Let’s face it. Hair removal can be a pain. The all too familiar feeling of bumpy and irritated skin; the precious time sucked away by meticulously searching for that one stray strand; the copious amounts of money spent on waxes that make you cringe in pain. These, my friends, are all things we do so our skin can feel smooth, silky, and beautiful. But there are other options.
If you've heard about the many benefits of "depilatory" cream to remove body hair—including the fact that it's easy, cheap, and painless—you may feel the urge to purchase some as fast as humanly possible. It's important to note, however, that depilatories can cause chemical burns and other harmful reactions if not used correctly. That's why we reached out to three trustworthy skincare sources—renowned facialist and expert aesthetician Rhea Souhleris Grous, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Ava Shamban, and licensed esthetician Jodi Shays—to find out how to use depilatory hair removal cream safely. Keep scrolling for expert advice that will take you one step closer to smoother, softer, and sleeker skin.
Meet the Expert
- Rhea Souhleris Grous is a renowned facialist and expert aesthetician who is the founder of La Suite Skincare and director of Union Square Laser Dermatology in NYC.
- Dr. Ava Shamban, of Ava MD, is a board-certified dermatologist who specializes in cosmetic dermatology.
- Jodi Shays is a licensed esthetician based in California and owner Queen Bee Salon & Spa in Culver City, which offers treatments from waxing, facials, tanning, and more.
What Are Depilatory Creams?
"Depilatories—often found in creams, gels, or lotions—temporarily remove unwanted hair from the face and body,” explains Shays. Dr. Shamban elaborates on the process: “Whereas a razor cuts the hair at the skin level, a depilatory will penetrate to and through the follicle, but does not target the root."
What Are Depilatories?
Depilatories are agents for hair removal that are most widely available in cream form. By breaking down the bonds in hair, depilatory creams allow for hair to be easily removed from the skin.
Depilatory creams are incredibly effective at their job, and many people use them to remove hair on both their body and face. Some people even go as far as the bikini line, but due to the nature of these products, it's important to be careful and not use them on your genitals, eyes, or around your nose. Seriously. That's how you get nasty chemical burns.
If you're new to depilatories, they're probably simpler than you think. First, a strong alkaline-based product is placed on the unwanted hair. The depilatory product then processes the hair into a jelly-like substance. The chemicals in depilatories include ingredients like sodium thioglycolate, calcium thioglycolate, and strontium sulfide, which break down the protein bonds of the hair.
There are several benefits to using depilatory creams:
- It's fast. A small zone should take you no more than 15 minutes total, from start to finish. Larger areas shouldn't take much longer.
- It's easy. If you can apply cream or use a spray nozzle, then you can use a depilatory. There is no skill involved. You can use it in the comfort of your own home or it can be thrown in your bag and taken on vacation. But remember: Be sure to follow the directions and precautions on the bottle.
- It's relatively inexpensive. For those on a budget or a tight work schedule, depilatory creams are a less expensive, more time-efficient option compared to other hair removal treatments, and they can be found almost anywhere. If you just go to your local drugstore, they should have a variety of kits, creams, and sprays to choose from. At least one should fit your budget and target area.
- It’s long-lasting compared to shaving. Compared to shaving, which removes hair above the skin’s surface, depilatory creams remove hair below the skin, which means your skin will remain smoother, for longer.
- Hair grows in softer. When using a depilatory cream, hairs grow in with "a tapered end, as opposed to a squared-off edge” that results from shaving, Grous explains.
- No downtime involved. Compared to other hair removal treatments, depilatory creams usually don’t cause cuts, spots, ingrown hairs, or any other lingering effects. “Legs, lips, arms, or other body parts, are usually immediately smile, swimsuit, or short shorts ready,” raves Dr. Shamban.
- It's safe and painless (if used correctly). “Unlike shaving, depilatory creams have less chance of breaking the skin and can also get into hard to reach places,” explains Shays. As a generally pain-free option, Dr. Shamban points out that this makes a difference for those who have a low pain tolerance, are sensitive to other removal modalities, or want to remove hair in more sensitive areas—like around the bikini line.
As great as depilatories are, there can be downsides. “Especially if you use a cheap kit or don’t read the instructions,” warns Shays. Drawbacks include:
- It's not suitable for all areas. Grous cautions against using depilatory creams on areas such as brows, nose, and ears.
- It can have an odor. If you've used a depilatory before, you know that some carry with them a distinct scent. It's not foul-smelling, but not really pleasant, either. “If you have [a] sensitivity to strong smells or asthma, the fumes from chemical depilatory creams can cause reactions,” cautions Shays. Manufacturers add fragrances to try to cover some of these smells, so some smell worse than others. To be fair, the creams used to be more pungent in the past; these days, you can expect a light chemical smell, tropical scent, or no odor at all.
- They contain strong chemicals. You can really hurt your skin with a depilatory, and this is usually done by leaving the product on for too long. “These creams are designed to basically ‘burn’ your hair off at the skin’s surface,” Shays explains. Ask around and people you know likely have stories of burns, blisters, stinging, itchy rashes, and skin peeling associated with depilatories. Be careful, and follow directions.
- Short-lived results compared to waxing. In general, depilatory creams aren’t as long-lasting compared to other hair removal treatments that remove hair from the root like waxing. You will see hair above the skin's surface the next day, or in a couple of days at best. How quickly depends on the hair's texture, rate of growth, and color.
- The dreaded "shadow." Immediately after removing hair, a shadow might appear underneath the skin. Unfortunately, it's the same look that's often seen after shaving thick, dark hair. This happens because the hair hasn't been completely removed and a part still remains under the skin.
- Patchy aftereffect. For those with coarse hair, using depilatory creams on large areas—such as legs—may appear patchy, “where some of the finer hairs are dissolved but not the coarse hairs,” explains Shays.
- Your skin will be more sensitive to the sun. After using a depilatory cream, your skin will be more prone to sunburn, so using good skin protection is essential.
- It's messy. A pair of gloves may come in handy.
How to Use Depilatories
First things first. Do your research. When considering which depilatory cream to purchase, choose one with “great reviews and easy to follow instructions,” advises Shays. Keep in mind that you might need to do a little planning: Grous advises stopping the use of all keratolytic products (e.g., retinol, exfoliating acids, scrubs) three days before applying a depilatory cream and three days after a depilatory has been applied.
Now, once you’ve bought the cream and are ready to start, make sure to follow the steps our experts' outline:
- Read the instructions thoroughly.
- Wash your hands.
- Apply the cream on a small patch of hair. It's important to start the process with a test. “Most people use the side of their neck, and I suggest about a thumb-print sized amount,” says Shays. Some may choose to approach this step with even more caution and may want to consider waiting 24 hours to determine skin reactivity, which is what Dr. Shamban recommends.
- Make sure your skin isn’t reacting negatively. A light tingling is normal while the depilatory is working. However, if you feel burning, it must be removed immediately. This feeling may be a sign your skin is either too sensitive, you're allergic to one of the ingredients, or you have left it on too long. Regardless, having to shave a little extra hair is a much better look than red and scabby skin. Plus, irritation can lead to dryness and tightness—neither of which feels good.
- If the cream must be removed, rinse the affected area with water. After, Dr. Shamban advises using alkaline lotion to soothe the skin. If you don’t have alkaline lotion handy, “look for moisturizers that are calming and non-comedogenic as a follow up,“ she suggests. Generic hydrocortisone ($7), Aquafor ($14), or other petroleum jelly products are great skin-soothing alternatives. Now, if there are no negative reactions, then read on, you’re good to go.
- Wash the area you want to treat and pat dry.
- Put gloves on and apply the cream to your desired area. Make sure the cream is applied in a downward direction. Keep in mind that if you apply the cream to your bikini line, you must sit still while the cream is developing. “If you decide to get up and walk around, the cream could spread to areas where you don’t want it, and then who knows what sort of shape you are going to achieve!” warns Shays.
- Remove the cream after the required amount of time. This is why it's essential to read the instructions first. Make sure to follow the exact time requirements specified by the manufacturer. The process typically takes about 5 to 10 minutes to work, depending on the thickness of hair and the manufacturer's formula. Thicker hair takes longer to break down than finer hair. Moisturizing or gentle versions tend to be on the longer side. Shays suggests using a soft microfiber cloth to remove, but some may choose to just rinse the cream off with a towel dampened with cool or warm water. Make sure to remove all the cream from the skin. Grous warns that any lingering residue may cause irritation. “Don’t be stingy with water,” she exclaims. “Rinse and then rinse again!”
- Pat your skin dry and use a gentle moisturizer if needed. If you used the cream on an area on your face and are going outside, make sure to apply sunblock or avoid direct sun as much as possible.
If your first attempt at using a depilatory cream was not successful, our experts recommend waiting a few days before attempting again to allow time for your skin to heal.
Are Depilatory Creams Safe for Sensitive Skin?
Everyone’s skin is different, and there is a range to sensitivity. That said, depilatories should never be used on vulnerable skin. If you have a sunburn, an open wound, a condition like contact dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, acne vulgaris—or another chronic and highly inflammatory skin condition—are using Accutane (isotretinoin) or taking antibiotics, skincare experts strongly recommend considering alternative hair removal methods.
Depilatory creams are “generally skin safe with little atopic reaction for most, but it can burn with active chemical ingredients such as calcium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide,” explains Dr. Shamban. Many depilatory products will have a warning for burning or blistering, a reaction that is not exclusive to those with sensitive or highly reactive skin. “You can find specific formulas with soothing [and] calming agents, including chamomile, aloe vera, vitamin E, calendula, almond oil, cocoa butter, and [other] anti-inflammatory ingredients for sensitive skin,” adds Shamban. In general, those with sensitive skin who are considering using a depilatory cream should look for these specific formulas.
The Best Depilatory Creams
While depilatory creams can be harsh on your skin, there are several products on the market that are specially made to soothe and nourish. Keep scrolling for our experts' favorite depilatory picks.
Nair has taken steps to prevent irritation by adding cocoa butter to this lotion. When asked what her favorite depilatory cream is, Shays tells us, “It will always be Nair. This [hair removal] is what they are famous for. They put a lot of research and testing into their product," she raves.
Although Gigi might be an unknown name to most, they're a well-known and trusted brand amongst people who do their own hair removal. While their best-seller is their waxing kit, the depilatory lotion doesn't disappoint.
Veet is one of the best-known hair removal brands. This beloved formula is created for sensitive skin, so those who are susceptible to red and irritated skin can have peace of mind while using this product. Veet also has a Legs & Body 3 in 1 Gel Cream ($7), which Dr. Shamban recommends.
Dr. Shamban also recommends Nads Sensitive Hair Removal Cream. It’s melon, aloe vera, avocado oil, and honey extracts help soothe skin.
“Laluku makes a soothing, nicely scented version that has you scrape off hair,” adds Shamban.
While depilatory creams are a great at-home alternative to many other hair removal procedures, Dr. Shamban reminds us of the “potential atopic reactivities” that you should be aware of. "After a home treatment, monitor the area for swelling, inflammation, rash, blisters, or burns,” she instructs. If any negative reactions to a depilatory cream last for more than one day, check in with a board-certified dermatologist to assess the severity of your reaction.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Removing hair safely. Updated June 30, 2010.