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 hair; and the copious amounts of money spent on painful waxes, are all things we do so our skin can feel smooth and silky. But there's another option for hair removal: depilatory cream.
If you've heard about the benefits of depilatory cream to remove body hair—including that it's easy, cheap, and painless—then perhaps you've already been tempted to swap out your other hair removal methods for it. 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 esthetician Rhea Souhleris Grous, board-certified dermatologist Ava Shamban, MD, and licensed esthetician Jodi Shays, to learn how to use depilatory hair removal cream safely.
Read on for their expert advice that will take you one step closer to smoother and softer skin.
Meet the Expert
- Rhea Souhleris Grous is a renowned facialist, esthetician, and founder of La Suite Skincare at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York City.
- Ava Shamban, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist who specializes in cosmetic dermatology. She is also the founder of Ava MD.
- Jodi Shays is a licensed esthetician based in California and the owner of Queen Bee Salon & Spa in Culver City, which offers treatments in 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,” says Shays. Unlike razor hair removal, which severs the hair at the skin level, "a depilatory will penetrate to and through the follicle but does not target the root," adds Shamban.
Depilatory creams are incredibly effective at what they're designed to do, and many people use them to remove hair on both their body and face. Some venture as far as the bikini line, but due to the nature of these products, it's important to be careful and not use them too close to your genitals, eyes, or 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. That substance then breaks down the hair into a jelly-like substance that's easy to wipe off. 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, as the amount of time that you're required to keep the cream on your skin is the same.
- It's easy. If you can apply cream or use a spray nozzle, then you can use a depilatory. And since there's no particular skill involved, you can use it in the comfort of your own home or throw it in your bag to take with you on vacation. Just be sure to follow the directions and suggested precautions on the packaging.
- 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. Your local drugstore should have a variety of kits, creams, and sprays to choose from.
- It’s long-lasting compared to shaving. While shaving 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 back softer. When using a depilatory cream, hairs grow with "a tapered end, as opposed to a squared-off edge” that results from shaving, Grous says.
- 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,” Shamban says.
- 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,” says Shays. As a generally pain-free option, Shamban points out that this makes a difference for those who have low pain tolerance, are sensitive to other removal modalities, or want to more effectively remove hair in sensitive areas, like the bikini line.
As with even the best of products, there are potential downsides to using depilatories, "especially if you use a cheap kit or don’t read the instructions,” Shays says. Drawbacks include:
- It's not suitable for all areas. Grous cautions against using depilatory creams on areas such as brows, nose, and ears. (You don't want the cream to slip into your eyes, nostrils, or ear canal, for fear of burning).
- It may have an odor. If you've used a depilatory before, you know that some carry with them a distinct scent. It's not necessarily foul-smelling, but it's not particularly pleasant either. “If you have [a] sensitivity to strong smells or asthma, the fumes from chemical depilatory creams can cause reactions,” says Shays. Manufacturers add fragrances to try to cover some of these odors, so some smell worse than others. To be fair, the creams used to be more pungent in the past; these days, it's likely that your cream will have a slight chemical smell, tropical scent, or no odor at all.
- They contain strong chemicals. You can harm your skin with a depilatory if you leave 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. So, don't be surprised to see hair above the skin's surface within a couple of days. How quickly depends on the hair's texture, rate of growth, and color.
- A "shadow" may remain. Immediately after removing hair, a shadow may appear underneath the skin. This happens because the hair hasn't been completely removed and a portion of it 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," Shays says.
- 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. Since you're adding and removing a creamy substance with this hair removal method, 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,” says Shays. And keep in mind that you may need to do a little planning: Grous recommends stopping the use of all keratolytic products (e.g., retinol, exfoliating acids, scrubs) three days before applying a depilatory cream and resuming use three days after a depilatory has been applied.
Now, once you're ready to begin the hair removal process, make sure to follow the steps outlined by our experts:
- Read the instructions thoroughly.
- Wash your hands.
- Apply the cream on a small patch of hair, as it's important to start the process with a test. “Most people use the side of their neck, and I suggest about a thumbprint-sized amount,” says Shays. For extra caution, Shamban recommends waiting 24 hours to determine skin reactivity.
- Make sure your skin isn’t reacting negatively. A light tingling is normal while the depilatory is working. However, if you feel a burning sensation, use water to remove the cream immediately. This feeling may be a sign your skin is too sensitive, you're allergic to one of the ingredients, or you've left it on too long.
- If all is well after a patch test, put on gloves and apply the cream to your desired area in a downward direction, and 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,” Shays warns.
- To remove the cream, rinse the affected area with water and pat dry. Make sure to follow the exact time requirements specified by the manufacturer. The process typically takes about five 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 you may also remove the cream using 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 irritate the skin. “Don’t be stingy with water,” she says. “Rinse and then rinse again!”
- Follow up with post-treatment care. Upon removal, Shamban advises the use of alkaline lotion to soothe the skin, particularly if your skin is feeling sensitive to the touch. And if you can’t track one down, “look for moisturizers that are calming and non-comedogenic as a follow-up," says Shamban. Generic hydrocortisone ($5), Aquaphor ($10), and petroleum jelly products are great skin-soothing alternatives. And if you plan to go outside, make sure to apply sunblock or avoid direct sunlight as best 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 of sensitivity. That said, depilatories should never be used on vulnerable skin. If you have a sunburn; an open wound; a chronic and highly inflammatory skin condition like contact dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, or acne vulgaris; 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 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. Scroll further for our experts' favorite depilatory picks.
Nair has taken steps to prevent irritation by adding cocoa butter to this lotion. Shays's favorite depilatory cream "will always be Nair," she says. "This [hair removal] is what they are famous forThey put a lot of research and testing into their product."
GiGi is a well-known and trusted brand to those familiar with at-home hair removal. The brand's best-selling product is its waxing kit; though the depilatory lotion, which is enriched with calming and moisture-rich ingredients like cocoa butter and aloe vera extract, doesn't disappoint.
This beloved formula by Veet caters to sensitive skin, so those who are susceptible to red and irritated skin can have peace of mind while using this product. Shamban recommends the brand's standard formula, Legs & Body 3 in 1 Gel Cream ($9).
For all skin types, Shamban also recommends Nads Sensitive Hair Removal Cream. Its melon, aloe vera, avocado oil, and honey extracts help to soothe skin.
Depilatory creams are a great at-home alternative to many other hair removal procedures; just be sure to use them with care to avoid irritation.
"After a home treatment, monitor the area for swelling, inflammation, rash, blisters, or burns,” says Shamban. 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.
Chang AC, Watson KM, Aston TL, Wagstaff MJ, Greenwood JE. Depilatory wax burns: experience and investigation. Eplasty. 2011;11:e25.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Removing hair safely. Updated June 30, 2010.