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Every waxing newbie has asked or wondered the million-dollar question: Does waxing hurt? The answer is a pretty universal "yes"—maybe even a "hell, yes." Although we figure most people are happier to see their waxers than their dentists, getting waxed is probably one of the least fun things you can pay to experience at a spa or salon.
But you can take action before and after a waxing service to soften the sting of waxing as well as any painful side effects. The timing of your appointment, the condition of your skin, even what you drink in the hours before your waxing appointment—can all contribute to making your waxing experience torturous or a relative breeze.
We talked to experts to learn why a waxing appointment can be such a harrowing experience and what, exactly, you can do to minimize waxing-related trauma.
Read on for our guide to getting the most painless wax ever.
Meet the Expert
- Loretta Ciraldo, MD, FAAD, is a dermatologist based in Miami and founder of the Dr. Loretta skincare brand.
- Ali Tobia is a licensed esthetician who practices at Fullblown Beauty salon in Wayne, New Jersey.
- Melissa K. Levin, MD, FAAD, is a dermatologist and founder of Entière Dermatology in New York City.
How Much Does Waxing Hurt?
If you've ever ripped an adhesive bandage off a hairy part of your body, you have a faint idea of what it's like to be waxed, even if you've never stepped into a waxing salon.
Now, imagine that sensation with a much stronger adhesive, gripping hair over a larger area of your body. In essence, that's what waxing is. So, yeah—it hurts.
"Pulling hair out manually is painful, as is the process of pulling adhesive off the skin itself," Tobia explains.
"There is a lot of pain associated with this procedure," Ciraldo says bluntly.
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 says.
Although the shock of having your hair pulled out subsides in a matter of seconds, painful side effects can stick around: tenderness, irritation, swelling, rashes, ingrown hairs, and even bleeding. Rarely—particularly if aftercare instructions aren't followed—waxing can cause skin to become infected.
Another factor that can increase the pain factor of waxing is where you do it; for example, Tobia and Ciraldo say that Brazilian waxes and other genital-area waxes are typically rated the most painful.
"Patients tell me that the most painful areas for waxing are also the most overall sensitive areas, 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 it and, thus, causing more pain.
"This area has a higher concentration of sensory nerves, so it will generally be more painful to wax than, for instance, the underarms," she adds.
The most painful spots to wax on your face? Ciraldo says brows and upper lips tend to be the most delicate areas. "Brows [can] be sensitive due to the very thin skin in the brow area, which tends to make this more sensitive than, for instance, the chin," she says. "Lips are also very sensitive to procedures, and I have attributed this to their high vascularity."
Ultimately, whether you find waxing absolutely unbearable or simply a little uncomfortable is subjective. "Pain levels vary from one person to the next," Tobia explains. Regardless, prepping before and after your waxing appointment can majorly reduce your suffering.
What to Avoid Before a Wax
The week before your waxing appointment, take a look at 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.
Also, 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.
Heading into a waxing appointment, your skin absolutely 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."
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.
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
Now that you know what not to do before a wax, here are some tips to make your salon waxing experience go down as smoothly as possible.
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.
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."
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.
On the day of your treatment, there are several (cheap!) options for lessening the sting of waxing.
Ciraldo recommends using one percent hydrocortisone cream, available over the counter at drugstores. "If you anticipate discomfort, apply the hydrocortisone at least an hour before the procedure. Its anti-inflammatory benefits can make post-procedure less painful," Ciraldo suggests. Hydrocortisone also reduces redness, she adds.
Another topical to think about trying is lidocaine. "A topical lidocaine spray can also 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.
Acetaminophen (aka Tylenol) is yet another pain-relieving tool. "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.
And don't forget about regular ol' ice. Although some waxers pooh-pooh 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
Although at-home waxing can be an effective way to save a buck, DIY waxers are prone to making pretty painful mistakes, Tobia warns.
One common—and quite literal—pain point? Wax burns, Tobia says. "DIY, at-home waxing is a much more likely cause of burns, often because many people overheat their wax, especially if they’re using a microwaveable, at-home waxing kit," she explains. (Wax burns at the hands of experienced professionals are uncommon, she assures us).
To avoid wax burns, check the consistency of your wax after heating; 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 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."
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.
If aching from your wax lingers, some of your pre-waxing tricks are also handy for relieving post-waxing pains.
"If you are at all 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
Is it possible to make waxing painless? Doubtful—but with good pre- and post-waxing care plus repeated treatment, waxing may eventually feel less painful, Tobia suggests.
"As with 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."