What is Depilatory Cream?

J.S. Metzker Erdemir

Depilatory cream is a product that is used to remove hair. Most depilatory creams contain a slightly caustic mixture of chemicals that dissolve hair down to the skin's surface, and sometimes to slightly below the surface. Removing hair with a depilatory cream is relatively fast and painless for most people.

Depilatory creams make it possible to wipe hair away.
Depilatory creams make it possible to wipe hair away.

The use of depilatory cream to remove hair is a centuries-old practice. Ancient depilatory creams often contained dangerous ingredients such as arsenic or quicklime. Some older preparations were quite exotic, with ingredients including wine, powdered snake, and animal fats.

Follow depilatory cream application instructions carefully.
Follow depilatory cream application instructions carefully.

Modern depilatory cream usually is usually made of a mixture of strongly alkaline chemicals. Common ingredients include calcium thioglycolate or potassium thioglycolate. The chemicals react with a protein in the hair called keratin. The reaction weakens the hair, allowing it to be rinsed, wiped, or scraped away. Older depilatory creams often gave off a bad smell, but newer creams have a milder scent and fragrances are generally used to mask the odor.

Depilatory cream is generally used to remove hair from larger areas of the body and places where the skin is thicker, such as the legs and under the arms. It tends to be more effective on fine hair than on thicker hair. Areas with thinner skin such as the face or bikini line are more prone to irritation and burning, so specially-formulated creams have been developed for those uses. Depilatory cream should never be used on or near the genitals, inside the nose, or on the breasts.

Test a small area of skin about 24 hours before using the cream. Put a small patch of cream on a hidden area, wait the amount of time prescribed on the container and rinse it off. Monitor the patch test to check for irritation. While some redness is normal, do not use the cream if there is burning or if the skin has a strong reaction to it.

To use the cream, spread a thick, even layer over the skin. Some products may come with an applicator stick while others have an application nozzle. Hands should never be used to apply the cream. Leave it on the skin for as long as it says on the package, but never leave it for longer. Remove the cream as directed, usually by rubbing it off gently with a washcloth, rinsing it with warm water, or scraping it with a blade-less razor-like tool that some brands come with.

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