Unwanted facial and body hair can be difficult and painful to get rid of. Choose the right option for your skin type.
It isn't an easy thing to do. Many people shuffle up and down pharmacy aisles, and stare blankly at the dozens of hair removal products on display. Unfortunately the abundance of result-promising products and methods available only makes choosing the right one more difficult.
So what are the facts?
Shaving involves skimming the surface of the skin with a sharp blade or razor. This can either be done manually, or with an electric razor.
Whilst this method is quick, easy and relatively pain free, the results are generally short-lived.
"You’re literally just cutting the hair off at the skin," explains Miriza Case, a beauty therapist and educator at the Sandy Roy Beauty Therapy Institute in Rondebosch, Cape Town. "It’s still in the process of growing. So you’ll see signs of hair again within the next day."
Another downside of shaving is that it often leads to cuts, rashes and annoying ingrown hairs (hairs that grow back into the skin). Various moisturising and lubricating products are available to help minimise cuts and irritation; however, ingrown hairs are a problem for many men and women, particularly those with curly hair. This is because curly hair has more of a tendency to grow back towards the skin.
"If you shave with the hair growth you find there are fewer ingrown hairs, but then it won’t be a clean shave," advises Case.
Because shaving cuts hair off at the level of the skin and sharpens the hair tips, this method tends to be one of the leading causes of ingrown hairs. Apart from avoiding very close shaves, ensuring that hair follicles are not blocked by keratin (tough structural proteins) may also help prevent ingrown hairs and skin irritation. Case recommends regular exfoliation. "This will help the hair to come out of the hair follicle," she explains. Creams that lift trapped hairs are also available.
Whilst some experts recommend using an aftershave to soften the skin and prevent infection from cuts, not all aftershaves contain antiseptic agents.
"Often aftershave is just a moisturiser with a little bit of perfume," cautions Case. "If you have sensitive skin it’s best to stay away from the ones with perfume in them, because your skin may already be sensitised from shaving and the perfumes are usually alcohol based."
Depilatory creams or sprays contain chemical ingredients such as calcium thioglycolate. These chemicals break down the disulfide bonds that link the hairs’ protein chains, thereby dissolving the hairs.
This hair removal method takes longer than shaving, as the lotion (or spray) usually takes between 5 and 15 minutes to get to work. And if the product is left on for too long, the skin may become irritated and sensitive.
"Hair and skin are both made up of keratin, so if you leave it on for too long it starts dissolving the keratin in your skin. Then there can be some redness and irritation," says Case.
Whilst shaving and depilatory creams are short-term solutions that need to be repeated a few times a week, other longer-lasting options are available.
If your mantra is "no pain no gain" – waxing may be the best option for you. This method removes the hairs – roots and all.
"There are two different types: strip wax and hot wax," explains Case. "Strip wax is slightly cooler and you apply it in a thin layer and then remove it with a type of thin paper. Hot wax is much hotter, and you apply it to fairly small areas in a patch."
Whereas hot wax is more suitable for sensitive skins, strip wax is often used on larger areas, such as the legs.
According to Case, constant trauma to the hair follicle eventually causes the hair to become finer. And whilst waxing does take off the top layer of keratinised skin cells, you shouldn't let that put you off.
"The cells at the very top are not really living cells anymore," explains Case. "There’s no nucleus or organelles, just keratin – a bit like a piece of rubber."
Waxing can take anything from 15 to 45 minutes (depending on the size of the area) and results last for about a month.
The obvious downside of waxing is that the procedure can be fairly painful, especially if it’s your first time. What’s more, waxing can cause skin irritation.
"Hot waxing in particular can cause post-inflammatory hyper-pigmentation, meaning a dark discolouration of the skin," advises Dr Dagmar Whitaker, a dermatologist based in Kenilworth, Cape Town. People with darker skins are more prone to this problem, so consider your options carefully before opting for this route.
Like waxing, plucking removes the hair in its entirety. This can be done using a pair of tweezers, or alternatively, using an electrical device called an epilator. Epilators pull out multiple hairs at once making them more efficient for removing larger areas of hair.
Although plucking should remove the entire hair from the follicle, Case wouldn’t recommend epilators. "Sometimes they pull the hair out completely, sometimes the hair breaks off. So it increases your chances of getting in-grown hairs. Waxing is definitely a better option."
Although most people don’t own an epilator, many men and women tweeze individual hairs. Does this promote darker, coarser hair growth?
"No it can’t," asserts Case. "Only hormones have the ability to make a hair change from a dark hair into a light hair." Plucking won’t cause thicker hair growth, or increase hair numbers.
A fine needle is inserted into each hair follicle, which is then treated with an electrical charge. This charge kills or severely damages the hair follicle. After this, the hair is removed with tweezers.
Although permanent hair removal is not guaranteed, electrolysis is generally an effective long-term hair removal solution.
However, because each hair is treated individually, treating large areas can be time- consuming."Electrolysis works well in conjunction with laser," advises Case. "It also works well as a follow-up treatment, or if there are only a few hairs (to remove) on your eyebrow or on your chin."
Besides the time factor, Dr Whitaker warns that the procedure can be quite painful. She also cautions that some skins may be prone to hyper-pigmentation. "And sometimes tiny ‘pits’ would be a risk," she adds.
Another associated risk is scarring. This is particularly problematic for people who are prone to keloids (raised scars). "If you have keloid scars we often won’t do it, because the keloids are often worse than the hairs," explains Case.
Laser hair removal
Laser hair removal is often considered the most effective and "permanent" method of removing unwanted hair.
Melanin (a colour pigment) in the hair absorbs the beam of light emitted by the laser. This light energy is then transformed into heat energy, which destroys the hair and the root. Eventually, after a series of sessions, laser therapy severely retards hair growth, or stops it all together.
However, this option may not be suitable for all skin and hair types. "Again darker skin colours would be more prone to hyper-pigmentation," advises Dr Whitaker. "Scarring is rarely a problem unless the laser operator uses a setting too high for the skin type. But bear in mind laser hair removal works best for dark hair on a light skin. Blonde hair cannot be removed by laser."
Laser therapy is not usually considered a painful procedure, although men and women with low pain thresholds may beg to differ. If you are concerned about pain and discomfort, topical anaesthetic creams are available without prescription. These can be applied one or two hours before treatment, and will numb the area slightly, making the session more tolerable.
Another drawback to laser therapy is that it can be expensive. Most people undergo between six and ten laser sessions, and prices range from R100 to R5000 a session depending on the area treated.
Excess hair growth is caused by both hormonal and genetic factors. "If a woman has too many androgens, which are male type hormones, she will suffer from hirsutism, a male type hair growth," explains Dr Whitaker. Symptoms may include facial and chest hair, and even male-pattern balding.Although many men are bothered by unwanted body hair, excess hair growth is particularly distressing to women. Fortunately anti-androgen medications are available to counter hair growth. These hormonal pills can be prescribed by your doctor or dermatologist.
"For obvious reasons one would not prescribe an anti-Androgen to a male,” says Dr Whitaker. “That would equal a chemical castration. So there are no tablets available for males."
Products called hair-growth inhibitors are also available. These topical creams or sprays claim to prolong the effects of hair removal by slowing down the rate of hair growth.
A hair-growth inhibitor called Vaniqa contains the chemical eflornithine hydrochloride, which apparently inhibits an enzyme that affects hair growth. Vaniqa has been FDA-approved and is available on prescription for the treatment of women’s facial hair. However, there is no published clinical evidence to support that any of the similar over-the-counter brands are effective.
Unfortunately, Vaniqa has not been tested or approved for use by men. And because the product is relatively new, the side effects are not fully understood.
(Donna Steyn, Health24, February 2009)
(Sources: thehairfacts.com; hairlasers.com; Wikipedia; vaniqa.com)
Read more: Top 10 hair care myths