The Best Hair Removal Treatments For Every Skin Tone
There isn’t a universal standard for getting rid of unwanted hair just yet, so here is how to determine which treatment is best for you.
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Want to be hair-free in all the right places? Join the club. But the issue with hair removal is that skin tone and hair color often play a defining role in the treatments that you are or are not a candidate for. What’s suitable for some skin and hair can be downright disastrous for others. So, what are the best hair removal options, and, more importantly, who are they safe for? Consider this your ultimate guide to hair removal from head to toe.
Why Skin Tone Matters
For a very long time, the most reliable and accessible way to get rid of unwelcome hair was to remove it at the surface level by shaving or to remove it at the root level with depilatory cream, says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board certified dermatologist in New York City. “Razors physically cut the hair at the surface of the skin, while depilatories dissolve the bonds that hold the hair together,” he explains. But, with the advent of laser hair removal, all of that changed. More recently, we have seen faster, less painful, and safer laser hair removal devices, notes Sejal Shah, MD, a NYC-based board certified dermatologist.
While laser hair removal was a godsend for some, it was a no-go for many. Dermatologists instructed patients at either end of the Fitzpatrick skin type scale (both fair and dark) to avoid the treatment. The reason: If there aren't significant differences between the color of the hair and the color of the skin, the laser can’t distinguish between the two and there is an increased risk of burns. Patients with darker skin are also more likely to develop hyperpigmentation, so it’s crucial to be extra careful treating those with Fitzpatrick skin types III to VI, notes Snehal Amin, MD, a board certified dermatologist in NYC. “This issue is relevant even when applying non-light-based therapies,” he adds.
In fact, all hair removal methods may cause inflammation, which occurs in the skin due to trauma. Inflammation can lead to hard-to-get rid-of dark spots and splotches. “It can be from trauma to the skin from a tweezer, nicks in the skin from a razor, or a chemical burn from a depilatory," shares Dr. Zeichner, who recommends waiting to pluck a hair until there is at least one millimeter of hair growth. “Otherwise, plucking often means damage to the skin as you try to dig for the hair,” he cautions.
The Quest for Smooth, Hairless Skin
While it may seem like the options for getting fuzz-free are endless, all of the methods on the market actually fall into one of four buckets:
- Cutting the hair
- Dissolving the hair
- Physically extracting the hair
- Destroying the hair
Picking the right treatment depends on skin color and how much time, maintenance, and money you dedicate to being hairless. Quick fixes — like shaving, depilatories, tweezing, and threading — are great for those who want accessibility and little to no downtime. The tradeoff, however, is that the results are temporary. “Patients who want long-term hair reduction can get lasers, IPL, or even electrolysis,” says Dr. Amin.
Of course, nearly all hair removal methods come with potential side effects for all skin tones. They include inflammation of the hair follicles, irritation, folliculitis, and ingrown hairs. “After removing the hair, the new hair that starts to grow — despite being smaller — gets caught under the skin because the hair follicle opening is closed up,” Dr. Amin says of ingrowns. To prevent them and any irritation, exfoliate regularly and follow up with a moisturizer to keep the skin soft.
The Best Ways to Get Fuzz-Free
Here, a complete breakdown of every type of hair removal available — from quick, cheap, and temporary to longer-lasting with more commitment — to choose from today.
- Best For: Large areas like the legs & armpits
- Safe For: All Skin Tones
- How It Works: This quick, affordable hair removal method removes the hair at the surface and not deep within the follicle like other methods. Since shaving cuts the hair, it’s a fast fix that requires just some water, shaving cream, and a razor.
What Else You Need to Know: Shaving is a common culprit of ingrown hairs, which can be painful and unsightly. Worse yet, if ingrowns become infected, they can take on the appearance of a pimple with the need for professional extraction. To prevent ingrown hairs, apply a post-shave product, like Alchimie Forever Skin Repair Gel, which features soothing rosemary and turmeric to reduce inflammation and calm post-shaving razor burn. If bumps and blemishes persist, you may want to consider a longer-lasting solution, like laser hair removal.
Regardless of your hair and skin color, the debate on whether or not shaving makes the hair grow back thicker and faster still exists (even among experts). “That is a myth,” Dr. Zeichner says. As he explains, “cutting the hair at a blunt angle makes the thick edge visible as the hair grows back in.” But not everyone agrees. “I think that shaving makes hair grow back thicker,” says Hibba Kapil of Hibba Beauty Studios. “The only time we suggest shaving is when it’s in between laser hair removal appointments.”
- Best For: The legs, bikini area, arms, eyebrows, & upper lip
- Safe For: All Skin Tones
- How It Works: One of the more inexpensive and reliable forms of hair removal, hot wax is spread across the skin (in the direction of the hair’s natural growth pattern). Then, a muslin or fabric strip adheres to the wax and, once cool, is quickly lifted off the skin.
What Else You Need to Know: According to Kapil, for waxing to successfully remove hair, the hair needs to be long enough — at least a quarter of an inch. “If the hair is too short, it will break,” she adds. Because it removes the entire hair, it leaves the skin feeling super smooth and soft, but ingrown hairs are common after waxing. This is especially true when the hair breaks and the skin grows back over the follicle or when the hair grows back into the skin. Exfoliating before and in the days after your wax can help prevent wax-related ingrown hairs.
If you wax anywhere on your face, like the upper lip or the eyebrows, avoid using retinol and retinoids for at least a few days before your waxing appointment. “Retinol increases skin cell turnover and can medically irritate the skin,” Dr. Amin warns. Also, avoid Brazilian waxing appointments around your period. The treatment may be a little more painful at that time of the month, since the area tends to be more sensitive.
- Best For: Peach fuzz on the face, near the eyebrows
- Safe For: All skin tones, but darker skin should proceed with caution
- How It Works: This hair removal treatment (at-home devices are also available) permanently destroys hair via a probe that the technician inserts into the skin. “The electric tip physically burns the root,” Dr. Zeichner says. Then, radio or current energy halts the hair growth process and causes hairs currently in the growth phase to fall out.
What Else You Need to Know: Electrolysis is still around, but it’s not as popular as it once was due to other hair removal options coming to the forefront. Unlike lasers, which require caution when it comes to skin tone, electrolysis — it has a sting or prick-like feeling to it with some heat — is more inclusive. It attacks the hair follicle itself as opposed to the pigment in the hair. Although electrolysis is safe to use on all skin tones, Dr. Amin does caution that patients with darker skin may have temporary dark spots on the skin after treatment that fade over time.
At-home epilators aren't the same as professional versions, nor do they offer the same long-lasting benefit. When done professionally, the hair-diminishing effects of electrolysis are said to be relatively permanent (in fact, it’s the only treatment recognized by the United States Food and Drug Administration for permanent hair removal). Even so, multiple sessions (sometimes upwards of 15 or more) are needed to target the hair during the different stages of growth.
Another word of warning: Don’t wax, tweeze, or shave hair before electrolysis. This can bend or break the follicle, making the treatment more difficult.
- Best For: Isolated hairs in the eyebrows & other small areas that require precision
- Safe For: All Skin Tones
- How It Works: The metal tip of the tweezers grabs the hair to pull it out in its entirety from the hair follicle. The results last anywhere from three to six weeks.
What Else You Need to Know: Not all tweezers are created equal. Some tweezers, like Anastasia Beverly Hills Tweezers, have an angle, whereas others, such as Tweezerman Pink Perfection Point Tweezer, are super sharp for a more precise grab. Regardless of which style you choose, make sure your tweezers are not dull or flimsy, which can make the process of removing even a single hair downright cumbersome. The goal is to swiftly remove the hair, not dig for it under the skin and cause damage or scarring.
Tweezing is great for maintenance. You can do it in-between appointments to eliminate stray hairs. But, if you’re not well versed in hair removal and shaping (especially when it comes to the eyebrows!) leave it to the experts — it’s easy to go overboard and wind up removing more than you probably want. Also, tweezing just-showered or steamed skin can make the process a little more comfortable since the heat softens the skin.
- Best For: Any body part, including the toes, stomach, legs, & lower back
- Safe For: All Skin Tones
- How It Works: Sugaring uses a paste of sugar, lemon, and water — no strips in sight. The paste is molded into the hair follicle in the opposite direction of growth and flicked or removed in the direction of growth. “The application and chemical makeup of the sugaring paste allow the hair to slide out of the follicle with little disruption to the skin,” says Tami Blake, founder of Sweet & True Sugaring, adding that it is not applied hot like wax, so it will not burn or irritate the skin.
What Else You Need to Know: Even though sugaring is an ancient form of hair removal, it has evolved. Sugaring yields smoother skin, slower regrowth, and eliminates the potential for ingrown hairs. “You’re able to extract shorter hairs than with waxing because the water solubility of the product allows it to sink into the follicle to extract the hair successfully,” Blake says. It’s also safe for sensitive skin. Blake, who recommends sugaring over waxing due to its gentleness, says that at-home sugaring is harder than it looks, yet you can use different techniques like sticks, strips, or tools to aid the process.
6. DEPILATORY CREAM
- Best For: Body hair on the legs, arms, & bikini area
- Safe For: All Skin Tones
- How It Works: This cream- or lotion-based hair remover physically dissolves the protein bonds of hair that live above the skin's surface for short-term benefits.
What Else You Need to Know: Generally, depilatories aren’t the best option for sensitive skin, as they can cause irritations, dermatitis, redness, and reactions (though some, like Nad’s Sensitive Hair Removal Cream, are made for sensitive and easily irritated skin). On the flip side, the results are quick, with no risk of burns or ingrown hairs like there is with shaving or even waxing. Remember, these formulas are chemical-based, so you’ll want to avoid using them on any open orifice.
Depilatory creams are fast, easy-to-use, convenient, painless, and affordable (they do, however, smell like chemicals). Plus, they tend to make the hair grow back softer and finer because the hair obtains a tapered edge instead of more of a blunt one, like with shaving. But, since they don’t penetrate the skin down to the follicle, the root remains intact and the growth process does not stop. Additionally, because the remaining base and bulb of the hair still live under the skin, a dark spot or shadow may appear after removing the hairs. These creams may also cause the skin to be more sensitive to the sun, so sunscreen is a must on any exposed areas.
- Best For: The eyebrows, sides of the face, & upper lip
- Safe For: All Skin Tones
- How It Works: This long-standing hair removal method from India uses ordinary thread to remove select hairs by twisting them into the thread and lifting the hair out of the follicle.
What Else You Need to Know: Kapil calls threading a universal solution. “It doesn't matter what skin tone you are,” she says. “Threading will always give impeccable, clean, beautiful brows and a clean facial hair removal.” For those with sensitive or dry skin, threading is often a go-to since it doesn’t necessitate hot wax, which can irritate the skin. And, like other hair removal methods that remove the hair from the follicle, the results last about a month.
- Best For: Eliminating peach fuzz & fine hairs from the entire face
- Safe For: All Skin Tones
- How It Works: Though dermaplaning is often billed as face shaving, it is different in that it removes both dead skin cells and peach fuzz via a dermaplaning blade, which is not exactly like a razor. Regardless, it is both quick and efficient.
What Else You Need to Know: Dermaplaning tools are smaller, thinner, and more ergonomic than razors because they are intended for a woman's delicate skin, says Jenny Patinkin, a celebrity makeup artist and founder of her eponymous beauty line. An added benefit? Using very light pressure to remove the vellus hair (a.k.a. peach fuzz), the treatment is a form of gentle exfoliation. It creates less of a barrier to exist between the skin and your skincare products, so they absorb deeper and work better.
Like most beauty treatments, an aesthetician can perform the painless treatment with a small scalpel for optimal precision. DIY options also exist (a few faves include the Jill Razor, Jenny Patinkin's Pure Luxury Smoothing Trio, and Dermaflash LUXE Anti-Aging Dermaplaning Exfoliation Device) and leave the skin looking glowy — save for a bit of redness — and feeling baby smooth.
Patinkin cautions that those with acne should dermaplane with care. Also, make sure to only remove peach fuzz and not thicker, darker hairs on the chin, as those are usually specific to either ethnicity or menopause. “I recommend plucking those so that you can remove the root from the follicle,” she says. “It will take longer to grow back in.”
- Best For: Diminishing hair on the face & body from head to toe
- Safe For: Some Skin Tones
- How It Works: Lasers emit a beam of light that converts to heat. The heat selectively absorbs pigment in the root of the hair to destroy the root itself. “This gives permanent hair reduction,” Dr. Zeichner adds.
What Else You Need to Know: Perhaps the most notable advancement in laser hair removal is the development of devices that work across almost all skin colors and types. “Traditionally, the only way to remove hair with a laser was on dark hair and light skin, but the latest generation of lasers allow us to safely treat patients with darker skin tones as well as those with lighter hair,” Dr. Zeichner explains. Nd: YAG lasers are more compatible with darker skin tones, whereas ruby and alexandrite lasers work only on lighter skin. Since there is no pigment in white hair, lasers are still not reliable for removing this hair color.
Light-based treatments, like the alexandrite laser and intense pulsed light (IPL), remove hair by heating it within the follicle and damaging the hair stem cells at the base of the follicle so that no hair grows within that follicle, Dr. Amin says. Lighter hair will not absorb the light and generates little heat, but, “if the hair is dark, it absorbs a lot of light and results in more heat generation,” he notes. Additionally, if the skin covering the hair follicle is dark, “it can block the laser from reaching the hair follicle, which is deep in the skin,” Dr. Amin explains, adding that proper skin cooling with a spray of frozen air can reduce heat generation. The worst-case scenario occurs when dark skin absorbs all the laser light and heats up excessively, resulting in what is essentially a superficial burn.
In the past, laser hair removal was not considered a safe and appropriate treatment for darker skin types because of the risk of burns and discoloration. Now, most individuals with darker skin can opt for laser hair removal with certain precautions in place. “It is important to use laser wavelengths that are safe for darker skin because any pigment, including skin pigment, can absorb laser energy,” Dr. Shah shares. “So, there is a higher risk of adverse events.” Lasers, like the Nd: YAG, that use longer wavelengths help lower the risk of pigmentation becaue melanin absorbs more light than hemoglobin does. “These longer wavelengths penetrate deeper to preferentially target the pigment in the hair follicle rather than the pigment in the skin,” she adds.
Although ‘laser hair removal’ is the terminology that both consumers and industry experts call the technology, it is a bit misleading. “It really should be called laser hair reduction,” Dr. Zeichner says. “The laser targets pigment in the root of the hair to selectively destroy it, but, unfortunately, we cannot guarantee that we can completely remove all hairs.” The treatment does, however, reduce the thickness of each hair and the number of hairs in any one area. The results take time, and three and eight treatments (spaced every four to six weeks) are usually necessary to begin. From there, maintenance sessions may be needed.
At-home laser hair removal devices work a little differently than in-office lasers. Yes, they use the same technology, but the energy emitted is significantly less than their professional counterparts. These types of devices, like CurrentBody JOVS and RoseSkinCo IPL Laser Hair Removal Handset, work well for touch-ups in between treatments or for those who prefer to do treatments in the privacy of their home. “They tend to work on a narrow range of hair and skin colors,” Dr. Shah cautions. “The ideal candidate is one with light skin and dark hair — darker skin is better off with an in-office laser.”
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