also shouldn't use a chemical depilatory on any area that your underwear covers, since this can cause additional irritation [sources: Segal].

You'll also need to decide whether you prefer roll-on creams, gels or other types of products. It's easier to apply roll-ons more neatly than other products, but they may not be as thick as you need them to be. If you don't like the feel of creams, gels are a potential option.

When in doubt about your decision, ask a dermatologist for recommendations. Now that you know what to look for and what to ask, you're ready to make the best choice possible for your hair removal needs.

For more research on depilatories, see the links on the next page.

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Sources

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