Hair removal

Hair removal
Sample distribution of body hair in women and men

Hair removal is the removal of body hair, and describes the methods used to achieve that result.

Hair typically grows all over the human body during and after puberty. Men tend to have more body hair than women. Both men and women tend to have hair on the head, eyebrows, eyelashes, armpits, pubic region and legs; and men also have hair on their face, abdomen, back and chest. Hair does not generally grow on the palms of the hands, the lips, certain areas of the genital structure, or the soles of the feet.[1]

Forms of hair removal are practised for a number of reasons, including cultural, sexual, medical and religious. Forms of hair removal have been practiced in almost all human cultures. The methods used to remove hair have varied in different times and regions, but shaving is the most common method.


Cultural and sexual aspects

Woman's underarm hair

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 males and females. People whose hair falls outside a culture's aesthetic standards may experience real or perceived social acceptance problems. For example, for women in several Western societies, exposure in public of body hair other than head hair, eyelashes and eyebrows is generally considered to be unaesthetic, undesirable and embarrassing.[2]

With the increased popularity in many countries of shorter dresses and swimsuits during the 20th century and the consequential exposure of parts of the body on which body hair is commonly found, there has been an increase in the practice of removing unwanted body hair, such as on legs, underarms and elsewhere.[3] 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.[4]

People may also remove some or all of their pubic hair for aesthetic or sexual reasons.[5] 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. On the contrary, in some Eastern cultures (e.g.: Eastern Turkish and Iranian) a display of a beard is considered to be a display of wisdom. 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.

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.[6] In addition, it continues to be common practice for men and women to shave their heads prior to embarking on a pilgrimage.

Other reasons

Religious reasons

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 ordination; in Thailand monks shave their eyebrows as well. Brahmin children have their heads ritualistically shaved before beginning school.

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 Sikh "Five Ks" is Kesh, meaning "uncut hair". To Sikhs, the maintenance and management of long hair is a manifestation of one's piety.

Muslim law (Sharia) puts hair in three categories: that which it is recommended to remove (pubic and armpit hair) and trim mustache. It is recommended to keep (the beard), and that which is the object of limited recommendation (foot, hand, back, and chest hair). Removal of armpit and pubic hair is a hygienic practice[citation needed] which was taught by the Islamic prophet Muhammad and which was enumerated as having been part of practices conforming to man's premortal (Fitrah) nature practiced by all prophets of God. A Muslim may trim or cut hair on head. The hairs on the chest and the back but may be removed. In the 9th century, the use of chemical depilatories for women was introduced by Ziryab in Al-Andalus.[7]

Ancient Egyptian priests also shaved or depilated all over daily, so as to present a "pure" body before the images of the gods.

Medical reasons

Body hair on an unusually hirsute male

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.[8] 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. Incorrect shaving (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 extreme situations people may need to remove all body hair to prevent or combat infestation by lice, fleas and other parasites. Such a practice was used, for example, in Ancient Egypt.

Male-to-female gender reassignment

Male-to-female transsexual women often decide to remove their facial hair, typically either by electrolysis or laser removal, or a combination of the two procedures, in an effort to give a more natural appearance to themselves in line with their gender identity.

In addition, some surgeons recommend that a part of the pubic hair be removed prior to gender reassignment surgery as well, usually by electrolysis. Since the new vagina is created using the skin of the penis and part of the scrotum, which usually has active follicles, the hair is removed from these areas prior to surgery, in order for the genitals to be fashioned without the concern of hair growth inside of the new vagina. In some cases, the surgeon scrapes the underside of the skin to remove the follicles at or near the beginning of the surgery, eliminating the need for post-surgical hair removal.

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.

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.

In sport

It is a common practice for professional and amateur road cyclists to remove leg hair for a number of reasons. In the case of a crash, the absence of the leg hair means the injuries (usually road rash) can be cleaned up more efficiently, and treatment is not impeded. Professional cyclists 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, not to prevent drag with the water from slowing them down as is commonly believed, but to remove a dead layer of skin, providing a heightened 'feel' for the water. [9] Professional soccer players also shave their legs. One of the reasons is that they are required to wear shin guards and in a case of a skin rash the affected area can be treated more efficiently.[10]

As punishment

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.[11]

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.

In Arab countries, shaving off head-hair is sometimes used to shame and humiliate male prisoners.

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.[12]

Head shaving during present times has also been used as a form of payment for challenges or dares lost involving the removal of all body hair.

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, making the hair disintegrate.

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 on 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 (similar to waxing, but with a sticky paste)
  • 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)
  • Burning off with hot wax can damage the cells and prevent hair from ever growing in the unwanted spot again.[13]
  • Use of Turmeric along with other ingredients like besan powder and milk
  • Epilators (mechanical devices that rapidly grasp hairs and pull them out)
  • Prescription oral medications
  • 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 discontinued. Products include the prescription drug Vaniqa, with the active ingredient eflornithine hydrochloride inhibiting the enzyme ornithine decarboxylase, preventing new hair cells from producing putrescine for stabilizing their DNA.

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.

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 aborbed by dark pigment, resulting in the destruction of the hair follicle. The hair removal becomes permanent after one or more 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.

Electrology is recognized by the FDA as the only permanent hair removal method.[14]

Permanent hair reduction

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.[15] It is illegal in the United States.

Doubtful methods

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
  • Photoepilators
  • 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. Most 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 their methods 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.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Heinz Tschachler, Maureen Devine, Michael Draxlbauer; The EmBodyment of American Culture; pp 61–62; LIT Verlag, Berlin-Hamburg-Münster; 2003; ISBN 3825867625.
  3. ^ The Straight Dope: Who decided women should shave their legs and underarms?
  4. ^ "Shaving". Marzena. Retrieved August 14, 2011. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ Shunned from society, widows flock to city to die, 2007-07-05,, Retrieved 2007-07-05
  7. ^ van Sertima, Ivan (1992). The Golden Age of the Moor. Transaction Publishers. p. 267. ISBN 1560005815. OCLC 123168739. 
  8. ^ Ortolon, Ken (April 2006). "Clip, Don't Nick: Physicians Target Hair Removal to Cut Surgical Infections". Texas Medicine. Retrieved 2007-05-14. 
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ Vinen, Richard. The Unfree French: Life Under the Occupation. Allen Lane, 2006.
  12. ^ Devil's Mark
  13. ^ Naomi Torres. "Waxing Hair Removal 101"., A New York Times Company. Retrieved 2009-06-27. 
  14. ^ "Removing hair safely". United States Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved August 15, 2011. 
  15. ^ Andrea James (21). "X-Ray Hair Removal". Retrieved 2006-12-31. 
  • Aldraibi MS, Touma DJ, Khachemoune A (January 2007). "Hair removal with the 3-msec alexandrite laser in patients with skin types IV-VI: efficacy, safety, and the role of topical corticosteroids in preventing side effects". Journal of Drugs in Dermatology 6 (1): 60–6. PMID 17373163. 
  • Alexiades-Armenakas M (2006). "Laser hair removal". Journal of Drugs in Dermatology 5 (7): 678–9. PMID 16865877. 
  • Eremia S, Li CY, Umar SH, Newman N (November 2001). "Laser hair removal: long-term results with a 755 nm alexandrite laser". Dermatologic Surgery 27 (11): 920–4. doi:10.1046/j.1524-4725.2001.01074.x. PMID 11737124. 
  • McDaniel DH, Lord J, Ash K, Newman J, Zukowski M (June 1999). "Laser hair removal: a review and report on the use of the long-pulsed alexandrite laser for hair reduction of the upper lip, leg, back, and bikini region". Dermatologic Surgery 25 (6): 425–30. doi:10.1046/j.1524-4725.1999.08118.x. PMID 10469087. 
  • Wanner M (2005). "Laser hair removal". Dermatologic Therapy 18 (3): 209–16. doi:10.1111/j.1529-8019.2005.05020.x. PMID 16229722. 
  • Warner J, Weiner M, Gutowski KA (June 2006). "Laser hair removal". Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology 49 (2): 389–400. doi:10.1097/00003081-200606000-00020. PMID 16721117. 

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