As you browse the aisles of your local drugstore, you may feel a little dizzy. Next to the dozens of products devoted to making the hair on your head thicker or shinier, you’ll see dozens more promising to get rid of unwanted hair. So which hair removal methods work best? And do you need any of them?
Different Types of Hair
Before removing hair, it helps to know about the different types of hair on our bodies. All hair is made of keratin, a hard protein that's also found in your fingernails and toenails. Hair growth begins beneath the surface of your skin at a hair root inside a hair follicle, a small tube in the skin.
You have two types of hair on your body. Vellus hair is soft, fine, and short. Most women have vellus hair on their chest, back, and face. It can be darker and more noticeable in some women than others, especially those with darker complexions. Vellus hair helps the body maintain a steady temperature by providing some insulation.
Terminal hair is coarser, darker, and longer than vellus hair. It's the type of hair that grows on your head. Around puberty, terminal hair starts to grow in the armpits and pubic region. On guys, terminal hair begins to grow on the face and other parts of the body such as the chest, legs, and back. Terminal hair is there to provide cushioning and protection.
In some cases, excess hair growth, called hirsutism (pronounced: hur-soo-tih-zum), may be the result of certain medical conditions. In girls, polycystic ovary syndrome and other hormonal disorders can cause dark, coarse hair to grow on the face, especially the upper lip and chin, as well as on the chest, belly, and back. Some medications, like anabolic steroids, also can cause hirsutism.
Getting Rid of Hair
How It Works: Using a razor, a person removes the tip of the hair shaft that has grown out through the skin. Some razors are completely disposable, some have a disposable blade, and some are electric. Guys often shave their faces, and women often shave their underarms, legs, and bikini areas.
How Long It Lasts: 1 to 3 days
Pros: Shaving is fairly inexpensive, and you can do it yourself. All you need is some warm water, a razor, and if you choose, shaving gel or cream.
Cons: Razor burn, bumps, nicks, cuts, and ingrown hairs are side effects of shaving. Ingrown hairs can happen with close, frequent shaving. When the hair begins to grow, it grows within the surrounding tissue rather than growing out of the follicle. The hair curls around and starts growing into the skin, irritating it.
Tips: You'll get a closer shave if you shave in the shower after your skin has been softened by warm water. Go slowly, pulling looser areas of skin taut before running the razor over them. Change razors often to avoid nicks. Using shaving cream may also help protect sensitive skin, like the skin around the genitals. If you’re nervous about cutting yourself, you can try an electric razor instead.
Although most people shave in the opposite direction from the hair growth, if you want to avoid ingrown hairs it can help to shave in the direction the hair grows.
How It Works: Using tweezers, a person stretches the skin tightly, grips the hair close to the root, and pulls it out.
How Long It Lasts: 3 to 8 weeks
Pros: Plucking is inexpensive because all you need are tweezers. But it can be time-consuming because you can only remove one hair at a time. Devices called epilators, which cost around $25 to $70, can pull out multiple hairs at once.
Cons: Plucking can be painful. If the hair breaks off below the skin, a person may get an ingrown hair. After plucking, you may notice temporary red bumps because the hair follicle is swollen and irritated. Epilators aren't a good idea for use on areas like eyebrows because they pull out a bunch of hairs at once and don't give you precise control.
Tips: Make sure you sterilize your tweezers or other plucking devices with rubbing alcohol before and after use to reduce the chance of infection.
Getting Rid of Hair (continued)
How They Work: A depilatory is a cream or liquid that removes hair from the skin's surface. They work by reacting with the protein structure of the hair, so the hair dissolves and can be washed or wiped away.
How Long They Last: Several days to 2 weeks
Pros: Depilatories work quickly, are readily available at drugstores and grocery stores, and are inexpensive. They're best on the leg, underarm, and bikini areas; special formulations may be used on the face and chin.
Cons: Applying depilatories can be messy and many people dislike the odor. If you have sensitive skin, you might have an allergic reaction to the chemicals in the depilatory, which may cause a rash or inflammation. Depilatories may not be as effective on people with coarse hair.
Tips: Read product directions carefully and be sure to apply the product only for the recommended amount of time for best results. Before using a depilatory on pubic hair, read product labels to find one that says it's safe to use on the "bikini" area or genitals.
How It Works: A sticky wax is spread on the area of skin where the unwanted hair is growing. A cloth strip is then applied over the wax and quickly pulled off, taking the hair root and dead skin cells with it. The wax can be warmed or may be applied cold. Waxing can be done at a salon or at home.
How Long It Lasts: 3 to 6 weeks
Pros: Waxing leaves the area smooth and is long lasting. Waxing kits are readily available in drugstores and grocery stores. Hair regrowth looks lighter and less noticeable than it is after other methods of hair removal, such as shaving.
Cons: Many people say the biggest drawback to waxing is the discomfort: Because the treatment works by pulling hair out at the roots, it can sting a bit as the hair comes off — luckily that part is fast. People may notice temporary redness, inflammation, and bumps after waxing.
Professional waxing is more expensive than other hair removal methods. However, it can help to get a first waxing treatment done in a salon to watch how the professionals do it (because salon staff are used to waxing all parts of the male and female body there's no need to feel embarrassed!).
Teens who use acne medications such as tretinoin and isotretinoin may want to skip waxing because those medicines make the skin more sensitive. People with moles or skin irritation from sunburn should also avoid waxing.
Tips: For waxing to work, hair should be at least ¼ inch (about 6 millimeters) long. So skip shaving for a few weeks before waxing. Waxing works well on the legs, bikini area, and eyebrows.
Getting Rid of Hair (continued)
How It Works: Over a series of several appointments, a professional electrologist inserts a probe into the follicle and sends an electric current through the hair root, killing it. A small area such as the upper lip may take a total of 4 to 10 hours and a larger area such as the bikini line may take 8 to 16 hours.
How Long It Lasts: Intended to be permanent, but some people have regrowth of hair
Pros: Some people have permanent hair removal.
Cons: Electrolysis takes big bucks and lots of time, so it's usually only used on smaller areas such as the upper lip, eyebrows, and underarms. Many people describe the process as painful, and dry skin, scabs, scarring, and inflammation may result after treatment. Infection may be a risk if the needles and other instruments aren't properly sterilized.
Tips: Talk to your doctor if you're interested in this method. He or she may be able to recommend an electrologist with the proper credentials.
Laser Hair Removal
How It Works: A laser is directed through the skin to the hair follicle, where it stops growth. It works best on light-skinned people with dark hair because the melanin (colored pigment) in the hair absorbs more of the light, making treatment more effective.
How Long It Lasts: May be permanent, but people often need to return every 6 months to a year for maintenance
Pros: This type of hair removal is long lasting and large areas of skin can be treated at the same time.
Cons: A treatment session may cost $400 or more. Side effects of the treatment may include inflammation and redness.
Tips: Using cold packs may help diminish any inflammation after treatment. Avoiding the sun before a treatment may make results more effective.
A cream called eflornithine is available by prescription to treat facial hair growth in women. The cream is applied twice a day until the hair becomes softer and lighter — more like vellus hair. Side effects may include skin irritation and acne. Talk to your doctor or dermatologist if you are concerned about hair growth and removal.
Antiandrogen medications are another method that doctors prescribe to reduce the appearance of unwanted hair in women. Because androgen hormones can be responsible for hair growth in unwanted areas, these medications can reduce hair growth by blocking androgen production. Doctors often prescribe oral contraceptives in conjunction with these medications to enhance their effect, avoid pregnancy (since antiandrogens can be harmful to a developing fetus) and help regularize the menstrual cycle in girls who need it.
Deciding to remove body hair is a personal choice. Getting rid of body hair doesn't make a person healthier, and you shouldn't feel pressured to do so if you don't want to. Some cultures view body hair as beautiful and natural, so do what feels right to you!
Reviewed by: Patrice Hyde, MD
Date reviewed: October 2011
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