Dr. Tan explains the good, bad and ugly of facial hair removal techniques

Even a few unwanted hairs can affect a person’s whole appearance. A few hairs between the eyebrows can make an entire face look coarse, prominent upper-lip hairs can be embarrassing, and even a few stray hairs on the chin can make women look far older than their age.

These are not new problems, and several promising treatments exist for eliminating unwanted facial hair.

DIY or Professional Treatment?

Since the dawn of our earliest civilizations, people have always dealt with unwanted facial hair. The home remedies of earlier times have given rise to a huge array of do-it-yourself treatments for facial hair, most of them promising to scrape, pull, or chemically melt hair off the face.

After more than a decade of experience in aesthetics, I’ve seen these techniques evolve and shift in demand and popularity. In 2019, the modern techniques we employ generally remove hair more safely and with less risk of side effects than home remedies.

We’ll be examining the five most popular contemporary methods of removing unwanted facial hair, some of which are available only through professionals, others of which have DIY options.


waxing on face

Waxing is the oldest method listed here, and still one of the most popular. Not just any wax will do: hair-removal wax is designed especially to bond chemically to hair without adhering tightly to the skin. Some waxes come in ready-to-use form, usually as strips; others require melting before they are applied to the desired area. When the wax is settled, it is pulled quickly from the skin, taking unwanted hair with it.

The results of waxing typically remain for a month or longer, although each patient and each area can respond differently. Over time, hair that returns to an often-waxed area can be thinner than the original. This can make waxing a compelling intermediate option between the short-lived results of depilatories and more painstaking clinical methods. The drawbacks are that by nature, waxing is unavoidably painful, and may produce skin irritation and ingrown hairs.

Several formulations of body-removal wax are widely available over the counter. For more precise and consistent results, I would recommend that patients may want to schedule an appointment with a professional waxing specialist.


Depilatories are available over the counter as creams, lotions, or gels. Whatever the medium, they contain chemicals designed to attack the proteins that form the bulk of each hair, effectively melting hair without unduly affecting the skin surrounding each follicle.

Chemicals used in popular depilatories include sodium, titanium oxide, and barium sulfide. Each is safe for use on healthy skin, but sensitive skin may become irritated. Skin experiencing local irritation or inflammation should never be treated with depilatories: I would urge patients to treat the existing condition before worrying about unwanted hair. More generally, patients who know they have sensitive skin have fair warning, but some may not be aware of particular sensitivity to a specific chemical (after all, how often does a typical person come into contact with significant concentrations of titanium oxide?)

To avoid surprises, I usually advise patients to test a small, out-of-the-way area of skin first, and to give that test patch a day or two. If no reaction occurs within 48 hours, that’s a good indication that the depilatory can be used with no adverse consequences. In my experience, a good rule of thumb is to look for depilatories that contain moisturizers; these help the skin recover more quickly, even from minor irritation.

Depilatories are commonly used throughout the body, but limitations on other techniques make depilatories especially useful on tricky areas like the upper lip and the region between the eyebrows. Results are seen quickly, and last a few days before hair begins to grow back.


Electrolysis hair removal

Electrolysis is a clinical procedure that attacks hair follicles by applying a tiny electric current by way of a needle inserted directly into each pore. Because it takes quite a bit of time and patience, electrolysis is usually recommended for persistent hairs scattered across regions like the chin and upper lip; it can also be a permanent solution for unwanted hair between the eyebrows.

There’s no way around the fact that electrolysis can be uncomfortable: it involves inserting needles, after all. Its methodical nature means that electrolysis may need to be administered gradually: typical cases take two dozen individual electrolysis sessions before complete results are achieved.

On the other hand, its direct approach works on more types of hair than other methods and promises permanent results after treatment is completed. Because hair removal is achieved gradually, electrolysis can provide more natural-looking results, with the patient’s appearance improving subtly from session to session, rather than noticeably abruptly. I generally recommend electrolysis to my patients who have budgetary concerns; even a course of 20 sessions of electrolysis is more affordable than other treatments.

IPL (Intense Pulsed Light)

Like electrolysis, IPL attacks unwanted hair at its follicles. Unlike electrolysis, it achieves this disruption with heat: specifically, the heat generated when pigment in the hair absorbs high concentrations of light. Heat travels down the strand of each hair down to the base of the follicle, where new strands are generated, and affects the follicle’s ability to grow new hair of standard thickness.

The most common complaint I get after administering an IPL treatment is the time it takes for fully hairless skin. The best advice I can give is to be patient and consistent in attending treatments. All patients who undergo IPL will experience reduced hair growth, with strands of hair that do manage to grow back becoming steadily thinner. Over time, IPL can shut down hair follicles entirely; this typically requires 12 to 15 sessions of IPL treatment.

IPL is not the same as laser treatment. Lasers create light at a single wavelength or frequency; IPL administers light along a range of wavelengths. Since different colours absorb light differently, this makes IPL more effective than even laser treatment against a wider variety of hair colours. That versatility also means that IPL is more prone than lasers to affect the skin surrounding each follicle. The lower the contrast between hair colour and skin tone, the greater the danger that IPL will cause irritation or temporary pigmentation issues.

IPL sessions can take as little as 10 minutes and are considerably cheaper than laser treatments. In some jurisdictions, IPL is offered by salons and administered by unlicensed personnel. Beware! Never be afraid to inquire as to your practitioner’s credentials, we are always bound to ensure that our patients know they are in good and qualified hands.

Laser Treatment


Lasers work similarly to IPL, and the two are sometimes grouped together. But lasers produce a far more concentrated form of light energy, focused on a much smaller area and tuned to one specific frequency. This makes them far more effective than IPL against specific strands of darker hair and allows lasers to avoid the skin-irritating side effects of IPL.

On the other hand, lasers tend to work best on dark hair and may lose out entirely to IPL against blonde or grey hairs. Because laser beams are so small, treatment sessions tend to be much longer than those for IPL when the same amount of area is treated: the typical laser-treatment session lasts 30 to 45 minutes. And while the discomfort of laser treatment is nothing like what some people expect, it tends to feel like a series of small, sharp slaps.

Laser treatment is more expensive than the other methods listing here, but produces results with fewer sessions: most patients achieve their goals within six sessions of laser treatment, and results are often permanent. This applies to laser treatment offered in professional clinics by certified doctors; while some devices have entered the market promising at-home laser hair removal, these almost never achieve nearly what a proper commercial laser can, in the hands of an experienced professional