I was 11 years old the first time I wore panty hose—and the first time I shaved my legs. For me, the two went hand in hand. While my girlfriends could pull on their suntan-colored L’eggs without disturbing the fine fuzz on their calves and thighs, I was so furry that hair bristled through the nylon. That first shave took a bathtub full of water, half a can of my dad’s shaving cream, and my mom’s reassurance that I wouldn’t bleed to death. But the results were worth the fuss—I couldn’t stop running my hands over my prickle-free legs or admiring their pale sheen.
Over the years, my pursuit to be less hirsute has extended not only to my underarms, eyebrows, upper lip, and bikini line, but also to less conventional areas like my chin and arms. I expanded my hair-removal tools to include depilatories—chemical creams that raze hair at the follicles—tweezers, waxes, and lasers.
But with each nicked ankle, Nair-induced breakout, and hundred-dollar aesthetician bill, I wondered, When it comes to body hair, is there a way to be natural without actually being au naturel? What are the safest, most effective—and healthiest—ways to remove hair? Here’s what dermatologists and aestheticians have to say.
Best for: Legs, underarms, or areas where you don’t mind visible stubble
How it works: Use a razor with two or three parallel blades—disposable razors aren’t sharp enough, says Neal Schultz, MD, a New York City cosmetic dermatologist. For less irritation, shave in the direction your hair grows (from knee to ankle, for instance). Schultz recommends shaving at the end of your shower, after the steam has softened your skin, washing the areas you’re going to shave to remove the oil and help the steam penetrate, and using a gel rather than a cream or soap to lessen friction. When you’ve finished shaving, pat your skin dry and apply a natural moisturizer. Change the razor blade after 10 to 15 shaves to keep it from wearing down and damaging your skin.
Pluses: Inexpensive; painless unless you nick yourself; can defuzz large areas quickly
Minuses: Stubble can appear in less than a day; sensitive areas like the bikini line can be prone to rashes.
Try: Preserve Recycled Triple Razor ($8.50; preserveproducts.com)
Best for: All parts of the body, though it can cause ingrown hairs
How it works: There are two types of wax: hard and soft. Hard wax is heated and then spread thickly over hair with a tongue depressor and pulled off by hand. Because it adheres to the hair rather than the skin, hard wax is gentler than soft wax, making it good for sensitive skin, says Katherine Goldman, an aesthetician and owner of Stript Wax Bar in Northern California. Hard wax is also effective on short or coarse hair like that at the bikini line and eyebrows, says Alley Laundry, an aesthetician with Parissa Labs, which makes natural waxing products.
Soft wax is also heated, but it’s spread thinly and removed with strips of fabric; it can also be applied to strips that you peel off like Band-Aids. Because it’s more spreadable and less expensive than hard wax, soft wax is the best choice for large areas like legs. Look for natural waxes made from soy or tree resin—honey-based waxes don’t remove hair as well, Goldman says. Added ingredients like titanium dioxide, chamomile, lavender, and aloe vera help soothe skin. Laundry says the proper technique—quickly ripping the wax off parallel to skin rather than yanking upward, which pulls skin—can reduce 90 percent of the pain. To preserve the oil barrier that protects the skin, don’t wash right before waxing. And avoid waxing at times when you’re retaining water—like before your period—because that makes skin more sensitive, Laundry says. Tea tree oil or azulene oil, which is distilled from Roman chamomile flowers, can reduce post-waxing irritation.
Pluses: Hard wax is very effective for small, tender areas. Soft wax can be done inexpensively at home; because it removes hair at the root, one waxing can last four to eight weeks.
Minuses: Hard wax can be, well, hard to use, requiring a pricey trip to an aesthetician; soft wax can be painful. Another potential problem: Waxing coarse or curly hairs—like those in the bikini area—may strip the lining of the hair shaft, Schultz says. Without that lining, new hair can’t pop straight up through the skin, causing ingrown hairs that create red bumps (see “Help for Ingrown Hairs,” below).
Try: Parissa Assorted Size Wax Strips ($12, 24 strips; parissa.com)
Best for: All parts of the body
How it works: Sugaring is basically another type of waxing. Dating back to ancient Egypt, sugaring uses a simple formula—sugar, water, and lemon juice—cooked into a taffylike consistency that sticks to hair. Spread it on with your fingers or a tongue depressor; pull it off with fabric strips.
Pluses: Easy to make at home; completely natural
Minuses: Same as waxing
Try: MOOM Organic Hair Removal Kit with Rose Essence ($20, 6 oz; moom.com)
Tweezing and epilators
Best for: All parts of the body
How they work: Like waxing, tweezers pull the hair out by the roots. Epilators (like Epilady or Braun Silk X’Elle Epilation Shaver) pluck hairs mechanically, covering larger areas than tweezers.
Pluses: Easy to do at home
Minuses: Can be painful; may cause infections and ingrown hairs. A decent epilator costs $20 to $150.
Best for: Eyebrows, face, fingers, arms, hands
How it works: This ancient Indian practice uses two cotton threads wound together with a gap in the middle that grips hair and pulls it out by the root. Skilled threaders can pull a couple hundred hairs at a time, says Shilpa Patel, an aesthetician at Shanti Medical Spa and Wellness Centers in Pennsylvania.
Pluses: Creates a precise, clean line for eyebrows; doesn’t pull skin like waxing or tweezing so it’s less painful; inexpensive—eyebrow threading usually costs $10, Patel says. Threading causes fewer ingrown hair than tweezing, shaving, or waxing.
Minuses: Labor intensive, so it takes a long time to do big areas. Also, because the technique is generally passed down from generation to
generation, if you don’t live in an area with a lot of Indian or Pakistani influence, skilled threaders can be difficult to find.
Best for: All parts of the body, but more cost effective for smaller areas like the face and underarms
How they work: Lasers remove hair by burning away its stem cells, says Cheryl Eberting, MD, a dermatologist in Alpine, Utah. Because hair grows in cycles, removing all hair may take four to eight treatments, with four to eight weeks between visits. And since lasers locate hairs by honing in on pigment, they zap only strands that are darker than your skin.
Pluses: Permanent hair removal; generally not as painful as waxing or tweezing; removes ingrown hairs
Minuses: Expensive—treatment is priced by how much hair needs to be removed, and prices vary widely. In Utah, Eberting might charge $2,000 for a complete series of laser treatments on both legs, whereas Schultz charges around $4,000 in Manhattan. Inexperienced laser operators can burn or scar skin—either get the treatment done by a dermatologist (laser training is part of board certification) or in a spa that has a dermatologist available.
Best for: Face or small areas like fingers and toes
How it works: Like lasers, electrolysis burns away hair’s stem cells, using needles to target individual hairs.
Pluses: Permanent removal; works on all hair colors
Minuses: Time and labor intensive; can dimple the skin around the hair follicle.
Help for Ingrown Hairs
If you’ve developed red bumps anywhere you wax or pluck, chances are you have ingrown hairs. Some people naturally suffer from ingrown hairs, particularly in the bikini area where hair tends to be curly, says Neal Schultz, MD, a New York City dermatologist, but yanking hair out at the root can also be a culprit. Waxing or plucking can strip the hair canal, pulling off the protective channel that guides hair up through the skin. “If the hair has any sort of curve, there’s a good chance it won’t break through the skin properly and will become ingrown,” Schultz explains. Laser hair removal is the best way to zap ingrown hairs, he says, but you can also shave instead of waxing (shaving with the grain of the hair minimizes ingrowns).