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How Depilatories Work and Why They Smell so Bad

By HERWriter
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Even though shaving is one of the most common hair removal methods, certain areas of the body can become irritated from the scrape of a razor. Some women have turned to other choices such as using depilatories to prevent those bumps and rashes in places like the bikini area. Depilatories have actually been around for centuries in various forms in the pursuit of our age-old quest to remove unwanted hair.

In the 1800s, women used depilatories made from concoctions of mixed chopped oak and white wine or walnut oil, celandine roots and distilled water. Cream depilatories began being sold in the 1920s to 1930s under various patents. In 1940, Nair came on the scene, invented by Dr. Kenneth Nair, and depilatories then became increasingly popular and have remained so today.

How depilatories work:

Depilatories work by penetrating the hair shaft and dissolving the protein bonds that hold the hair together, allowing the hair to separate easily from the skin. The two active ingredients typically used are either sodium or calcium thioglycolate, which are alkaline chemicals that can cause burns if left on the skin too long. Depilatory hair removal is supposed to keep an area hair free for up to 4 to 5 days, which is a little longer than shaving.

Why they smell:

That rotten-egg smell, which no amount of fragrance seems to obliterate, is caused from the thioglycoate (which contains sulfur) as it is exposed to air or rubbed on the skin. Some odor may also be due to the chemical reaction that breaks apart the sulfur bonds within the keratin (protein) in the hair.

Precautions when using depilatories:

The protein composition of our skin is similar to that of hair, so if depilatories are left on the skin too long, they can create irritation from prolonged contact. Depilatories should be removed from the skin after between 5 to 15 minutes depending on the type and coarseness of the hair you want to remove. Read the directions closely on the container to determine the length of time. Never use depilatories around the eyes to remove eyebrow hair or on inflamed or broken skin.

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I know, you do have to be willing to smell that smell to use them! I would imagine the ones that are formulated for different areas may have more buffering or maybe they are less strong for use on sensitive areas. I have only used depilatory for my bikini area, but maybe they add other skin soothers for the face.

October 5, 2009 - 2:17pm
HERWriter Guide

Thanks Michele!

They DO stink, don't they?! I never knew why until I read your article, it's good to know. I don't use them anymore but I think they work very well- the only problem is you need to let hair grow out somewhat, for them to be effective, and I don't like to let that happen.

I have wondered if the different formulas for different body parts are a rip off, in order to achieve higher sales due to multiple formula purchases but I'm sure facial hair is far different to underarms and legs etc, so it makes sense.

October 5, 2009 - 1:41pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.