Waxing for Hair Removal: Dipping Into Danger?

America is fast becoming a hairless nation. To help achieve that goal, there are many methods to become free of unwanted hair. Once they reach puberty, American women start the ritual of removing unsightly hair from their legs, underarms, bikini area, eyebrows and upper lip. These days, it's not uncommon for young men to join in the ritual.

"I've noticed in the past 10 to 15 years how men -- not only women -- have become more conscious about body hair than ever before," says Peter Lamas, a beauty consultant and owner of Lamas Beauty International, with offices in Santa Monica, Calif. and Houston, Texas, and owner of www.beautywalk.com. "Body hair is just not acceptable anymore. Period."

To do this, both men and women use electric shavers, depilatories (creams and lotions), razors, electrolysis, lasers and waxes. While shaving is still the most popular method, waxing runs a close second (along with depilatories) as the hair remover of choice.

Waxing at Home "I can tell you that 14 percent of all women have used a home waxing product in the last year, which is about the same percentage who get waxed in salons," says David Fox, vice president of marketing for New York, based Carter-Wallace, Inc., the manufacturers of Nair® hair removal products. In fact, home waxing and depilatories are both $70 million industries. "But we also know that most women, in fact almost all women, shave. The women who use waxes and depilatories do so in addition to shaving. Maybe they have a special occasion like going to the beach or whatever, but most women still own a razor."

With the increase in hair removal options, companies like Nair have added more dimension to their over-the-counter products, says Fox. In addition to the line of depilatories and lotions, the company has do-it-yourself waxing kits that include cold wax strips, and several products know as "sugaring" which have the look and feel of a wax resin, but are actually a sugar-based product. The kits come either in small tubs, which can be heated or spread on cold, or in a roll-on applicator. After applying the substance with a small spatula, a cloth strip is placed on top, and then pulled off in the same manner as the hot waxing procedure, leaving the surface hairless.

"Waxing leaves a cleaner, smoother finish, and lasts much longer than shaving," says Beth Huminski, an esthetician from Fairfield, Conn. The 31-year old has been waxing women and men for more than 10 years, and finds the method has increased in popularity over that time. "You're grabbing the root and pulling out the hair. It lasts about three to four weeks, and each time you wax, it grows back weaker and thinner, and eventually it does thin out the hair, while shaving just makes the hair coarser and thicker."

One advantage to at-home waxing kits is that you know what you're getting and who's been using the wax before you, which has become somewhat of a health issue.

"If you do wax at home, you can use it a few times because it's your own hair that is being ripped out of your own skin," says Lamas. "You're the only one using it, so if you are using hot wax and you're constantly using the same pot of wax, well it's good for six months, and there's no problem because it's only you using it."

Waxing at the Salon But what about salons that reuse the hot wax, client after client? Does that pose a health hazard?

"There is serious question about this. I have not seen a study that has actually tested the wax to see what the potential health risk is," says Peter Pugliese, M.D., medical director for the American Aestheticians Education Association (AAEA), a nonprofit association with a membership of more than 1,000 estheticians across the country based in Dallas, Texas. "As long as there is no water in there, then theoretically it would not grow bacteria or transmit organisms.

There are no regulations preventing the reuse of cosmetic hair-removal waxes in salons. In fact, the whole field of aesthetic sciences -- which is a loose catchall for a wide range of professions including cosmetologists, manicurists and hairdressers -- is largely unregulated. (The certification requirements and licensing of these professions are solely state-by-state. One of the goals of the AAEA is to create uniform, standardized testing to the field, as well as to create a separate category for just estheticians, sans hairdressers.)

Huminski, like most estheticians, has been reusing the wax for her clients for years and has never considered it a health risk.

"I just apply an antiseptic to the skin to remove all the germs and cleanse the skin beforehand," she says, "and then I apply the wax with a spatula or wax stick. Every time, I use a clean one. The wax is so hot I don't think germs or bacteria can live in there."

But they can. Pugliese explained that a problem can arise if a piece of skin, or something else from the human body, were to get into the wax, introducing an element of water_._ Heating the wax to the melting point would not kill the bacteria.

"The wax isn't heated to the boiling point, obviously, or you would seriously burn the skin. When you sterilize something you have to take it up to 220 degrees and hold that temperature for 15 to 20 minutes," says Pugliese.

Another concern is about bacterial spores. "If the bacteria is in spore form, you can hit it with a hammer and it can still live," he says.

So what should you do if you choose a salon waxing? Experts say to err on the side of caution.

"I would always ask for fresh wax," says Pugliese. "They'll hem and haw, but wax isn't that expensive. And if you're having more than one area waxed, remember the most bacteria will be in the bikini area, so do that last. And make sure they put a germicide on the skin before and after. That's why a lot of guys use after-shave when they get nicks. It's really just alcohol and helps with infection."

"A good high-end salon would not mind giving you a fresh batch of wax. And I would ask to see it done in front of me," says Lamas. "I come from the school that I wouldn't want someone's bikini wax on my lips even if it's boiled to death."

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