As I lie on the table in my underwear, waiting for my first-ever bikini wax, I feel a looming sense of terror. Hot wax is about to be poured near what my esthetician, Leslie Labruzza of Bombshell Waxing (3343 Metairie Road, Suite 7, Metairie, 504-667-6861; 5150 Hwy. 22, Mandeville, 985-633-1950; www.bombshellwaxing.com), calls my "intimate area."
"If you're just getting a bikini [wax], that's nothing. It's a walk in the park," she reassures me. Right.
By definition, a bikini wax removes hair on the upper and inner thighs that might be visible when wearing a bikini. It's the most conservative of the intimate waxes offered by this salon, which will wax pretty much anywhere hair grows, including complete pubic hair removal via the famous Brazilian wax.
In our private room, wax simmers in three different Crock-Pot-type vats. Labruzza shows me the red hard wax, which "shrink-wraps" around each hair as it hardens, and the runnier, honey-colored strip wax, which is generally used on finer hair like underarms and eyebrows. We decide to test both, the strip wax on my right side, the hard wax on the left.
She prepares me for the first waxing by rubbing a jojoba-based oil into my skin. Then, using a tongue depressor, she spreads a thin smear of golden strip wax along my bikini line. It's warm, but not overly so. She then spreads a covering over the top and tells me to take a deep breath on one, exhale on three.
It hurts, but not as much as I expected it to. The strip she peels off looks like a lint roller that took a brief pass over a cat.
We have more trouble with the hard wax. For one, it's warmer to start out with — like I've somehow gotten a sunburn on my crotch — and all the hair doesn't come away at the first "pull," necessitating several mini-pulls that follow. But this is the worst pain I experience, even as I press the soles of my feet together in a horizontal lotus position and she moves on to an area I'm not sure has a name (inner thigh? outer butt?). She tweezes any remaining renegade hairs that don't grow in a uniform direction. The whole process takes about 15 minutes.
Afterward, I notice some redness, and Labruzza uses a pomegranate-scented oil to soothe the irritated skin. She tells me to watch for white bumps that might indicate follicular shock, a rare problem experienced by "waxing virgins."
The next day, everything looks normal, and I feel a little disappointed. I was expecting to be traumatized, but instead I just feel ready for swimsuit season.
Regardless of your budget, pain tolerance and hair removal goals, there's a method for you. Here's a rundown, complete with pros, cons and price ranges.
SHAVING & DEPILATORY CREAMS
Shaving is the most familiar method of hair removal, but it may not always be the best approach for sensitive areas.
"Shaving can create micro-cuts in the skin. ... It tends to shave the hair so closely that the hair has to re-penetrate to grow outward," says Dr. Sarah Jackson, a dermatologist at Audubon Dermatology (3525 Prytania St., Suite 501, 504-895-3376; www.audubondermatoloy.com).
This re-penetration causes irritated follicles and ingrown hairs. To minimize this risk, Jackson suggests switching to electric clippers, which leave a fine layer of hair above the skin.
Another shaving tip: use short strokes without too much razor pressure to avoid cuts and skin damage. Shaving gels, creams and even ordinary conditioner can act as a protective barrier between the razor and your skin.
Depilatory creams use a combination of chemicals like calcium thioglycolate and potassium thioglycolate to dissolve hair. Jackson says creams work well, but can distress skin in individuals who have sensitivities to such chemicals. Since it's hard to know in advance if you'll react to a formula, always follow the allergy test instructions offered by the manufacturer.
Jackson also says depilatory creams may not solve the problem of ingrown hairs — some people are especially prone to them. Regular use of an exfoliating scrub or a more permanent solution like laser hair removal are the best options in this case.
At My Spa By The Park (6312 Argonne Blvd., 504-482-2219; www.myspabythepark.com), esthetician Jaime Pietrangelo says there are several things you can do for a skin-friendly hair removal experience.
"I would recommend [using] a PFB stick [a roll-on blend of lactic, salicylic and glycolic acids] for waxing; you'd basically use it on underarms, bikini and other areas prone to ingrown hairs," she says.
Use the stick immediately after waxing and every day following for a cleaner, smoother wax. For persistent ingrown hairs, wait a few days and exfoliate with a loofah.
Users of retinol and certain acid-based acne medications should stop taking these medications at least five days before a waxing session, because they affect the top layer of skin, Pietrangelo says. For clients who can't stop retinol treatments, she suggests tweezing, but warns that they should continue tweezing regularly for a "less torturous" experience.
Consistency also may be the key to optimal waxing. Labruzza says the best results come from continuous waxing for two years, with no shaving in between. This inhibits hair growth and ensures all hairs are on the same stage of their growth cycle, so the wax can pull them out more effectively.
LASER HAIR REMOVAL
Laser treatments target melanin to remove hair. This mechanism necessitates some advance precautions before a hair removal session.
"Melanin is not only the pigment in the hair bulb, but it's the pigment in your skin, which is increased in a tan," Jackson explains. "So when someone is tan, they have a risk of getting a burn."
Use sunscreen over the targeted area for at least four weeks prior to your appointment, and be sure not to bleach, wax or pluck in advance. The ideal candidate for laser hair removal has light skin and dark hair, though different wavelengths of light can safely remove hair on darker skin, as long as the hair itself is dark.
Each session eradicates 10 to 15 percent of the hair forever, though additional treatments may be required.
"The reason hairs pop up months or even years after is that these were dormant follicles when the laser was used," says Dr. Mary Lupo, a dermatologist at the Lupo Center (145 Robert E. Lee Blvd., Suite 302, 504-288-2381; www.drmarylupo.com). "Because follicles can go dormant for an extended time, stray hairs can show up later and require a touch-up."
Lupo cautions that any laser hair removal should be done under the supervision of a board-certified physician, because incorrect use of the laser could lead to discoloration or scarring.
How much does it cost?
Shaving: Disposable razors $10-$15, shave gel $3-$5
Depilatory creams: $5-$12
Waxing: $12-$70 and up, depending on area waxed (My Spa By The Park; Bombshell Waxing)
Laser hair removal: $150-$600 per session, or $1,200-$2,500 over two years of treatments (The Lupo Center)
How long does it last?
Shaving: 1-3 days
Depilatory creams: 3-7 days
Waxing: 3-6 weeks
Laser hair removal: Permanent
Though laser hair removal is an initial investment, it saves the most money over a lifetime, Dr. Mary Lupo says. In terms of results, cost and time spent on treatments, waxing is a good middle ground.