Depilation or Epilation – What’s the Difference?
Essentially, depilation and epilation mean the same thing in that they are both terms for the intentional removal of unwanted hair.
It is basically the process employed that makes the difference between the two:
What is Depilation?
Depilation is the removal of hair at the skin's surface by chemical or mechanical means.
Shaving is actually a method of depilation, although over the years the word has become widely used in relation to hair removal creams.
There is a common belief that shaving makes hair grow back thicker, however this is a complete myth and not borne out by the facts.
Shaving cuts the hair shaft at its widest point and this is what gives you the stubbly feeling regrowth and probably the impression that it is growing back thicker and darker.
The truth is that neither shaving nor using depilatories materially affects the growth of your hair in any way as the root is left completely undisturbed and intact.
When the term depilatories is used nowadays it is commonly recognised as referring to depilatory creams.
Depilatory creams act by breaking down the protein in the hair so that it weakens and dissolves and in a short time can be simply wiped away.
The results tend to last slightly longer than shaving as the hair dissolves just below the skin's surface, and regrowth appears more normal.
What is Epilation?
In contrast, epilation is the removal of hair from below the skin's surface, right from the root.
Epilation will have an effect on regrowth over time, because the continual trauma to the hair follicle caused by the hair being pulled out by the root will weaken it.
Gradually hair regrowth becomes visibly lighter and finer with regular treatments.
Probably the most common form of epilation, specially for eyebrows, tweezing is used to remove individual hairs by grasping them closely to the skin's surface and plucking them out.
Threading involves the use of thread rolled against the skin to trap hairs and pluck them out in the same way, but removing a few hairs at a time.
It is important to choose a good quality pair of tweezers that are well-aligned, sharp and well tensioned, such as Tweezerman tweezers.
We now have electrically powered tweezers with multiple sets of pincers that can pull several hairs out at once, which we know of as epilators. This is why the term epilating is commonly used to refer to the use of these electrical epilators.
Waxing involves the spreading of wax over the hairs so that it adheres strongly to them. When removed the wax takes the hair with it, from the root.
As the name suggests, sugaring uses a sugar based mixture to achieve the same result as waxing but tends to be a bit gentler on the skin.
Laser and IPL hair removal both involve the use of light energy to penetrate the dark pigment in your hair causing a reaction which damages the hair follicle.
This causes the hair to fall out, and regrowth to be finer, lighter and sparser.
There is a difference between the two in terms of technology which is fully explained in our separate post; How Does Laser Hair Removal differ from IPL?
Electrolysis is the only truly permanent hair removal method and requires a series of professional treatments by a qualified technician.
In a nutshell it involves the insertion of very fine needles into the hair follicles and the use of electrical current to disable the follicle and cause the hair to fall out.
Depilation vs Epilation - Which is Best?
The obvious advantage of depilation is that there is no pain involved, whereas the plucking of hair out from the root will always cause a level of discomfort.
Epilation has the advantage of longer lasting results.
However, which is the best method is not a simple question and will be determined by a number of factors:
If you have a very low pain threshold then you might find the thought of pulling hair out by the root rather alarming.
Personally I am not a fan of waxing, especially on sensitive areas such as underarms and bikini, although I have no problem tweezing my brows. For me, the slight sting of plucking hairs one at a time is eminently bearable.
However, you shouldn't necessarily be put off by that - lots of people opt for waxing all over the body and it is a very effective method of hair removal.
It is certainly true that, over time and with regular treatment, the pain of epilating by whatever method diminishes as your skin gets used to the process.
This is probably also due to the hair follicles being weakened and therefore relinquishing the hair more easily.
There is a distinct technique to waxing to achieve the best results and reduce the pain, and I would advise you to go to a salon, at least for the first time, rather than trying to DIY at home.
An epilator will give you similar results but more slowly, effectively prolonging the agony (so to speak) but can be easily used at home.
IPL and laser technology are different in that they don't actually pull the hair out, but the light used is intense and produces heat to damage the hair follicle. Pain levels can range from discomfort to painful, dependent on the individual.
If you don't fancy any of these, then shaving or depilatory creams offer a pain-free alternative, but the results are short-lived and you will need to repeat the process very regularly.
Area of the Body
The area of the body is a major factor in deciding which method is the best choice.
Eyebrow shaping is best achieved using tweezers, as they remove individual hairs one at a time and offer by far the most precise method.
However, if you have particularly bushy brows or brows that meet in the middle (monobrow) it can be useful to wax the excess first and then tidy up with the tweezers.
Female facial hair generally tends to be light and fine (peach fuzz), and for this you might find one of the small, facial electric shavers offers the quickest and most convenient method.
They are easily portable, attractive and discreet, resembling other cosmetic items such as lipstick or mascara.
Upper lip and chin hair can be coarser, so waxing or depilatory cream is a good choice as you don't get the stubbly regrowth associated with shaving. Do make sure that you choose products recommended for facial use.
Longer term results can be achieved using IPL or laser, but bear in mind that home devices are only for use from the cheekbones down, and not for eyebrows.
Underarms and Bikini Line
These are both areas where the skin is more sensitive and looser than other parts of the body, which may well affect your choice.
Shaving or depilatories are the obvious choice in terms of comfort, but waxing is also very popular.
I would advise visiting a salon and having the waxing procedure carried out by a professional, at least to start with.
Shaving is suitable for all areas of the body, is easy to master and you can cover large areas relatively quickly. There are shavers/razors and trimmers avaialble specifically designed to suit even hard to reach areas such as your back.
Depilatory creams are most often used for legs, but can be used for back and chest. Just bear in mind that you are using strong chemicals on large areas of the skin and the process will need to be carried out pretty regularly.
Waxing or using an epilator is quick and effective for large areas such as back, chest and legs, leaving the skin smooth and hair free for several weeks. Obviously waxing your own back is problematic, so you will need help or to visit a salon.
There is a technique with waxing, and it is important that you master it correctly to avoid skin damage, irritation and ingrown hairs.
You also need to bear in mind that the hair needs to reach a minimum length of ¼" for waxing (or epilating) to be effective and so will be visible for a short time.
IPL/Laser can cover large areas relatively quickly, depending on the model and spot size, and you can shave between treatments so hair never needs to be visible.
However, you will need time and patience, with ongoing treatments required to achieve good results.
If you have very sensitive skin it may limit your options.
All methods of hair removal can irritate sensitive skin, and it goes without saying that you will need to work out which products are suitable for you.
Always test a small area first to see how your skin reacts.
IPL hair removal is not suitable for darker skin tones and may not only be ineffective but can also damage the skin.
Shaving and depilatories can deal with any hair type, from peach fuzz to coarse.
Having said that, you will need to choose a depilatory recommended for thick, coarse hair if you need it.
Waxing and epilators require a certain amount of hair growth, as already mentioned, and is not the most effective way to remove fine, light peach fuzz.
IPL is most effective for darker hair colours and not suitable for fair, white, grey or red hair.
There are a number of medical conditions that may preclude certain hair removal methods.
It would be too lengthy to outline all of them here for each method of hair removal, just make sure to read all precautions and safety advice before proceeding and always seek medical advice if you are in any doubt whatsoever.
Time is a key consideration for most people, with busy work, family and social lives.
For some, it may be that a trip to the salon for professional hair removal fits in well, whereas for others being able to slot hair removal in with their daily routine works better.
Shaving, depilatories and epilators are all simple home hair removal methods that you can fit in when it suits you.
Waxing and IPL can be done at home or at a salon and electrolysis must be carried out by a professional.
Individual Preference and Expectations
In the end, individual preference is what it all boils down to, coupled with your expectation.
Do you want longer lasting results than depilation will give you, and is the pain of epilation therefore worth it, for the gain?