How do Hair Removal Creams Work?

Hair Structure

In order to understand how hair removal creams, commonly known as depilatories, work you need to have an idea of how hair is made up.

Keratin, the name given to the protein in the hair, is its main component (65% - 95%) and is what gives it structure and toughness. 

Keratin can also be found in human nails, as well as in the teeth and outer layer of skin.

Internal structure of hair - the cortex contains the keratin

There are different types of keratin, some termed "soft" and some "hard" and it is the hard keratins that are found in hair fiber.

They are insoluble in water and very resistant to deterioration and the effects of proteolytic enzymes (a group of enzymes that break proteins down in the body).

This is because the sulfur containing amino acid cysteine is a significant element of the keratin in hair.

The sulfur in keratin proteins fuses to form disulfide bonds (or bridges) which are very strong and hard to break down, even impervious to the effects of most acids.

They can, however, be broken by the effects of alkali solutions.

Effect of Depilatory Cream on Hair

Hair removal creams include among their ingredients such chemicals as calcium thioglycolate, sodium thioglycolate or potassium thioglycolate.

These act to break down the disulfide bridges, thus weakening the hair's structure to the extent that it can be wiped away.

The depilatory cream penetrates to just below the skin's surface, so the results of using them last a little longer than shaving and gives a nice smooth finish to your skin.

As previously mentioned, the outer layer of your skin also contains keratin, which is why it is important not to leave hair removal creams on for longer than recommended, as it may well cause irritation or damage.

What are the Side Effects?

The most common side effects are mild skin irritation, itching and/or redness, all of which are very transient and you may or may not experience them.

It is important not to leave the cream on longer than the recommended maximum time or you run the risk of chemical skin burns.  and remove it if you feel anything more than a very slight tingling sensation.

Check the ingredients carefully to make sure that you are not known to be allergic to any of them, and always carry out a patch test on a small area prior to use, following the instructions.

Bear in mind that it is possible to develop an allergic reaction to a chemical even when you have used it before and been fine, so ideally you should carry out a patch test every time you use the product.

In reality I am sure that most of us don't do this beyond the first time, even though it is recommended.  Therefore be aware of any change in your skin's reaction and remove the cream immediately with copious amounts of water if you feel unusual irritation.

Where to use Depilatory Creams

You can use depilatories for most parts of the body, but not for eyebrows or anywhere near them; for obvious reasons - the last thing you want is to risk such strong chemicals getting into your eyes.

They are most commonly used for male back, chest, arms and leg hair and for female underarms, legs, bikini line and face (upper lip, chin etc.).  

Male Back

Depilatories are not suitable for the scalp, ear or nose hair, for genital hair, other than the bikini line nor for male facial hair.  I would recommend that you wear an old pair of panties when treating the bikini line to ensure that you only get the cream in the right place.

There are different creams specially formulated for various parts, depending on the sensitivity of the skin, so be sure to buy a suitable one for the area you want to treat and follow all the recommended precautions carefully.

There are also creams meant specifically for men and male body hair, as men's hair tends to be thicker and coarser, requiring a stronger formula.

Depilatory creams are not suitable for treating hairy moles - the best way I have found to get rid of hair from moles is to tweeze them individually.

It is advised not to sunbathe for at least 24 hours before or after using depilatory cream and certainly not if your skin is sunburnt, broken or irritated.

If you have any kind of skin disorder, diabetes or circulation problems you should seek medical advice prior to using depilatory cream.

Our Tips for Using Depilatory Creams

  • Exfoliation - exfoliating regularly between hair removal sessions stops the build up of dead skin cells that can block your hair follicles and lead to ingrown hairs. Don't exfoliate immediately before you use depilatory cream, but the day before would be ideal.
  • Correct Cream - remember to choose the correct cream for the area you want to treat and your skin type e.g. if you have sensitive skin.
  • Skin Test - check the ingredients in the cream if you have any known skin allergies and always carry out a patch test first, at least 24 hours prior to using it.  Even if you don't have an immediate reaction, it is important to wait and make sure, particularly if you are treating large or very sensitive areas.
  • Application - apply depilatories in a thickish, even layer, making sure all the hair to be treated is well covered, but don't rub it into the skin.  You can use your fingers or the spatula if supplied, and wash your hands thoroughly immediately after applying.
  • Timing - only leave the cream on for as long as necessary and never for longer than the recommended maximum time.  Check a small area after the recommended minimum time to see if hair comes away easily and if it does, remove it all.  If not, leave on for a few more minutes and try again.
  • Removal - the best way is to use a damp flannel to wipe away the cream and hair. Don't do this by rubbing hard, but by gently wiping the skin.  Then you can rinse the area thoroughly with cool water and pat it dry.
  • After Treatment - ideally you should not use cosmetics, deodorants, perfume etc. on the newly treated skin for 24 hours, so it is best done in the evening when you are not planning to go out. 

Pros and Cons of Hair Removal Creams

Pros of Depilatory Creams
  • Easy DIY - no skill required so easy to do at home yourself
  • Pain free
  • No Ingrowns - no risk of ingrown hairs experienced by other methods such as shaving, waxing etc.
  • Relatively inexpensive - no costly visits to a professional salon

Cons of Depilatory Creams
  • Short Lived Results - you will need to retreat hair regularly 
  • Ongoing Cost - continual purchase of more products, as well as the need to purchase different creams for different areas of the body
  • Reaction - risk of allergic reaction 
  • Messy - can be a bit messy and time consuming
  • Limited - not suitable for certain areas where chemicals might cause harm e.g. near eyes or for ear/ nose hair

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: