Depilatory Hair Removal Creams 101

Updated 06/26/19

 Nika Stipic / EyeEm / Getty

The term depilatory, according to Merriam-Webster, means "an agent for removing hair, wool, or bristles." While we don't often think of wool or bristles when we hear the term "depilatory," we do think of the chemical products that come in cream, lotion, powder, gel, roll-on or spray forms to get rid of unwanted body hair. They're 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, be careful—and don't use them on your genitals, 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 and alkaline based product is placed on the unwanted hair. Then, it processes the hair into a jelly-like substance. The chemicals often used are things like sodium thioglycolate, calcium thioglycolate, and strontium sulfide—they break down the protein bonds of the hair. The process 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. When the hair is broken down, it can just be wiped off with a warm towel.

The Pros

There are several benefits to using depilatory creams, and they're particularly pertinent if you have thick hair or are short on time:

  • It's fast. A small zone should take you no more than 15 minutes total, from start to finish. Larger areas shouldn't take too much more time than that. Plus, while the product is doing its thing, you're free to do what you want.
  • It's relatively inexpensive. If you just go to your local drugstore, they should have a variety of kits, creams, and sprays to choose from. At least one will should fit your budget and target area.
  • It's easy. If you can apply cream or use a spray nozzle, then you can use a depilatory. There is no skill involved. Be sure to follow the directions and precautions on the bottle.

    The Cons

    As great as depilatories are, everything isn't peachy keen. There are downsides, like funky scents, chemicals, and results involved:

    • 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. Manufacturers add fragrances to try to cover over 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 too long. Ask around, 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. Unlike waxing, the hair hasn't been removed from the root, but it has been removed at or slightly below the skin's level. 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 removed and is still under the skin. If you don't like it, you'll have to use a method like waxing, sugaring, and threading, where hair is removed from the follicle.

      Pain

      A light tingling is normal while the depilatory is working. But if you feel burning, take it off immediately and apply cool water. These things are 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, an irritation can lead to​ dryness and tightness—neither of which feel good.

      Nair Cocoa Butter Lotion
      Nair Cocoa Butter Hair Removal Lotion $15
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      While depilatory creams can be harsh on your skin, Nair have taken steps to prevent it by adding cocoa butter to this lotion. Expect extra smooth skin, with no hair and moist skin.

      Hair Removal Lotion
      Gigi Hair Removal Lotion $$6
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      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. Although their best-seller is their waxing kit, the lotion doesn't disappoint!

      Veet Gel Cream Hair Remover
      Veet Gel Hair Removal Cream $8
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      Veet are one of the best-known hair removal brands, and this is a beloved formula of theirs. It's formulated for sensitive skin, so people with redness issues don't have to worry.

      This article has been updated since publication.

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