How does hair removal cream work and how does laser hair removal work?

The science of hair removal: How do lasers, lotions and hair removal creams actually work?

9th June 2020 | Author: Abigail Beall

Getting rid of unwanted hair is annoying at best and painful at worst.

Shaving is likely the easiest and most accessible option, but anyone who has shaved their nether regions or legs will know that shaving burn is not pleasant, and the regrowth causes its own prickly problems. 

Waxing is one of the fastest methods of hair removal, but it’s also painful. Especially when you’re trying to do it yourself when salons are closed. 

READ NEXT: Best hair removal cream UK

Then there are creams that promise to dissolve the hair, machines that use lasers to destroy the follicle, and do not get us started on epilators…

To help you choose the best hair removal option for you, we’ve looked into the science of each major type. We also recently selected what we consider to be the best hair removal creams, if that’s the route you opt for. 

We should also mention that we equally support anyone who wants to just let their hair grow. Hair removal and the concept of beauty linked to bare skin is a social construct and hairy bodies are just as beautiful as those which are fuzz-free, so you do you! There is no judgement here. 

How does hair removal work?

How does hair removal work?Getty Images/iStockphoto

To understand the science of hair removal, it helps to understand how hair grows.

Hair is made up of old cells fused together. It starts to grow underneath the surface of your scalp and breaks through the skin via follicles.

These follicles contain glands that produce sebum – the oily substance responsible for making your skin or hair feel greasy – and the shape and size of your follicle determines whether you’ll have curly or straight hair.

Almost all skin has hair follicles, except the palm of your hands, your lips and the soles of your feet.

This is why looking after your scalp, as opposed to treating just the dead hair, is the key to making your hair grow faster or stemming the tide of hair loss

You can read more in our guide on how to make hair grow faster and stronger

The science of shaving

The way shaving works is relatively simple. A blade cuts off the hair from the point at which it exits the skin, leaving the root in place.

This is a quick, simple hair removal technique – not to mention cheap – but it doesn’t last very long.

Shaved hair can grow back quickly – usually within 24 hours – because it doesn’t have to be built up from the root again. What’s more, because you’re rubbing a razor against your skin, it can cause irritation, ingrown hairs, cuts and razor burns. 

Using a particularly sharp blade can help reduce irritation, because it reduces the amount of pulling needed to get the blade through the hair.

Meanwhile, using a lubricant such as shaving cream increases the surface area the blades can cut through, and hydrated skin lengthens the hair, meaning shaving will remove more of it.

The science of waxing

When you wax your skin, the goal is to pull it out from the root. This means it takes longer to grow back than if it has been shaved, but also explains why it hurts more. A wax can last for three to six weeks, depending on your own rate of hair growth, and waxing tends to make the hair grow back finer.

However, waxing does not always lead to hairs being pulled out from the root and, depending on the direction the wax is pulled, it can cause hairs to break above or below the skin’s surface. 

As a result, waxing can lead to ingrown hairs. This happens when the hair growing back doesn’t manage to break the surface of the skin and instead grows underneath, or it manages to break through but then grows back through the skin.

This can cause inflamed red bumps. To avoid this, make sure to exfoliate and moisturise, and try a product like an ingrown hair solution after waxing. 

How do epilators work?

Epilation, like waxing, involves pulling hair out from the root, but unlike waxing it is done using a machine that traps the hairs by spinning rapidly. It’s like plucking out every hair individually, but much faster.

As you can imagine, this makes epilation painful and we only recommend using an epilator on large, exposed areas like your legs. We do not recommend using epilation on your armpits or bikini line…trust us on this one! 

Just like waxing, epilating reduces the thickness of hair and if done over a long period of time it can lead to reduced hair growth. The same issues of ingrown hairs can occur with epilating, so make sure to look after your skin by exfoliating and moisturising.

How does hair removal cream work?

Depilatory creams, or hair removal creams, work by breaking down the structure of your hair and dissolving it, eventually making them so weak they break off. 

These creams contain strong alkaline substances designed to break down a protein called keratin, which is the key structural protein in hair.

According to Veet, one of the most famous hair removal cream companies, hair removal creams should last longer than shaving, up to four days, because the creams dissolve hair below the skin.

If you decide to try a hair removal cream, it’s important to test it on a small patch of skin for 24 hours before you apply it to the whole area.

How does laser hair removal work?

Laser hair removal works using intense bursts of a particular wavelength of light, which is absorbed into the skin and destroys the hair follicle while the hair is in its active phase of growth.

“I would always suggest the best hair removal technique for the skin is laser hair removal therapy,” Dr Rekha Tailor, former GP and skin expert told mamabella.

“The heat energy from the laser destroys the hair follicle, while reducing blood circulation to the hair follicle making this extremely effective. But crucially for the skin, there is no damage at all to the surrounding tissues.”

Laser hair removal can be an expensive process – around £300 for three sessions, charged per body part – and usually takes at least three sessions to stop hair growth.

The other thing to consider is laser hair removal is permanent, which might sound like a great thing now but it’s important to think about whether you really want that hair gone for your entire life.

For example, pubic hair actually serves a function – it traps pathogens that might otherwise enter your body. This means having no pubic hair could make someone more susceptible to common infections including urinary tract infections (UTIs), and yeast infections.

How does IPL hair removal work? 

Easy to confuse with laser hair removal, IPL stands for intense pulsed light to remove hair. As its name suggests, it uses light (like a laser) to penetrate the pigment in the hair. This light turns to heat which then kills the growing cells that make the hair. 

Unlike laser hair removal, though, this light is less intense, covering a wider spectrum of wavelengths, compared to the single wavelength of laser light.

Laser treatment also penetrates further beneath the surface of the skin, offering a more targeted approach. As a result, IPL will require a greater number of top ups before it permanently removes hair but it’s safer to use at home, via IPL machines. 

In a 2015 study, researchers looked at both hair removal methods and found after three treatments, hair density was decreased by 58% with laser treatment, and by 49% after using IPL. They cost similar as well. In the UK, IPL machines average at around £300. 


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