How Much Does Waxing Hurt?

Woman in bikini sitting on the beach
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It is true that pain is relative, but no one says a bikini wax–or any wax for that matter–is an enjoyable experience. Does waxing hurt? In short, yes. But you can take actions before and after the treatment to lessen the immediate discomfort and lingering tenderness. Below, insight from Dr. Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, M.D., dermatologist and founder of Entière Dermatology in NYC, on why waxing treatments are so painful and advice on what you can do to soften the sting.

Why Waxing Hurts

There’s likely more than one reason why you’ve heard waxing treatments are so unbearable, but the most painful part is also the most obvious: you’re ripping out multiple strands of hair. Dr. Levin says when the hair follicle is pulled from the hair shaft by a mechanical force, it triggers your nerve endings and causes the instant shock of pain. Though the pain will subside in a matter of seconds, the skin in the area of the hair removal might remain a bit tender for longer.

If you are trying an at-home wax, some also report experiencing burns from wax that’s too hot. To avoid that, Dr. Levin suggests following the directions on your kit, then testing a small patch on the inside of your wrist before applying it elsewhere. Also, pay close attention to the consistency. If the wax is too runny or watery, it’s likely too hot.

Bikini waxes are uncomfortable for a multitude of reasons, but the awkwardness of a stranger in your business is nothing compared to the excruciating pain of pubic hair waxing. This is because the hair diameter in the bikini area tends to be much thicker than other areas of the body, so you’ll need more force to remove thicker hair.

What to Avoid Before a Wax

If you use any prescription retinoids or over-the-counter skincare products with retinol, Dr. Levin stresses the importance of stopping those types of skincare products (which make the skin sensitive) two to five days before any sort of waxing session. This will prevent superficial skin from being ripped off along with the hair. A wax is painful enough as is, so don’t make it even worse with red, raw skin.

If you have sensitive skin, Dr. Levin also says to skip the waxing session if you have inflammation or an eczema or psoriasis flare-up. To play it safe, avoid an at-home wax kit and stick with a professional as well.

How to Make a Wax Less Painful

The first step in making your experience as painless as possible is to time it right. Take into consideration the time of the month when booking your wax appointment or planning your at-home hair removal. According to Dr. Levin, the pang of waxing can be exacerbated around or during your period due to increased inflammation and a shift in hormone levels that causes a heightened sensation threshold. When it comes to timing, you also want to wait until the hair is about a quarter of an inch long. If the hair is too short, the wax will pull the hair but won’t be able to grip it enough to totally remove the hair. In other words, it’ll be more painful and less effective in terms of removal.

Secondly, you want to properly prep for your appointment by making sure your skin barrier is healthy (no open cuts or sores in the skin that could be further irritated) and well-moisturized. Dr. Levin says if you’re predisposed to folliculitis or ingrown hairs, gently exfoliate (nothing too aggressive) the night before with a chemical exfoliator to prevent irritation following the treatment. She recommends salicylic acid (a beta hydroxy acid) or glycolic acid (an alpha hydroxy acid)

The type of wax you use also plays a big part in just how much the process hurts. With old-school "honey" waxes and some cheaper brands on the market, there’s a higher likelihood the wax can remove the top layer of skin, according to Dr. Levin. It should also be noted that there’s a higher risk of burning with the soft wax because the temperature needs to be higher to work properly. Hard wax only grips the hair, doesn’t require strips, and doesn’t need to be as hot to effectively remove the hair.

Lastly, Dr. Levin recommends taking Ibuprofen (200-400 milligrams) 30 minutes before waxing your hair to decrease inflammation and help with the pain. She also says you can apply cold packs to slightly numb the area right before the wax, and apply them afterward to decrease any swelling.

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