Depilatory Hair Removal Creams 101

Young woman applying cream at her legs
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The term depilatory means 'removing the hair'. However, many chemical products that come in cream, lotion, powder, gel, roll-on or spray forms that get rid of hair are often called depilatories. In fact, most people think of these specific type of products when they hear or see the word depilatory. They're great from removing unwanted hair, and many women and men use them for their body, bikini, and facial areas.

Depilatory Hair Removal Creams 101

If you're new to depilatory hair removal creams, it's simpler than you think. First, a strong and alkaline based product is placed on the unwanted hair. Then, it processes hair into a jelly-like substance. The chemicals often used can include sodium thioglycolate, calcium thioglycolate, and strontium sulfide to break down the protein bonds of the hair.

The depilatory hair removal process takes about five to 10 minutes to work, depending on the thickness of hair and manufacturer's formula. Thicker hair takes longer to break down than finer hairs. The moisturizing or gentle versions tend to be on the longer side and the versions are made to be speedy. When the chemical reaction has completed its job, the hair can be easily wiped off with a warm towel at, or somewhat below, the level of the skin.

The Pros

There are several benefits to using depilatory hair removal creams, and they typically are around speed, cost, and ease:

  1. 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.
  2. It's relatively inexpensive. Your local drugstore should have a variety of kits, creams, and sprays to choose from that should fit your budget and target area.
  1. 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

OK, so everything isn't peachy keen. When it comes to depilatories, there may be some funky scents, chemicals, and results involved:

  1. It has an odor. If you've used a depilatory before, you know that there can be a perm-like scent to it. It's not exactly pleasant, but not foul-smelling, either. Some smell worse than others, as some manufacturers add fragrances to try to cover over some of the scents. Unfortunately, these fragrances can also irritate the skin. The smell of the creams used to be more pungent in the past, so these days you can expect a light chemical smell, tropical scent, or no odor at all.
  2. They contain strong chemicals. You can really hurt your skin with a depilatory, especially if you leave the product on too long. The FDA's Office of Cosmetics says that they have received many reports of burns, blisters, stinging, itchy rashes, and skin peeling associated with depilatories and other types of cosmetic hair removers. Be careful and follow directions.
  3. Short-lived results. With these products, 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 days at best) depending on the hair's texture, the rate of growth, and color. 
  1. The dreaded 'shadow'. Immediately after removing hair, a shadow may appear underneath the skin. This isn't something new. Unfortunately, it's the same look that's often seen after shaving thick, dark hair. This happens because the hair hasn't been removed, but is still under the skin. If you don't like that, you'll have to remove it out of the follicle. Methods that do this include waxing, sugaring, epilating, and threading.

The Ouch Factor

A light tingling is normal while the depilatory is working. If you feel burning, your skin is either too sensitive, you're allergic to one of the ingredients, or you have left it on too long. In any case, take it off immediately and apply cool water. The hair is a much better look than red and scabby skin. Not to mention, an irritation can lead to​ having dry and tight skin.

Plus, if you have a little bit of hair left, you can always shave it.

Depilatory hair removal products range in various price points. The lower end will get you a simple product, whereas the higher end will get you a spray-on version or a kit.