Keeping the skin smooth and hair-free is for some a high priority of summer grooming. Many women, as well as some men, turn to skilled specialists at skin-care salons. But far more remove unwanted hair without professional help.
Shaving, the simplest means of removing hair, and the most popular, has one main drawback: the results are short-lived.
Tweezing lasts longer and works well on small areas, but is a slow, impractical and uncomfortable.
And electrolysis, the only permanent method of hair removal, is time-consuming and expensive for large areas.
That's why many turn to waxes and chemical depilatories, a market with sales of $55 million in 1990. These products, most of which cost less than $10, offer relatively long-lasting results anywhere from two to eight weeks.
And while the do-it-yourself job can be messy and calls for a certain amount of dexterity, what is more problematic is choosing the appropriate product from among the dozens on the store shelves.
Chemical depilatories and waxes each remove hair below the surface of the skin, but that's the only similarity between them. The depilatories, generally in cream or lotion form, are caustic compounds that work in the same way as permanent waves, but they go further. In 5 to 20 minutes, they break down the chemical bonds of the hair, reducing it to a soft jelly-like mass that can be wiped away. Because the hair is broken just below the skin surface, it grows back more slowly than it would if it were shaved, and the tips feel soft, not stubbly.
Waxing lasts longer because the entire hair is tugged out from the root. Cold or hot wax is smoothed onto the hair in the direction of hair growth. Then strips of paper or fabric are applied in the same direction as the hair growth onto the wax. Shortly afterward, the fabric is removed with some pain by pulling it in the opposite direction.
Which product should one pick? It depends on several factors: skin and hair type, the area of the body, tolerance for pain and dexterity.
The biggest advantage of chemical depilatories is that they are relatively painless. The disadvantages are that these products can be extremely irritating to the skin and can have a strong unpleasant odor.
Before a product is applied to the total area, it should be tested on a small patch of skin for allergic reactions. Even if there is no reaction to the test patch, it is important not to leave the product on the skin for longer than specified in the directions.
Some specialists disapprove of chemical depilatories altogether. "I don't do chemical surgery," said Lia Schorr, who operates a salon by the same name in Manhattan, referring to the damage these products can cause to the skin.
Those who have particularly sensitive skin and a history of allergies or eczema are best off avoiding chemical depilatories.
Other cautions: depilatories should not be used on broken or irritated skin, around the nipples, on mucous membranes or near the eyes. If hair is to be removed from the face, the product chosen should be made specifically for that area.
Those who choose to use a wax also face a number of products, each with its own advantages and drawbacks. Hot waxes are generally more effective than cold ones. These are heated some of the newest can be warmed in a microwave oven or on the stove then applied to the skin. Because hot waxes grip the hair better than cold waxes, they can clear an area more completely.
On the down side, unless the user has a certain degree of skill most waxes except those that come in a roll-on container can be messy to apply and awkward to remove. And, of course, hot waxes can get too hot and can burn the skin.
There are several types of cold waxes. These are applied straight from the tube and avoid the danger of burning the skin.
For non-professional use, cold waxes are generally found either in plastic tubes and can be squeezed onto a spatula for application, or they come in small sticky strips that are pressed onto the skin.
But by all accounts, none of the cold wax products is as effective as the hot waxes.