It’s almost summer in the Northern Hemisphere. Temperatures are rising, swimming pools are opening, and bare arms and legs are emerging from winter clothing.
For some people, the start of shorts-and-swimsuit season means it’s time to get rid of body hair. These sunseekers have an array of techniques to turn to: hair removal creams, waxing and sugaring, lasers, and even a good ol’ pair of tweezers. Knowing how the various options work might help you decide which one to use.
Getting rid of body hair is a billion-dollar industry and growing worldwide. But depilatories are nothing new. Evidence indicates that prehistoric cultures used stones and shark teeth as crude razors. Some ancient Egyptians removed hair with tweezers, razors, and pumice stones and ripped it out with wax or sugar pastes, leaving behind only their eyebrows.
Chemical removers have ancient roots too. People living 6,000 to 7,000 years ago in what is now Turkey used hair removal creams made with quicklime (calcium oxide). Likewise, American Indians applied lye to get rid of their body hair, a practice colonists adopted. Bases like lye and quicklime hydrolyze nitrogen-containing amide bonds in hair’s proteins, breaking bristles down. Drain-clog removers work the same way.
Not every historical hair removal tactic has survived, and for good reason. Inventor Albert C. Geyser successfully marketed a machine in the first half of the 20th century that could permanently remove hair with a dose of X-rays. It was quickly banned once the detrimental health effects of the radiation became apparent. A study in the 1970s attributed a full third of radiation-related cancers in women to devices like Geyser’s.
Today, the hair removal options available at home or at professional salons are safe and—depending on your tolerance—relatively painless.
Creams are a popular option for at-home removal. To understand how these work, you first have to understand hair. Hair is made of fibrous proteins called keratin, twisted like yarn or rope into long bundles. Keratin strands are cross-linked by covalent disulfide bonds and weaker hydrogen bonds. These are depilatory creams’ targets.
The active ingredients in brands Veet and Nair are salts of thioglycolic acid like potassium thioglycolate or calcium thioglycolate in combination with bases such as calcium, sodium, or potassium hydroxide. The bases serve two purposes. They cause the hair to swell, opening its keratin fibers to allow thioglycolate to penetrate. The bases also remove the proton on thioglycolate’s thiol group. Once thioglycolate’s proton leaves, its sulfur atom is free to attack the hair protein’s disulfide bonds. Break enough of those, and the hair degrades completely and can simply be wiped away.
Because of this mechanism of action, chemical hair removers are remarkably selective, studies have shown. Researchers tested Nair on thin, thick, and medium hair, and on cotton, rayon, and polyester fibers. All three strands of hair broke within 10 minutes, but the remover had no effect on the other fibers, none of which contain disulfide bonds.
Other experiments have shown that cream hair removers should have a pH between about 12.0 and 12.5 to make sure the products work quickly but aren’t so caustic that they burn the skin, which has a pH of 4.5–5.5. Dermatologist Meghan Feely says cream hair removers can cause chemical burns for some people. They should be used according to their directions to minimize risk.
Because these chemicals are so effective, the book is basically closed on finding new depilatory agents, says Heike Hanau, a marketing manager for Merck KGaA, which used to supply calcium thioglycolate for hair removers. But she says chemists are still working to improve depilatories’ smell. One by-product of thioglycolate’s reaction with disulfide bonds is hydrogen sulfide, which smells like rotten eggs.
Waxing is another common method for hair removal that can be done at home or by a professional in a salon. Wax, a mixture of lipids and long alkanes, can come from bees, plants, or petroleum products. The long alkyl chains make the wax a malleable solid at or just above room temperature. For hair removal, the wax is generally heated and spread across the skin. As it cools and hardens, it traps hairs, and when it’s yanked away, it pulls them out or breaks them off.
Sugaring has emerged in recent years as a trendy alternative to waxing. It works by the same principle: Spread a thick paste across the skin, then pull it off, along with some hairs. Sugaring wax, as it’s sometimes called, can be made at home with a recipe candy makers will recognize: Heat a mixture of water, table sugar, and lemon juice to about 120 °C until it turns golden brown, otherwise known as caramelization.
In this reaction, water hydrolyzes table sugar, known to chemists as sucrose, splitting it into glucose and fructose. The acid in lemon juice acts as a catalyst by protonating the oxygen that links sucrose’s two halves, encouraging addition of a hydroxyl group from water. The product, the mixture of hydroxylated glucose and fructose, is known as invert sugar in the food world, and it crystallizes at a higher temperature than sucrose alone, making for a spreadable wax.
Fans of sugaring typically offer two arguments for why it’s better than waxing. First, it allegedly penetrates more deeply into hair follicles for more complete removal. Society of Cosmetic Chemists President Perry Romanowski says there’s no evidence to support that claim. How well it works and how much it hurts mostly come down to the skill of the person pulling the hair, he says. The second claim is that the paste adheres only to dead skin cells, not live ones, reducing irritation when it’s yanked away. American University’s Matthew Hartings, who studies food chemistry and is also a member of C&EN’s advisory board, is doubtful. “I’ve got a lifetime of trying to clean caramel off my hands that calls shenanigans on that,” he says.
And then there are lasers, the newest entrant in the hair-removal game. Professionals train these instruments, tuned to an infrared wavelength absorbed by the pigment melanin, on the hair that needs removing. Melanin gives hair—as well as skin—its color. The absorption heats up the hair, frying it down to its roots beneath the skin. It works best on dark hair against light skin, but experiments have shown that neodymium-doped yttrium aluminum garnet lasers, which can focus more tightly than the diode lasers commonly used, can be effective on dark skin.
Hair-removing lasers require approval by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration before people can use them. Other hair-removing products may also if a bill introduced in the Senate becomes law. The Personal Care Products Safety Act would give FDA many of the same powers to regulate cosmetics that it currently has to regulate food. Companies would be required to disclose the ingredients in their products and give the agency jurisdiction to evaluate whether those ingredients are safe for people to use.
Because hair removal has a long history and most of the methods around today have been used for decades or millennia, depilatory methods are unlikely to change. Which product you prefer to remove a little hair here or there is probably less important than getting out there and enjoying summer.
CORRECTION: This story was updated on June 20, 2018, to correct marketing manager Heike Hanau’s affiliation. Hanau works at Merck KGaA, not Merck & Co.