What to Know About Depilatory Creams

Medically Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on July 23, 2023
3 min read

People have been removing unwanted hair for centuries. Depilatory creams are a  modern way to do this, but hair removal dates back to ancient Egypt.

Many methods of removing unwanted body hair can be unpleasant: Waxing can be painful. Shaving can produce tiny nicks on your skin, causing soreness and irritation.

Fortunately, depilatory creams can offer pain-free hair removal that you can use at home.

These creams are thick substances that you spread on your skin.

After putting a depilatory cream on your skin, you have to leave it on for a few minutes to weaken each strand of hair. After this, you can wipe the cream off painlessly, leaving your soft and smooth. 

The main active ingredient in hair removal creams is thioglycolic acid. This thioglycolic acid is added in the form of various salts like potassium and calcium thioglycolates and also as pure thioglycolic acid. Together with other ingredients, these acids break down the keratin, a protein naturally in the hair.

You can use depilatory creams to remove hair on almost every area of your body. Some creams are specially made for sensitive places, like your face and bikini area. 

Your hair will grow back quickly after you remove it with a depilatory cream. New hair will usually appear within a few days.

Depilatory creams and shaving are both pain-free options for at-home hair removal. Both methods remove hair at the skin’s surface. 

Compared to shaving, depilatory creams don’t irritate the skin and leave fewer skin lesions or papules. The irritation from hair removal cream usually fades faster than the small nicks and cuts you may get from a blade.

Do a patch test. It’s important to make sure that your skin won’t react badly to a depilatory cream before you use it. Always test it on a small patch of your skin before you use any such cream on a large part of your body.

In general, if you feel a burning sensation while the cream is on, rinse it off with cool water immediately.

Make sure it’s the right one. Use a cream that indicates it can be used on the area of your unwanted hair. Some formulas are stronger than others and may be too harsh for sensitive areas. Don’t use it on any skin that’s irritated or damaged.

Time it. Most hair removal creams are meant to be left on anywhere from 3 to 10 minutes. Read the instructions on the packaging of your cream to find out exactly how long you need to leave it on.

Rinse it off. After the indicated time, wipe the cream off, and rinse your skin with cool water. It’s normal for the skin to feel sensitive at first. This feeling should go away within a few hours.

Aftercare. You can use a soothing cream afterward to relieve any irritation. If your skin is dry, use an unscented moisturizing cream on the area. Importantly, don’t use products that are perfumed.

Chemical burns. Depilatory creams use chemicals to melt the hair. This means there’s a possibility of you getting a chemical burn.

First-, second-, or third-degree burns can happen when hair removal cream is left on for an extended period of time. It’s most likely to happen in the groin area because the skin there is sensitive.

Chemical burns are painful and need medical attention. To prevent these, make sure you leave the cream on for the right amount of time and use it on the type of skin the cream is designed for.

If you feel any discomfort or burning when using depilatory creams, take the cream off right away and rinse your skin with cold water.

Smell. You may notice that depilatory creams have a specific smell, often described as rotten eggs. This is due to the chemical reaction between the cream and your hair. 

Manufacturers are trying to find a way to change the way hair removal cream smells. They also try to mask the odor by adding more pleasant ones.