How Painful Is Waxing? We Asked Dermatologists How to Reduce the Burn

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Every waxing newbie has pondered the million-dollar question: Does waxing hurt? The answer might be a universal "yes"—maybe even a "hell, yes." But there are steps you can take before (and after) a waxing service that will help soften the sting and lessen any painful side effects. The timing of your appointment, the condition of your skin, and even what you drink in the hours before your wax can all make the experience torturous or a relative breeze.

Ahead, we spoke to experts Loretta Ciraldo, MD, FAAD, a dermatologist based in Miami; Melissa K. Levin, MD, FAAD, a dermatologist in New York City; and Ali Tobia, a licensed esthetician based in Wayne, New Jersey, for their tips on what you can do to minimize pain during waxing. 

Meet the Expert

Does Waxing Hurt?

The short answer is yes, waxing hurts. If you've ever ripped an adhesive bandage off a hairy part of your body, you have an idea of what it's like to be waxed, even if you've never stepped into a waxing salon.

Imagine that sensation with a much stronger adhesive, gripping hair over a larger body area. In essence, that's what waxing is. "Pulling hair out manually is painful, and so is the process of pulling adhesive off the skin itself," Tobia explains. "There is a lot of pain associated with the process," Ciraldo says.

There is a biological explanation for the "ouch" factor of waxing. "Anatomically, the hair root is close to the nerve root," Ciraldo explains. Although waxing is "generally harmless" to your body, pulling hair from the root "triggers the same pain response" as a physical injury, Tobia explains.

Does Waxing Have Painful Side Effects?

Although the shock of having your hair pulled out goes away in seconds, painful side effects can stick around, including tenderness, irritation, swelling, rashes, ingrown hairs, and even bleeding. Rarely—particularly if aftercare instructions aren't followed—waxing can cause the skin to become infected.

Another factor that can increase the pain during waxing is where you do it; for example, Tobia and Ciraldo say that Brazilian waxes and other genital-area services are typically rated the most painful.

What Is the Most Painful Part of the Body to Wax?

The most painful areas to wax are going to be the areas with sensitivity due to increased nerves, such as the lips and pubic area. "Patients tell me that the most painful areas for waxing are also the most sensitive, especially in the pubic area," Ciraldo says. Hair around the genitals and bikini line tends to be thicker than on other areas of the body, requiring more force to yank, thus, causing more pain. "This area has a higher concentration of sensory nerves, so it will generally be more painful to wax than the underarms," she adds.

Ciraldo says brows and upper lips are the most delicate facial areas. "Brows can be sensitive due to the thin skin in the area, which tends to make this more tender than the chin, for example," she says. Meanwhile, lips tend to be more sensitive due more nerves being present in that area.

Whether you find waxing absolutely unbearable or simply a little uncomfortable is subjective. "Pain levels vary from person to person," Tobia explains. Regardless, prepping before and after your waxing appointment can majorly reduce your discomfort.

What to Avoid Before a Wax

The week before your waxing appointment, you should take into consideration the topical products you use, prescriptions, and avoid alcohol and excessive caffeine.

  • Topicals: Evaluate your skincare routine in the area you intend to wax. If you use any retinoids, Levin stresses the importance of stopping those skincare products two to five days before a waxing session to prevent superficial skin from being ripped off with the hair.
  • Precriptions: Make sure none of your prescriptions are incompatible with getting waxed. "Some medications can either create or exacerbate skin sensitivities," Tobia explains. For instance, getting waxed while taking isotretinoin (aka Accutane) is a no-no since it can strip off the top layer of skin. If you're at all in doubt whether waxing is right for you, schedule a chat with your doctor or dermatologist.
  • Caffeine and alcohol: Be sure to avoid caffeinated drinks and alcohol. "Caffeine can increase blood flow and can exacerbate bruising of the skin, while alcohol thins your blood and can cause you to bleed more easily when waxed," Tobia says.
  • Open wounds and irritation: Heading into a waxing appointment, your skin must be healthy and free of irritation. "If you have any open wounds or particular skin conditions, you should avoid waxing any affected areas while that condition is present," Tobia cautions. Ciraldo suggests making sure waxed skin is free of rashes and sunburns "since sunburned skin is more sensitive."
  • Schedule around your period (if possible): Finally, avoid scheduling your wax when you're expecting your period; according to Levin, the pang of waxing can be exacerbated around or during your period due to increased inflammation and shifts in hormone levels.

How to Make a Wax Less Painful

  • Hire a good waxer: First, you want to hire a reputable licensed esthetician for the safest, most effective wax. "I recommend that you go to someone based on referral," Ciraldo suggests.
  • Ensure the hair is long enough: When scheduling your appointment, ensure that the hair being waxed will be the proper length. "Hair should be at least a quarter of an inch for the wax to adhere to the hair properly," Tobia advises. Hair that's longer than this can be more painful to wax; if the hair is too short, "there’s a chance that there will still be random hairs that aren’t removed from the wax."
  • Exfoliate: The night before your appointment, gently exfoliate the area to be waxed to prevent ingrown hairs and folliculitis, Levin suggests. Try exfoliating with mild chemicals like salicylic acid and glycolic acid rather than harsh physical exfoliants, like apricot kernels.
  • Use hydrocortisone or lidocaine: Ciraldo recommends using one percent hydrocortisone cream, available over the counter at drugstores. Hydrocortisone also reduces redness, she adds. Another topical to consider is lidocaine. "Topical lidocaine spray can numb your skin before waxing if you’re especially sensitive to waxing pain," Tobia says. Your esthetician may even keep it on hand for clients; if not, you can find it at a drugstore for under $10.
  • Take a pain reliever: Acetaminophen (aka Tylenol) is yet another pain-relief option. "You can take acetaminophen beforehand since it will help the pain but not cause bruising like other pain pills can," Ciraldo advises. Try taking it about 30 minutes before your service.
  • Use ice: Although some waxers prefer to avoid ice before waxing—it can tighten pores, making hair more challenging to yank—it's a surefire way to numb the pain. Levin suggests toting a cold pack to your appointment and icing skin just before your treatment.

At-Home Waxing Tips

To avoid pain during a DIY wax, try the following:

  • Check the consistency of your wax after heating: One common pain point of an at-home wax are burns due to overheating wax. If the wax appears runny or watery, it's likely too hot. If the wax's texture looks OK, do a small patch test on your skin.
  • Test the wax: "Test the wax on the inner part of your forearm," Tobia suggests. "There’s enough sensitivity to provide good temperature feedback, but you can also avoid tearing off a patch of visible skin in the process of testing the wax."
  • Pull the skin taut while waxing: Another way to reduce pain during waxing is your technique; a one-handed, rip-off-the-band-aid approach is practically guaranteed to maximize agony. "During the wax, pulling the skin taut before applying and removing the wax helps to reduce the painful sensation," Tobia says. In other words, you should be using two hands to wax: one to pull off the wax strip and the other to anchor your skin, making the hair removal as quick and clean as possible.

Post-Wax Aftercare

If aching from your wax lingers, some of your pre-waxing tricks are also handy for relieving post-waxing pains. "If you are uncomfortable afterward, apply one percent hydrocortisone two to three times a day for the first 48 hours," Ciraldo says. Ice and acetaminophen can help reduce swelling and tenderness, too.

Other than applying hydrocortisone, give your skin a breather. "For body waxing, avoid applying oils or lotions immediately afterward unless directed by a professional," Tobia says. Also, "avoid tight or abrasive clothing," she adds. Keeping the waxed area clean and free of irritants helps prevent infection, another potentially excruciating side effect.

A few days after your wax, restart a gentle exfoliating regimen. "Exfoliating helps to avoid ingrown hairs, which are an indirect cause of pain due to waxing," Tobia explains.

The Final Takeaway

Whether you find waxing absolutely unbearable or simply a little uncomfortable is subjective. "Pain levels vary from person to person," Tobia explains. Regardless, prepping before and after your waxing appointment can majorly reduce your discomfort.

"Like most things that are mild to moderately painful, the more often you do it, the more accustomed you get to the sensation," Tobia says. "You're much less likely to perceive waxing as painful over time."

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