Unwanted facial and body hair detracts from your appearance and can make you less confident in social situations. Decades ago, shaving was the biggest option for removing unwanted facial hair, as it allowed men and women to remove hair over larger areas at once, unlike tweezing, which requires pulling out one hair at a time. However, as the personal care industry continued to evolve, people began to look for alternatives to razors to produce better results.
Depilatories were one of the first alternatives to razor shaving to become widely available on the market. These products are creams, gels or liquids that use chemicals to remove unwanted hair. The instant popularity of depilatories led to numerous skin care companies producing their own versions of these powerful hair removers.
Today, there are two main types of depilatories:
Sulfide depilatories use compounds that contain the element sulfur as their active ingredient. The most common compound is barium sulfide, which produces results very quickly when used in depilatories. Since sulfur has a pungent odor, sulfide depilatories usually have a very intense odor of chemicals, similar to that of perm solution.
Thioglycolate depilatories contain a form of thioglycolic acid as their base ingredient. The most common version of the acid found in these depilatories is calcium thioglycolate, which takes longer to reach the maximum effectiveness than sulfide compounds. Because thioglycolic acid is an organic compound, depilatories that contain it can be perfumed to provide a more pleasant scent.
How They Work
Both sulfide and thioglycolate depilatories work to remove hair in the same fashion. When applied to the skin, the active chemical ingredients in the depilatories interact with keratin, the primary protein from which all hair is made. Through different chemical reactions, both types of depilatories break down keratin and cause the hair fiber to lose its structural shape. As a result, the hair becomes like a gel resting on the surface of the skin and can then be wiped or rinsed away with the depilatory.
Both types of depilatories offer a distinct set of advantages to shaving and other hair removal techniques:
- Depilatories typically cost the same as purchasing shaving supplies and are far cheaper than many shaving alternatives.
- Like shaving, you can use depilatories to remove unwanted hair at home without having to visit a salon, dermatologist or spa. Over-the-counter depilatories are widely available and produced by numerous manufacturers and skin care companies.
- The use of depilatories does not require special training or practice to achieve excellent results, as they are easy to apply.
- Because they will dissolve hair any place that you put them, depilatories do not result in missed spots, which can occur with shaving, particularly on curved parts of the body like the knees and underarms.
- Depilatories are typically pain free during the treatment. Some people do report mild tingling, but this is not usually painful. Using a depilatory poses no risks for cuts and nicks, which can bleed excessively and become infected if not properly cared for.
- Depilatories are available in a variety of strengths to make options available for use on any part of the body, including in places that are difficult to shave, such as the bikini area. They can also be used in spots where people typically do not shave, such as on the face for women.
Despite their many advantages, depilatories also have some disadvantages to shaving and alternatives to razors, mostly due to the presence of the chemicals in their formulas.
- Some degree of irritation usually accompanies the use of depilatories. Like your hair, your skin also contains keratin, but not in as concentrated of an amount. Because there is no way to avoid their chemicals from coming in contact in your skin, depilatories will also affect the keratin in the tissue. As a result, areas that have been treated with depilatories will sometimes become red and tender.
- In some cases, the irritation caused by depilatories is severe. Sulfide depilatories may cause irritation due to their potency, while thioglycolate depilatories that must be left on for extended periods of time may have a cumulative effect upon the skin that causes heightened irritation. People with extremely sensitive skin may be unable to use any type of depilatory due to reactions to the chemicals. Other people have difficulty using them to treat delicate areas of the body, such as on the face or the bikini area.
- The unpleasant smell of sulfide depilatories makes some people queasy or greatly uncomfortable and unable to complete treatments.
- Due to their cream and gel formulations, depilatories are messy and unlike shaving, the products must be left in place for at least several minutes.
- Since depilatories leave behind the root of the hair, people with darker colored hair may notice a dark spot or shadow in the area where the hair was once present. Shaving poses a similar disadvantage, but there are some alternative hair removal techniques that remove the entire hair and leave no trace behind.
- Like shaving, the effects of depilatories are fleeting. Typically, hair is apparent again in two to five days. People who experience severe irritation from depilatories may not be able to use the products regularly enough to keep up with hair regrowth, unlike shaving, which can generally be done daily.
A Word on Wax Depilatories
In recent years, a new type of depilatory has emerged on the market that is something of a hybrid between traditional depilatory products and waxing. Traditional waxing involves applying a layer of hot wax to the skin, which traps hairs in its surface. Then, strips of fabric or other materials are applied to the area and affixed to the wax. With a forceful pull, the strips are then yanked quickly away, removing the wax and the hair with it.
Wax depilatories are like traditional depilatories in that they are cream or gel formulations when applied to the skin; however, once on the surface of the skin, they dry to form a wax-type substance. Rather than waiting for the hairs to dissolve, you simply pull off the wax once it is dry and remove the hair in the treated area.
Unlike traditional depilatories, wax depilatories remove the entire hair follicle and they do not contain chemicals that irritate the keratin in the skin; however, using wax depilatories is far more uncomfortable than relying on traditional formulations. Minor redness is common with wax depilatories and usually fades within 24 to 48 hours.
Tips for Using Depilatories
To have the safest and most effective hair removal session using depilatories, keep the following tips in mind:
- Before purchasing a depilatory, read the package to determine what strength you are buying. Never use products labeled for the body on your face.
- Always read the instructions carefully before applying a depilatory. Even if you've used the product before, take a second to read them again to make sure you follow them to the letter.
- Start with clean skin by using a mild cleanser to whatever area you intend to treat. Some depilatory products require your skin to be moist for the treatment. If not, thoroughly pat it dry.
- Before applying a new depilatory product to a sensitive, obvious or widespread area, test the product on a discrete section of your forearm.
- If you experience pain or burning beyond a minor tingle during the treatment, remove the depilatory promptly.
- Use a digital timer or the timer on a cell phone or other electronic device to signal when it's time to remove the depilatory. Never leave a depilatory on for longer than directed.
- Shower after you remove the depilatory and cleanse the area with a very mild cleanser designed for sensitive skin.
- After bathing, apply a moisturizer or body lotion that contains aloe vera to help soothe irritation and replenish lost moisture in the skin tissue. Continue to apply moisturizer twice daily, especially after you bathe, until all irritation fades.