Hair removal, also known as epilation or depilation, is the deliberate removal of body hair.
Hair typically grows all over the human body. Hair can become more visible during and after puberty and men tend to have thicker, more visible body hair than women. Both men and women have visible hair on the head, eyebrows, eyelashes, armpits, pubic region, arms, and legs; men also have thicker hair on their face, abdomen, back and chest. Hair does not generally grow on the lips, the underside of the hands or feet or on certain areas of the genitalia.
Forms of hair removal are practised for various and mostly cultural, sexual, medical or religious reasons. Forms of hair removal have been practised in almost all human cultures since at least the Neolithic era. The methods used to remove hair have varied in different times and regions, but shaving is the most common method.
Cultural and sexual aspects
Each culture of human society has developed social norms relating to the presence or absence of body hair, which has changed from one time to another. Different standards can apply to females and males. People whose hair falls outside a culture's aesthetic standards may experience real or perceived social acceptance problems. For example, for women in several societies, exposure in public of body hair other than head hair, eyelashes and eyebrows is generally considered to be unaesthetic, unattractive and embarrassing. In Middle Eastern societies, removal of the female body hair has been considered proper hygiene, necessitated by local customs, for many centuries.
With the increased popularity in many countries of women wearing shorter dresses and swimsuits during the 20th century and the consequential exposure of parts of the body on which hair is commonly found, there has been an increase in the practice of women removing unwanted body hair, such as on legs, underarms and elsewhere. In the United States, for example, the vast majority of women regularly shave their legs and armpits, while roughly half also shave their bikini lines.
People may also remove some or all of their pubic hair for aesthetic or sexual reasons. However, some women in Western cultures choose not to remove hair from their bodies, either as a preference or as an act of defiance against what they regard to be an oppressive ritual.
Many men in Western cultures shave their facial hair, so only a minority of men have a beard, even though fast-growing facial hair must be shaved daily to achieve a clean-shaven or hairless look. Some men shave because they cannot grow a "full" beard (generally defined as an even density from cheeks to neck), because their beard color is different from their scalp hair color, or because their facial hair grows in many directions, making a groomed look difficult. Some men shave because their beards are very coarse, causing itchiness and irritation. Some men grow a beard or moustache from time to time to change their appearance.
Some men shave their heads, either as a fashion statement, because they find a shaved head preferable to the appearance of male pattern baldness, or in order to attain enhanced cooling of the skull – particularly for people suffering from hyperhidrosis. A much smaller number of Western women also shave their heads, often as a fashion or political statement.
Within the gay, bi and straight male cultures, some men are known to eliminate or trim pubic hair, a practice that is referred to as being a part of manscaping (portmanteau expression for male-specific landscaping). This custom can be motivated by reasons of potentially increased cleanliness and hygiene, heightened enjoyment during fellatio and analingus, and/or the desire to take on a more youthful appearance.
Some women also shave their heads for cultural or social reasons. In India, tradition required widows in some sections of the society to shave their heads as part of being ostracized (see widowhood in Hinduism). The outlawed custom is still infrequently encountered mostly in rural areas. The society at large and the government are working to end the practice of ostracizing widows. In addition, it continues to be common practice for men to shave their heads prior to embarking on a pilgrimage.
Head-shaving is a part of some Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jain and Hindu traditions. Buddhist and Christian monks generally undergo some form of head-shaving or tonsure during their induction into monastic life; in Thailand monks shave their eyebrows as well. Brahmin children have their heads ritualistically shaved before beginning school. The Amish religion forbids men from having mustaches, as they are associated with the military.
In some parts of the Theravada Buddhist world, it is common practice to shave the heads of children. Weak or sickly children are often left with a small topknot of hair, to gauge their health and mark them for special treatment. When health improves, the lock is cut off.
In Judaism, there is no obligation to remove hair; nor is there a general prohibition to removing hair. However, there is a prohibition for men using a razor to shave their beards or sideburns; and, by custom, neither men nor women may cut their hair or shave during a 30-day mourning period after the death of an immediate family member.
The Bahá'í Faith recommends against complete and long-term head-shaving outside of medical purposes. It is not currently practiced as a law, contingent upon future decision by the Universal House of Justice, its highest governing body. Sikhs take an even stronger stance, opposing all forms of hair removal. One of the "Five Ks" of Sikhism is Kesh, meaning "hair". To Sikhs, the maintenance and management of long hair is a manifestation of one's piety.
Muslim law (Sharia): It is recommended to keep (the beard), and that which is the object of recommendation (foot, hand, back, and chest hair). A Muslim may trim or cut hair on head. The hairs on the chest and the back may be removed. In the 9th century, the use of chemical depilatories for women was introduced by Ziryab in Al-Andalus. Muslims are legislated by the Sunnah to remove under arm hair and pubic hair on a weekly basis; not doing after a 40-day period is considered sinful in the Sharia.
Ancient Egyptian priests also shaved or depilated all over daily, so as to present a "pure" body before the images of the gods.
The body hair of surgical patients may be removed before surgery. In the past this may have been achieved by shaving, but that is now considered counter-productive, so clippers or chemical depilatories may be used instead. The shaving of hair has sometimes been used in attempts to eradicate lice or to minimize body odor due to accumulation of odor-causing micro-organisms in hair. Some people with trichiasis find it medically necessary to remove ingrown eyelashes. Shaving against the grain can often cause ingrown hairs.
Many forms of cancer require chemotherapy, which often causes severe and irregular hair loss. For this reason, it is common for cancer patients to shave their heads even before starting chemotherapy.
In the military
A close-cropped or completely shaven haircut is common in military organizations. In field environments, soldiers are susceptible to infestation of lice, ticks, and fleas. In addition short hair is also more difficult for an enemy to grab hold of in hand-to-hand combat, and short hair makes fitting gas masks and helmets easier.
The practice serves to cultivate a group oriented environment through the process of removing exterior signs of individuality. In many militaries head-shaving is mandatory for males when beginning their training. However, even after the initial recruitment phase, when head-shaving is no longer required, many soldiers maintain a completely or partially shaven hairstyle (such as a "high and tight", "flattop" or "buzz cut") for personal convenience and an exterior symbol of military solidarity. Head-shaving is not required and is often not allowed of females in military service, although they must have their hair cut or tied to regulation length.
Armies may also require males to maintain clean-shaven faces as facial hair can prevent an air-tight seal between the face and breathing or safety equipment, such as a pilot's oxygen mask, a diver's mask, or a soldier's gas mask.
It is a common practice for professional footballers (soccer) and road cyclists to remove leg hair for a number of reasons. In the case of a crash or tackle, the absence of the leg hair means the injuries (usually road rash or scarring) can be cleaned up more efficiently, and treatment is not impeded. Professional cyclists as well as Professional Footballers (soccer) also receive regular leg massages, and the absence of hair reduces the friction and increases their comfort and effectiveness.
It is also common for professional swimmers to shave hair off their legs, arms, and torsos, to reduce drag and provide a heightened 'feel' for the water by removing the exterior layer of skin along with the body hair. Some professional soccer players also shave their legs. One of the reasons is that they are required to wear shin guards and in case of a skin rash the affected area can be treated more efficiently.
In some situations, people's hair is shaved as a punishment or a form of humiliation. After World War II, head-shaving was a common punishment in France, the Netherlands, and Norway for women who had collaborated with the Nazis during the occupation, and, in particular, for women who had sexual relations with an occupying soldier.
In the United States, during the Vietnam War, conservative students would sometimes attack student radicals or "hippies" by shaving beards or cutting long hair. One notorious incident occurred at Stanford University, when unruly fraternity members grabbed Resistance founder (and student-body president) David Harris, cut off his long hair, and shaved his beard.
During European witch-hunts of the Medieval and Early Modern periods, alleged witches were stripped naked and their entire body shaved to discover the so-called witches' marks. The discovery of witches' marks was then used as evidence in trials.
Head shaving during present times is also used as a form of payment for challenges or dares lost involving the removal of all body hair.
Inmates have their head shaved upon entry at certain prisons.
Forms of hair removal
Depilation is the removal of the part of the hair above the surface of the skin. The most common form of depilation is shaving or trimming. Another option is the use of chemical depilatories, which work by breaking the disulfide bonds that link the protein chains that give hair its strength.
Epilation is the removal of the entire hair, including the part below the skin. Methods include waxing, sugaring, epilation devices, lasers, threading, intense pulsed light or electrology. Hair is also sometimes removed by plucking with tweezers.
Hair removal methods
Many products in the market have proven fraudulent. Many other products exaggerate the results or ease of use.
Temporary removal of hair to the level of the skin lasts several hours to several days and can be achieved by
- Shaving or trimming (manually or with electric shavers)
- Depilatories (creams or "shaving powders" which chemically dissolve hair)
- Friction (rough surfaces used to buff away hair)
"Epilation", or removal of the entire hair from the root, lasts several days to several weeks and may be achieved by
- Tweezing (hairs are tweezed, or pulled out, with tweezers or with fingers)
- Waxing (a hot or cold layer is applied and then removed with porous strips)
- Sugaring (hair is removed by applying a sticky paste to the skin in the direction of hair growth and then peeling off with a porous strip)
- Threading (also called fatlah or khite in Arabic, or band in Persian) in which a twisted thread catches hairs as it is rolled across the skin
- Epilators (mechanical devices that rapidly grasp hairs and pull them out).
- Powder (weakens the root ends of hair and halts hair production).
- Use of thanaka powder along with kusuma oil.
- Drugs that directly attack hair growth or inhibit the development of new hair cells. Hair growth will become less and less until it finally stops; normal depilation/epilation will be performed until that time. Hair growth will return to normal if use of product is discontinued. Products include the following:
- The pharmaceutical drug Vaniqa, with the active ingredient eflornithine hydrochloride, inhibits the enzyme ornithine decarboxylase, preventing new hair cells from producing putrescine for stabilizing their DNA.
- Antiandrogens, including spironolactone, cyproterone acetate, flutamide, bicalutamide, and finasteride, can be used to reduce or eliminate unwanted body hair, such as in the treatment of hirsutism. Although effective for reducing body hair, antiandrogens have little effect on facial hair. However, slight effectiveness may be observed, such as some reduction in density/coverage and slower growth. Antiandrogens will also prevent further development of facial hair, despite only minimally affecting that which is already there. With the exception of 5α-reductase inhibitors such as finasteride and dutasteride, antiandrogens are contraindicated in men due to the risk of feminizing side effects such as gynecomastia as well as other adverse reactions (e.g., infertility), and are generally only used in women for cosmetic/hair-reduction purposes.
Permanent hair removal
For over 130 years, electrology has been in use in the United States. It is approved by the FDA. This technique permanently destroys germ cells responsible for hair growth by way of insertion of a fine probe in the hair follicle and the application of a current adjusted to each hair type and treatment area. Electrology is the only permanent hair removal method recognized by the FDA.
Permanent hair reduction
- Laser hair removal (lasers and laser diodes): Laser hair removal technology became widespread in the US and many other countries from the 1990s onwards. It has been approved in the United States by the FDA since 1997. With this technology, light is directed at the hair and is absorbed by dark pigment, resulting in the destruction of the hair follicle. This painless laser hair removal method sometimes becomes permanent after several sessions. The number of sessions needed depends upon the amount and type of hair being removed. Equipment for performing laser hair removal at home has become available in recent years.
- Intense pulsed light (IPL)
- Diode epilation (high energy LEDs but not laser diodes)
Clinical comparisons of effectiveness
A 2006 review article in the journal "Lasers in Medical Science" compared intense pulsed light (IPL) and both alexandrite and diode lasers. The review found no statistical difference in effectiveness, but a higher incidence of side effects with diode laser based treatment. Hair reduction after 6 months was reported as 68.75% for alexandrite lasers, 71.71% for diode lasers, and 66.96% for IPL. Side effects were reported as 9.5% for alexandrite lasers, 28.9% for diode lasers, and 15.3% for IPL. All side effects were found to be temporary and even pigmentation changes returned to normal within 6 months.
Experimental or banned methods
- Photodynamic therapy for hair removal (experimental)
- X-ray hair removal is an efficient, and usually permanent, hair removal method, but also causes severe health problems, occasional disfigurement, and even death. It is illegal in the United States.
Many methods have been proposed or sold over the years without published clinical proof they can work as claimed.
- Electric tweezers
- Transdermal electrolysis
- Transcutaneous hair removal
- Microwave Hair Removal
- Foods and Dietary supplements
- non-prescription topical preparations (also called "hair inhibitors", "hair retardants", or "hair growth inhibitors")
Advantages and disadvantages
There are several disadvantages to many of these hair removal methods.
Hair removal can cause some issues: skin inflammation, minor burns, lesions, scarring, ingrown hairs, bumps, and infected hair follicles.
Some removal methods are not permanent, can cause medical problems and permanent damage, or have very high costs. Some of these methods are still in the testing phase and have not been clinically proven.
One issue that can be considered an advantage or a disadvantage depending upon an individual's viewpoint, is that removing hair has the effect of removing information about the individual's hair growth patterns due to genetic predisposition, illness, androgen levels (such as from pubertal hormonal imbalances or drug side effects), and/or gender status.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Hair removal.|
- Laser Facts (US Food and Drug Administration)
- American Academy of Dermatology, Public Resource Center, Laser Hair Removal
- American Society for Dermatologic Surgery: search for: "Laser Hair Removal Fact Sheet"