Hairy Today? Gone By Tomorrow!

How To Get Rid of Unwanted Hair

Hair where hair oughtn't be, according to the current dictates of American fashion, raises many an eyebrow. And so, for cosmetic reasons, millions of women, and a growing number of men, spend millions of dollars each year on products and services that promise smooth, silky skin free of "unsightly," "excessive" body hair. If you are one of them, you will want to check out the methods listed below:


Shaving is by far the most common method of hair removal for both men and women. A clean razor with a sharp blade is essential for a safe and comfortable shave. Skin should never be shaved dry; wet hair is soft, pliable, and easier to cut. Contrary to what many believe, shaving does not change the texture, color, or rate of hair growth.


Depilatories act like a chemical razor blade. Available in gel, cream, lotion, aerosol, and roll-on forms, they contain a highly alkaline chemical--usually calcium thioglycolate--that dissolves the protein structure of the hair, causing it to separate easily from the skin surface. It's very important to carefully follow the use directions for depilatories and to do a preliminary skin test both for allergic reaction and sensitivity. Hair and skin are similar in composition, so chemicals that destroy the hair can also cause serious skin irritations--possibly even chemical burns--if left on too long. Consumers should be sure to read the product label and select the formulation appropriate for the intended use, because skin sensitivity varies on different parts of the body. Some depilatories are for use only on the legs, for example, while others are safe for more sensitive areas, such as the bikini line, underarms and face. Depilatories should not be used for the eyebrows or other areas around the eyes, or on inflamed or broken skin. To minimize the chance of skin irritation, they should not be applied more often than recommended on the product label.

Tweezing and Waxing

While depilatories remove hair at the skin's surface, "epilatories," such as tweezers and waxes, pluck hairs from below the surface. Waxing and tweezing may be more painful than using a depilatory, but the results are longer lasting. Because the hair is plucked at the root, new growth is not visible for several weeks after treatment. Tweezing is impractical for large areas, however, because it is such a slow process. Women mostly use tweezers for shaping eyebrows and removing facial hair.

Waxing, too, is mostly done to shape the eyebrows and remove hair on the chin and upper lip although many women also have their legs, underarms, and bikini line waxed. Epilatory waxes are also available over the counter for home use. They contain combinations of waxes, such as paraffin and beeswax, oils or fats, and a resin that makes the wax adhere to the skin.

There are "hot" and "cold" waxes. With hot waxing, a thin layer of heated wax is applied to the skin in the direction of the hair growth. The hair becomes embedded in the wax as it cools and hardens. The wax is then pulled off quickly in the opposite direction of the hair growth, taking the uprooted hair with it. Cold waxes work similarly. Strips precoated with wax are pressed on the skin in the direction of the hair growth and pulled off in the opposite direction. The strips come in different sizes for use on the eyebrows, upper lip, chin, and bikini area. Labeling of over-the-counter waxes cautions that these products should not be used by people with diabetes and circulatory problems, who are particularly susceptible to infection.

Waxing--and tweezing as well--can leave the skin sore and open to infection. Waxes should not be used over varicose veins, moles, or warts. They should not be used on the eyelashes, inside the nose or ears, on the nipples or genital areas, or on irritated, chapped, sunburned, or cut skin. A small area should be tested for sensitivity or allergic reaction before treating the entire area.

Electrical Epilators

Two types of devices use electric current to remove hair:

1. The needle epilator
2. The tweezers epilator

Needle epilators: Needle epilators introduce a very fine wire close to the hair shaft, under the skin, and into the hair follicle. An electric current travels down the wire and destroys the hair root at the bottom of the follicle. The loosened hair is then removed with tweezers. Every hair is treated individually. Needle epilators are used in electrolysis. Because this technique destroys the hair follicle, it is considered a permanent hair removal method. The hair root may persist, however, if the needle misses the mark or if insufficient electricity is delivered to destroy it. Also, the stimulus for hair growth in an area is never permanently removed. For instance, you can't control hormonal changes that cause new growth. Most people would probably define permanent as 'never comes back,' but from a medical standpoint that may not be practical.

Electrolysis requires a series of treatments over a period of time. The major risks of electrolysis are electrical shock, which can occur if the needle is not properly insulated; infection from an unsterile needle or other infection control problem; and scarring resulting from improper technique. The American Medical Association's Committee on Cutaneous Health and Cosmetics says the success of electrolysis self-treatment depends largely on the condition of the hair and skin, the equipment, and the level of skill developed. The committee recommends limiting self-treatment to readily accessible areas, such as the lower parts of the arms and legs.

Tweezers epilators: Tweezers epilators, like needle epilators, use electric current to remove hair. The tweezers grasp the hair close to the skin, and applied current travels down the hair shaft to the root. And, like needle epilators, electric shock is possible if the tweezers touch the skin instead of grabbing the hair. Tweezers epilator manufacturers can claim permanent hair removal if they can provide supporting data.

Tweezers epilators are relatively new, having been brought into the market only about 20 years ago. Because they don't use a needle, they are supposed to be less painful than the older devices, which have been around for more than a hundred years. Needle epilators are exempt from premarket notification; tweezers epilator manufacturers, however, must submit to FDA data showing their devices are substantially equivalent to similar devices already on the market. FDA is currently reviewing this policy.


Hair removal entered the "laser age" last year when FDA cleared the ThermoLase Softlight laser, manufactured by Thermotrex Corporation, based in San Diego.

"The Softlight is essentially a standard dermatological laser similar to others already on the market for treating skin lesions and removing tattoos.

With the ThermoLase method, a proprietary topical black-colored solution is applied to the treatment area before the laser is scanned across it. The solution penetrates the hair follicles, and the black material in it preferentially absorbs the laser wavelength, which heats and destroys the follicles.

Some side effects can be expected whenever a laser is used to treat the skin. These include redness, caused by heating the tissue; possibly some darkening of light-complexioned skin and lightening of dark-complexioned skin; and a risk of some scarring in some patients. Usually the treated area is covered to prevent infection during the healing period, and then kept covered with a moist solution for a period of time, adding that sunlight should be avoided during healing also, to avoid a change in pigment.

A prescription device, the laser must be used under a licensed practitioner's direction.

For more, please visit the Focus On Skin.

Portions of the above information have been provided with the kind permission of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors

Last Editorial Review: 9/3/2002