Every summer, it happens. Women are faced with the inevitable (and unavoidable) dilemma of hair removal. With teeth clenched, they have their body hair yanked, pulled, stripped, shaved or blasted with electrical currents -- all so they can bare their bodies on the beach or their legs in a skirt or shorts. Read on to help make it easier (and a little less painful). You may even discover a method that's better for you.
1. When it comes to razors, the sharper the blade, the less risk of nicks. Microscopic dings occur on the blade with every use, increasing a blade's friction on the skin, which ups your chance of getting cut. Stay sharp by changing blades every three or four uses. (If you can't remember the last time you changed your blade, it's time to toss it.) Try the Gillette Venus razor, $8, or the Shick Xtreme III, $5.50 for four, both available at drugstores nationwide. And take a cue from men: Use shaving cream. It's moisturizing, and it helps razors glide over skin. (Try Skintimate Bikini & Underarm Moisturizing Shave Gel, $2.49; http://www.skintimate.com.)
2. Home waxing really works. Do-it-yourself kits have made waxing from head to toe easy and no more painful than having a pro do it. Results last as long as salon waxing -- about a week or two, depending on your hair's natural growth rate. To do it yourself, try Sally Hansen's Washable Cold Wax Hair Removal Kit ($8; www.sallyhansen.com).
3. Vaniqa is the only cream that slows hair growth. In clinical trials, Vaniqa, a new FDA-approved prescription cream, slowed the growth of facial hair in 60 percent of women when applied twice every day. "But it has only been approved for facial hair," says New York dermatologist Deborah Sarnoff, M.D. "And it doesn't get rid of hair permanently; it only slows its growth by impeding the enzyme that makes facial hair grow. Once you stop using it, the hair grows right back." Who it's best for? Women with excessive facial hair -- not those who have to wax every once in a while. Results can be seen after two months of use, Sarnoff says. The only reported side effect: possible skin irritation.
4. Electrolysis is the only permanent method of hair removal. It's expensive ($1 per minute or more) and time consuming (it takes at least eight 15-minute sessions - for the upper lip alone), but electrolysis remains the only permanent hair-removal method available. (Because it is so time consuming, it's not ideal for large areas like legs.) But for at least two days afterward, you must stay out of the sun and avoid moisturizers or cleansers with alpha-hydroxy acids or glycolic acid, which can sting traumatized hair follicles. (For help finding an electrologist, go to the American Electrology Association's Web site.)
5. Lasers (still) aren't permanent. No matter what the claims are, no existing type of laser can stunt hair growth forever. Still, if you're willing to pay the high cost (laser hair removal on legs can cost a few thousand dollars) you can get a hair-free summer out of it. (It lasts no longer than three months.) Plus, the hair that grows back may be finer and lighter, says New York dermatologist Harvey Jay, M.D. But don't wax or pluck six weeks before. Both pull out the hair shaft, making the laser (which is absorbed by the hair in the follicle, temporarily disabling it) much less effective.
6. The key to foiling ingrown hairs is exfoliation, exfoliation, exfoliation. The best thing you can do to prevent ingrown hairs, say experts, is daily exfoliation, especially in the bikini line. It keeps follicles clear and open by sloughing away pore-clogging dead-skin cells, preventing hairs from getting trapped underneath. Use a loofah, a gentle skin scrub or a salicylic-acid-based toner or lotion. But, since acids may sting, don't use them immediately after removing hair. (Try Clinique Soft Polish Body Exfoliator, $16.50; www.clinique.com; or Soft Cell, a salicylic-acid-based astringent, $10; 888-795-0911.)
7. Depilatories now work in as little as four minutes. The worst things about the depilatories of old? The time they took and that unpleasant chemical smell. But you can expect a slew of four-minute depilatories this summer in pleasant scents like apple. (Try Nair Apple Licious Lotion, $3.60; www.naircare.com.) Tip: To make results last longer, use it after a warm shower or bath. Hairs will be softer and more readily removed. (Results can last three to five days depending on your hair-growth rate.)
Home waxing how-to's
*Don't wax if you take Accutane. It can make skin sensitive and prone to scarring. For the same reason, pass on any skin areas where you apply Retin-A or Renova.
*Trim your hair first. Trimming bikini-line hairs to one-quarter inch before waxing will help minimize discomfort.
*Use enough wax. Apply in a banana-peel thickness against the hair growth for best results. (Try the Bliss Poetic Wax Kit, $40; 888-243-8825.)
*Hold on to your skin. Hold skin taut as you rip away wax. This seems to help hairs slip out more easily.
*Be quick. The faster you rip it off, the sooner it's over.
Fast fixes that take the sting out of hair removal:
* Smooth on a 1-percent hydrocortisone cream afterward to reduce inflammation and redness.
*Take ibuprofen 15 minutes prior to any painful hair-removal procedure or try a skin-numbing cream like Sally Hansen Bikini Plus Antibacterial Pain Relief Gel ($7; www.sallyhansen.com).
* Press an ice pack on skin afterward to soothe any swelling.
* Apply pressure to stop bleeding from a shaving nick, then cover it with an adhesive bandage. Old-fashioned styptic pencils (available from your local drugstore) also stop blood flow quickly, but they sting.