In ancient times, females removed unwanted hair by applying arsenic (4000 BC), plucking with clam shells (3500 BC) and singeing with fire (400 BC). Nero's wife (4-68 AD) is said to have use a hair remover containing lye, pitch, powdered viper and bat blood.
Even though far better options are available today, most methods do not permanently remove hair. This is because treatments, other than electrolysis, have no effect on the growth of hair. Also, not all hairs are removed in a single treatment since they don't grow at the same time.
So how does hair grow?
The growth of hair is cyclic and begins with hair cells developing below the surface of the skin in a saclike structure known as follicles.
During growth (anagen phase), the cells divide and form a hair shaft which emerges from the skin's surface. Eventually growth stops (telogen phase), and the entire hair structure rests for a period of time. Once growth resumes, the old hair shaft is ejected and a new shaft is formed in the follicles.
Did You Know?
At any given time, about 65% of the upper lip hairs are in the growth phase. The remainder stop growing for about 6 weeks. Hairs that are in the growth phase are most sensitive to treatment, regardless of the method used.
Methods for Removing Facial Hair
The following is a summary and my rating of the different ways facial hair can be removed:
- Shaving (one star): Fast and cheap, but not recommended for female facial hair since the blunt ends of the hair have a coarse appearance. Side effects may include razor burns, nicks and ingrown hairs. Lasts 1-3 days.
- Plucking (one star): Inexpensive but time-consuming. Painful and can damage the skin. Lasts 2-8 weeks.
- Deplilatory creams (two stars): A gentle method that dissolves the hair shaft. Messy and may cause a rash or inflammation. Lasts up to 2 weeks.
- Waxing (three stars): A popular and relatively inexpensive treatment. Can be painful and may cause temporary redness, inflammation and bumps. Lasts 2-8 weeks.
- Laser (4 stars): Expensive. Works best on light-skinned females with dark hairs. Can cause inflammation and redness. Lasts at least 3 months.
- Electrolysis (5 stars): Electric current destroys the lower follicle. Expensive. Side effects may include inflammation (temporary) and scarring. Lasts permanently (depending on method and operator).
- Eflornithine (5 stars): A topical cream (sold as Vaniqa) applied twice daily. Expensive. Slows growth by inhibiting enzymes involved in the division of hair cells. Used with any of the above treatments. Lasts up to 8 weeks after applications stop.
Did You Know?
Eflornithine was originally developed to treat African sleeping sickness.
A Few Words about Excess Facial Hair
We have two kinds of hair on our body: 1) vellus hair, which is pale, fine and silky; and 2) terminal hair, which is darker, coarser and larger.
Facial hair that is considered to be undesirable or abnormal in females is often referred to as unwanted facial hair (UFH). UFH is a common condition and is often the result of ethnic and hereditary factors. It can also be due to a hormonal imbalance.
Did You Know?
Almost one-quarter of females have UFH growth on the upper lip and chin area. UFH in females can be categorized as either hirsutism (conversion of vellus hair into coarse male-like terminal hair) or hypertrichosis (excessive growth of vellum or terminal hair). Hirutism is triggered by androgens (a type of sex hormone) whereas hypertrichosis is usually an inherited condition.
Did You Know?
Hirsutism affects 5-15% of women.
The Final Word...
Although we may think of female facial hair as being unusual, it normally isn't linked to a health problem. But there are some cases where hirsutism may be the result of an underlying medical disorder. If you have any concerns, your family doctor can advise you based on your medical history and some simple blood tests.
- Part 1 - Pathogenesis and causes (pdf)
- Part 2: Hair removal and pharmacologic treatment (pdf)
- Dawber, R.P.R. 2005. Guidance for the management of hirsutism. Curr. Med. Res. Opin. 21(8): 1227—1234.
- Peterkin, Allan D. 2001. One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair. Arsenal Pulp Press. Vancouver, BC. 227 pages
- Shenenberger, D.W., and L.M. Utecht. 2002. Removal of unwanted facial hair. Amer. Fam. Hist. 66(10): 1907-1911.
- CRAM Science would like to thank Dr. Stan Megraw for his help and expertise in answering this question. Stan is a writer/researcher specializing in science, technology and medicine. He has more than 30 years experience as contributing author for research institutes, universities, government agencies and non-profit organizations.