Depilatory Hair Removal Creams 101

Young woman applying cream at her legs
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The term depilatory actually means 'removing the hair'. But chemical products coming in cream, lotion, powder, gel, roll-on or spray forms that get rid of hair are often called depilatories. Most people, including myself, think of these specific type of products when they hear or see this word.

How Does it Work?

A strong, alkaline based product is placed on the unwanted hair and works until hair turns jelly-like.

These 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 ten minutes for it work, depending on the thickness of hair and manufacturer's formula. Thicker hair, of course, takes longer to break down than finer hairs. The moisturizing or gentle versions, tend to be on the longer side and the versions made to be speedy. When the chemical reaction has done its job, the hair can be easily wiped off with a warm towel at, or somewhat below, the level of the skin.

The Pros

  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. And while the product is doing its thing, you're free to do what you want. (Although I wouldn't recommend answering the door.)
  2. 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. Easy. Can you apply cream or use a spray nozzle? Then you can use a depilatory. There is no skill involved (learn more). Be sure to follow the directions and precautions on the bottle.

The Cons

  1. It has an odor (think perm smell). If you have used a depilatory, you know what I am talking about. It's not exactly pleasant but not really foul-smelling, more of a chemical scent. Although, I think some smell worse than others as some manufacturers add fragrances to try to cover over some of the scent. Unfortunately, these fragrances can also irritate the skin.
  1. They contain strong chemicals. You can really hurt your skin, especially if you leave the product on too long. The FDA's Office of Cosmetics says they have received many reports of burns, blisters, stinging, itchy rashes, and skin peeling associated with depilatories and other types of cosmetic hair removers.
  2. Short-lived results. The hair hasn't been removed from the root, only removed at or slightly below the skin's level. You will see hair above the skin surface the next day or in a couple days at best depending on the hair's texture, the rate of growth and color. 
  3. The dreaded 'shadow'. Immediately after removing hair, it may still be seen underneath the skin, creating what looks like some have described as a shadow. This isn't something new. It's the same look that's often seen after shaving thick, dark hair. It's because the hair hasn't been removed but is still under the skin. If you don't like that, then you'll have to remove it out of the follicle. Methods that do this are waxing, sugaring, epilating and threading.

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, scabby skin. Not to mention how it might feel dry, tight and irritated. If you have a little bit of hair left, you can always shave it.

Hair Removal Cream Costs

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