5 Facts to Know About Hair Removal Creams

It's one thing to have long, flowing tresses on your head. It's quite another to have a layer of fur on your arms. In other words, some of us look a little closer to our ape relatives than we'd like. If body hair isn't to your taste, and you're looking to get rid of hair in certain areas, hair removal creams could be the ticket.

But don't just rush out the drugstore and pick up the first product in sight. Know what you're buying. Hair removal cream meant for the legs shouldn't go on the face, and if you have sensitive skin, it's possible that a lot of creams might irritate it. Your hair type should factor into your choice, as well -- coarse, curly hairs and fine, straight ones don't grow the same.

Would hair removal creams work for you? Find out five facts you should know before you try one.

It's All About Chemistry

Anything that removes hair can be called a depilatory. Hair removal creams are known as chemical depilatories because that's how they eliminate hair -- with alkaline chemicals, such as sodium thioglycolate, strontium sulfide and calcium thioglycolate.

Once they come in contact with your skin, these chemicals smash the protein bonds that hold your hair together. Afterward, these proteins, known as keratins, are so weak that hair falls from the follicle. The end product is something like jelly that can be rubbed off [source: Cressy].

If you're wondering why hair removal creams can smell so awful, here's your explanation: a chemical reaction between calcium thioglycolate and sodium hydroxide. It's possible to find products with scents to cover up the sulfuric odor, but remember that additional ingredients can be irritants.

"Cheap and Easy" Can Be Good

A "cheap and easy" fix to a dilemma can be a bad idea. That's not the case with hair removal creams. They're very affordable (much more so than, say, electrolysis), so if you don't like a product, you haven't wasted much money. It's also quite easy to apply cream or lotion and then wipe it off after a few minutes, and it shouldn't be painful if you follow directions. (The same can't be said for waxing.)

The effects of chemical depilatories last longer than shaving (about a week) but not as long as waxing.

Depilatories Aren't for Everyone

No product is without its downsides. Hair removal creams contain harsh chemicals. It's possible for skin to get irritated, burn or have an allergic reaction. Your skin contains keratin just like your hair does, so those chemicals can target the wrong area.

Worst case scenarios include burns, blisters, rashes, stinging sensations and skin peeling [source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration]. Test a product on a small area of skin before slathering it everywhere. If you see redness or itch, throw it out, wash your skin thoroughly, and try something else.

Follow Directions

Companies put warnings on labels for a reason. They get a technical writer to lay out directions for the very same reason -- to keep you safe. Make sure you read warnings and directions and follow them to the letter.

  • • Look for cuts, scrapes, redness and irritation before you apply product. If you notice any, it's a no-go. Hair removal will have to wait another day (or week).
  • • Don't shave if you’re planning to use a depilatory. Shaving means tiny nicks and cuts that chemicals shouldn't be getting near.
  • • Stay away from your eyes (that means eyebrows), nose, ears, and genital areas. Depilatories are meant for the surface of the skin, not to go inside any orifices.
  • • Be generous with the cream, gel or ointment -- no stingy coverage.

All Depilatories are Not Created Equal

For you, one depilatory may not be as good as another. A person who's prone to rashes and other skin reactions should probably check with a doctor before messing with chemicals, even though there are products formulated for sensitive skin.

You should also base your choice on the area from which you want to remove. For example, you should never use a cream designed for leg hair on your face. When it comes to the bikini line, pick something designed specifically for that area -- that's one place you really don't want irritation.

When in doubt about your decision, ask a dermatologist for recommendations.

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Sources

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  • Gibson, Lawrence. "Hair Removal: Does Shaving Make It Grow Back Thicker?" Mayo Clinic. Oct. 20, 2007. (Aug. 25, 2009) http://mayoclinic.com/health/hair-removal/AN00638
  • Mayo Clinic. "Chemical Burns: First Aid." Jan. 5, 2008. (Aug. 25, 2009) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/first-aid-chemical-burns/FA00024
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  • Segal, Marian. "Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow." FDA Consumer. Sept. 1996. (Aug. 25, 2009) http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/cos-hrem.html
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Removing Hair Safely." June 27, 2009. (Aug. 25, 2009) http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm048995.htm
  • WebMD. "Chemical Burn Treatment." May 24, 2006. (Aug. 25, 2009) http://firstaid.webmd.com/chemical-burns-treatment
  • WebMD. "Cosmetic Procedures: Hair Removal." April 1, 2005. (Aug. 25, 2009) http://www.webmd.com/skin-beauty/cosmetic-procedures-hair-removal