Are Hair Removal Creams Safe to Use?

How Depilatories Work

Hair removal creams, also known as depilatories, consist of a mix of chemicals that combine to break down the keratin in hair so that it comes away easily.

Keratin is the protein in your hair that makes it tough, durable and insoluble in water to withstand the effects of life and the environment.

Keratin is difficult to weaken sufficiently to remove hair, even withstanding the effects of acids, however alkali solutions provide the key.

We have given more in-depth information about hair structure in our separate article about how depilatories work.

Ingredients in Depilatory Creams

Common active ingredients in hair removal creams include the salts of thioglycolic acid e.g. potassium thioglycolate or calcium thioglycolate, together with calcium, sodium, or potassium hydroxide.

It is these which, in combination, adjust the pH levels and break down the keratin to facilitate the hair removal process.

In addition to these active ingredients, you are likely to see a combination of dilutants, moisturizers, fragrances and various other non-active chemicals listed.

The dilutant, which may simply be water, is obviously necessary to weaken the strength of the active ingredients, so that they are not too damaging to the skin. Then the moisturizer helps to combat the drying nature of the ingredients, soothing the skin and leaving it soft and smooth.

One of the most off-putting aspects of using depilatory creams has always been the offensive, strong, acrid smell caused by the sulfur in the ingredients which is released during the process.  

Manufacturers have worked hard over the years to counteract the offensive smell, hence the inclusion of various fragrances etc. designed to mask them.  This has certainly made an improvement in the smell of many of the products available now, if not entirely eliminated it.

So Are Hair Removal Creams Safe?

The short answer is yes, generally they are considered safe, but there are a few proviso's to the statement:

  • Choose Correctly -  you should always use depilatory creams for the purpose for which they are intended.  Choose a cream that is recommended for the area you wish to treat and to suit your skin.  If you have sensitive skin, choose a depilatory which states it is suitable for sensitive skin.  If you are a female wishing to remove facial hair, don't use a cream recommended for legs or arms.
  • Check Ingredients - if you have any known allergies check the list of ingredients to make sure that you will not provoke an allergic reaction.
  • Safe Use - you should always read and follow all safety measures given in the guidance provided with the product.  Pay particular attention to any exclusions on medical grounds or skin suitability.  Apply cream to the skin thickly and evenly, covering all hairs to be removed, but do not rub it in.
  • Skin Test - make sure to perform the recommended skin test on a small area, at least 24 hours (or longer if recommended) prior to using for a full treatment.  You need to do this every time you use a depilatory cream, even if you have used it before and had no adverse effects.  It is possible to develop allergic reaction to the ingredients at any time, in the same way as you can develop hay fever at any time during your life.
  • Timing - it is very important that you don't leave the cream on for longer than the recommended maximum time as it can cause serious chemical burns, blisters and irritation.  Therefore make sure that you keep accurate account of the time right from when the cream is applied.
  • Frequency - unlike shaving, you should not use depilatory creams too frequently.  you should expect to have to allow at least 72 hours between treatments.

What are the Side Effects of Depilatory Creams?

Assuming that you are not allergic to any of the ingredients in depilatory cream, most of the side effects are mild and short-lived and the majority of individuals will not experience any adverse effects at all.

It is possible that you may experience tenderness, very mild irritation or slight redness immediately after using them, but these effects should wear off within an hour or so.

Perform skin test to check for allergic reactions

However, if you leave the cream on for too long you do risk more serious repercussions in the form of severe chemical burns, blistering and skin discoloration.

This is because keratin is not only found in hair but also in the outer layer of human skin.  The active ingredients in hair removal cream breaks down the keratin in hair much quicker than that in the skin.

So, if the cream is left longer than required or if it is not washed off thoroughly it will start to break down the keratin in the skin, thus causing the damage.

When you Shouldn't Use Depilatory Cream

There are some medical conditions that preclude the use of depilatory creams.

It may be stating the obvious, but this applies to any skin complaint such as psoriasis, eczema etc.

In addition, if you have circulatory problems, diabetes or any condition where compromised skin may have an affect, you should seek medical advice before you consider using them.

Broken, irritated or sunburned skin should be given the chance to heal completely before treating with hair removal creams and you should wait at least 72 hours between treatments.

Depilatories are not suitable for the removal of hairs from moles or warts.

If you are taking any medication that might affect your skin's sensitivity you should avoid depilatories or seek medical advice prior to use.

Most importantly, don't be tempted for the sake of expediency to use these creams without carrying out a patch test first and make sure you read and follow any specific advice included with the product.


For the past 12 months, I have been testing and playing with all sorts of hair removal products for Hair Free Life. My goal is to provide the most accurate and up-to-date hair removal consumer information on the internet. When I'm not photographing, reviewing and researching hair removal products I play the drums in a samba band and am a volunteer for the Swindon Lions! Got any questions? Write to us below: