How Do Depilatories Work?

by Gio
how depilatory creams work

I’m definitely a shaver, but I’ve dabbled in depilatory creams sometimes. As much as I love the ease and convenience of shaving, it’s a chore I have to do every day. Depilatory creams promise to keep my legs hair-free for 4 or 5 days, so, of course, I gave them a try.

Unfortunately, they never worked that well for me. I never seem to get a close shave with them, and, maybe because of that, my hair start growing back the next day. Plus, depilatory creams are more time-consuming – you have to apply them, wait for them to do their thing, and take them off.

So, I went back to shaving. But, I remained curious about them. What is it about them that makes hair fall off? How do depilatory creams work, basically? Let’s investigate:

What Are Depilatory Creams?

Depilatory creams can come in liquid or cream form. Their job is to remove unwanted hair from the body. But, they can only remove hair from the surface of the skin, or just very little below it – not from the hair follicle. That’s why the results last 4 or 5 days at most.

How Do Depilatory Creams Work?

Depilatory creams are made up of three main groups of ingredients:


Depilatory creams contain either calcium or potassium thioglycolate, two chemicals that dissolve the bonds of keratin, the protein hair is made of (of course, keratin can be found even in the skin and nails). When these bonds become loose, hair becomes so soft, it breaks off when you remove the cream from your skin.


These creams usually also contain calcium hydroxide, which increases the pH of the formula and helps thioglycolate better penetrate the hair, so the cream can do its job more easily. Sodium hydroxide does the same thing, but it’s used less often because because it’s harsher than calcium hydroxide.


Some of these creams also contain moisturizing ingredients that keep skin stay soft and smooth while the hair is being removed. Even so, any form of hair removal can irritate skin, so it’s always best to apply a moisturizer afterwards.

Do Depilatory Creams Have Any Side Effects?

I’m afraid so. Depilatory creams can cause:

  • Allergic reactions
  • Burns
  • Discolourations
  • Irritations

Some of the ingredients in the them can be pretty harsh (I mean, they have to dissolve keratin bonds, so they can’t be too gentle), so they can cause problems, especially if your skin is sensitive.

That’s why I recommend you do a patch test first. Try a small amount of the cream on a tiny area, like your wrist. If something nasty happens, and you experience a negative reaction, wash the cream off your skin IMMEDIATELY.

Do you use depilatory creams? Share your experience in the comments below.



Anastasia July 15, 2009 - 1:31 pm

I tried a Veet hair removal cream once. I got panicky about whether I’d left it on long enough or not, when my leg started to tingle, I washed it off too early, I think, since it didn’t do a whole lot. =S
.-= Anastasia´s last blog ..EOTD: Guild Wars – Warrior Character =-.

Danielle July 15, 2009 - 2:23 pm

I’ve used several different types of Nair, but I still prefer to shave since it smells a whole lot less and it’s faster. Although Nair makes me smoother, it takes too long, it smells, and I get burned in the bikini area of I apply it wrong! Ack! I’ve heard of a plastic device that you can insert into the ahem, area, which is supposed to reduce burns.

beautifulwithbrains July 15, 2009 - 3:30 pm

Anastasia: tingling is not a good sign! You should wash it off immediately if start doing that. I bought a Veet cream once but when I did the patch test, my skin was all red and tingly and now I stay well clear of that brand. But when I use other brands, I always leave the cream on a couple of minutes more than necessary or they just do nothing otherwise 🙁

Danielle: I prefer shaving too, I hate having to wait before removing the cream and the smell isn’t always nice. Plus some of the cream’s side effects can be nasty.
I had never heard of such a device but I don’t think I’d be as ahem adveturous to try it. I’d rather stick to razors instead.

Dao July 15, 2009 - 4:31 pm

I used Nair but it stinks to high heaven! For those who have sensitive skin, it can burn but for those who have really thick coarse hair, depilatories are greater than shaving, I guess.
.-= Dao´s last blog ..Daybreak Aeval FOTD =-.

Anastasia July 16, 2009 - 12:41 am

I’m allergic to a lot of things like, sun tan lotion, spray-on-tan etc, so it might be that. A doctor suggested I was allergic to lanolin but I’ve used products since with lanolin in with no problem. Weird.

I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to tingle, so I guess I panicked. Shaving seems so much easier, and cheaper.

Best thing about having a boyfriend overseas is not having to worry so much!
.-= Anastasia´s last blog ..EOTD: Guild Wars – Warrior Character =-.

Anastacia (MyMakeUpMania) July 16, 2009 - 12:44 am

I used this Veet Depilatore and I do not like it, it smeel very hard Brrr and shaving legs and…. best way for me at least 😛
.-= Anastacia (MyMakeUpMania)´s last blog ..The Dark Side Of Me =-.

beautifulwithbrains July 16, 2009 - 12:28 pm

Dao: shaving is not the best and most recommended hair removal method and if you can, you should explore other options, but it’s the quickest and works really well so I guess it’ll always be popular. With depilatories, patch tests are alwyas necessary cos some of the chemicals are quite harsh, esp for sensitive skin.

Anastasia: Lanolin can cause negative reactions, but I think if you were allergic to it then all products containing it would cause a reaction. Maybe it was the way lanolin reacted to another ingredient in the formula or maybe that produts contained a higher concentration than most other product and that’s what triggered the reaction?
I hate trying new depilatories cos some give me negative reactions and others don’t. So I usually stick to depilzero, not the best on the market but I never had allergies yet.
I prefer shaving too, it’s easier, faster and you don’t have to worry about burns or allergies. Just use a moisturizer afterwards to diminish the irritation and you’re good to go.

Anastacia: seems like most people don’t like Veet. I tried one of their depilatories once and it gave me a negative reactions so I don’t dare try more from them. You’re right, shaving is much better 🙂

Nicola July 17, 2009 - 5:10 am

im not keen on hair removing cream smell.. usually reeks!! i avoid it these days!
.-= Nicola´s last blog ..First Impression: Shiseido Tinted Moisturizer + what’s in my bag… =-.

beautifulwithbrains July 18, 2009 - 3:42 pm

I agree, Nicola, the smell can be really awful!

Comments are closed.