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The pursuit of a hair-free body may be as old as the cavemen. Archaeologists have evidence that men shaved their faces as far back as twenty thousand years ago, using sharpened rocks and shells to scrape off hair.
The Sumerians removed hair with tweezers. Ancient Arabians used string. Egyptians, including Cleopatra, also did it – some with bronze razors they took to their tombs, some with sugar and others with beeswax.
The Greeks, who equated smooth with civilized, did it, too. Roman men shaved their faces until Emperor Hadrian – although Julius Caesar is said to have had his facial hairs plucked. Roman ladies also plucked their eyebrows with tweezers.
Another primitive method of hair removal used by women as late as the 1940s involved rubbing off the hair by rubbing skin with abrasive mitts or discs the consistency of fine sandpaper.
As an alternative, there were lotion and cream depilatories (from the Latin: d- completely + pil-re – deprive of hair), which dissolved –and still do– hair above the surface of the skin. While the term depilatory is often used to mean cream and lotion forms of hair removal, by definition it technically includes wax and sugar, as well.
Early depilatories were made from such ingredients as resin, pitch, white vine or ivy gum extracts, ass’s fat, she-goat’s gall, bat’s blood and powdered viper. Evidence of depilatory use dates as far back as 4000-3000 B.C., when women used a depilatory (“rhusma turcorum”) containing orpiment (natural arsenic tri-sulfide), quicklime (used to make cement) and starch made into a paste. Clearly, throughout history there have been drastic lengths to which people would go to eliminate body hair.
The Middle East
Among the ancient Egyptians, a clean-shaven face was a symbol of status. According to Herodotus, “Egyptians are shaven at other times, but after a death they let their hair and beard grow.” They used depilatory creams, razors and pumice stones for this purpose. Both sexes shaved their heads completely and wore elaborate wigs. The practice of removing hair was not limited to the face and head. Egyptian women beeswaxed their legs. They also used depilatories made of starch, arsenic, and quicklime.
This obsession with hairlessness probably had as much to do with hygiene as with ideals of beauty and fashion. The hot Middle Eastern climate encouraged germs and diseases to breed, and the removal of all body hair was a preventive measure against infection.
Middle Easterners used a hair removal process called body sugaring, involving the application of a natural, sugar-based paste (usually sugar, lemon and other natural ingredients cooked to the consistency of soft taffy) that was either rubbed or pulled off in the opposite direction of hair growth. The high sugar content inhibited bacterial growth in the region’s hot environs.
The method reputedly was born out of a Middle Eastern bridal ritual. The night before a wedding, Lebanese, Palestinian, Turkish and Egyptian brides had all body hair, except eyebrows and the hair on their heads, removed by the bridal party. According to lore, the bride maintained her hairless body throughout her marriage as a symbol of cleanliness and respect for her husband.
Not all eyebrows were left intact. Art and artifacts indicate that the Mesopotamians trimmed superfluous hair from their brows with tweezers. During the excavation of Ur, capital city of the Chaldeans, tweezers were found in a tomb dating back to about 3500 BC.
The hair removal process we call threading, comes from Arabia, where women laced cotton string through their fingers and ran it briskly over their legs to encircle and pull out the hair.
The Near East
In the Indus River Valley of Pakistan, hygiene was a religious imperative for the ancient Hindus. In ancient India, chest and pubic hair was shaved, and the chin and upper lip hair was shaved every fourth day. Shaving the head was a sign of renunciation for many men amongst both Hindus and Buddhists.
An absence of body hair has been a European ideal since the Greeks and Romans. In Roman times, the first shave of a youth came to be regarded as the arrival of masculine adulthood and was offered as a token to his favorite god.
During the Middle Ages, upper class European women wanted to appear very fair skinned, almost pale. A 13th century French verse lists some of the requirements of a lady’s toilette supplied by a traveling merchant; among the things are “razors and forceps.”
The puritan element in the medieval church prevented most Englishwomen from using cosmetics. The Church believed that the use of cosmetics tampered with man’s–and, therefore, God’s–image. Indeed, in The Romaunt of the Rose, Chaucer personifies ‘Beautee’ as a woman who uses no ‘peynte’ and who leaves her brows unplucked.
Anglo Saxons did eventually use tweezers for plucking superfluous hairs from eyebrows and other body parts. By the mid-15th century, it was fashionable to have plucked eyebrows and a very high, shaved forehead.
High foreheads continued to be the fashion through Elizabethan times. If a woman didn’t have a high forehead, she plucked her front hair to get one. It is said that mothers often used walnut oil on their children’s foreheads in hopes of preventing hair growth. They also used bandages impregnated with vinegar and cat’s dung.
It is also said that the Duke of Newcastle paid 40 pounds to have his wife’s facial hair permanently removed, yet in a letter dated 1755, Horace Walpole refers to the Duke’s retirement, saying that he can now “let his beard grow as long as his Duchess’s.
There were many alternative methods of hair removal, ranging from pulverized egg shells to a mixture of cat’s dung and vinegar. In the early 18th century (1700-1737) Lemery’s Curiosa Arcana, published in 1711, gives a recipe for the complexion: To remove hair, one was instructed to “Take the shells of 52 eggs, beat them small and distill them with a good fire.” Then, with the water, “Anoint yourself where you would have the hair off.” For ladies with more cats than chickens, Lemery recommended “beating hard, dry cats-dung…to a powder” and tempering it with strong vinegar for the same effect. Other homemade depilatories contained quick-lime.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that the first instrument specifically designed as a safety razor appeared. Invented in 1762 by a French barber, Jean Jacques Perret, it employed a metal guard placed along one edge of the blade to prevent the blade from accidentally slicing into the shaver’s skin.
Native Americans tweezed their whiskers, hair by hair, between halves of a clam shell, and circa 1700 American women applied poultices of caustic lye to burn away hair.
There is evidence of the marketing of powdered depilatories in the United States by 1844. Writing about New York City in that year, Lydia Maria Child cited the case of the advertisements of a Dr. Gouraud, the maker of a depilatory powder, who promoted his product by linking it to the Queen of Sheba. Gouraud’s ad claimed that Solomon, the Queen’s famed paramour, invented a highly beautifying powder the secret of which died with Solomon until it was rediscovered by Dr. Gouraud, whose ‘Poudre Subtile will effectually remove every appearance of beard from the lips.’
Waxing has always been a rite of passage for Brazilian women, who used to use secretions from the Coco de Mono tree to remove hair. Today, mothers introduce their daughters at age 15 to the “aesthetic clinics” that do depilacao, using the cold wax method. Depiladoras (literally, wax women) even make house calls.
Cleaner, Faster, Smoother Modern Methods of Hair Removal
When considering hair removal options, it is important to remember that waxing, sugaring, tweezing and electrolysis methods all remove hair from the roots. Depilatories chemically destroy the hair, and shaving merely slices it off at skin level. Within each category there have been several developments through the years.
Gillette found in a 1990 survey that 92 percent of women 13 or older in the United States shave their legs, though not necessarily exclusively. Of those women, 66 percent shave the entire leg and 33 percent shave from the knee down. While 98 percent of the women surveyed shave their underarms, only 50 percent of them shave their bikini line. (However, in Mediterranean and South American countries, depilatories have been used for decades as the preferred method of hair removal.)
In any case, shaving is not to be overlooked. The first shaving revolution was launched almost single-handedly by a traveling salesman-inventor named King Gillette. Although he came up with the concept for a razor with disposable blades in 1895, it took until 1903 and a collaboration with William Nickerson, an M.I.T. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) professor, to bring the product to market –with overwhelming success. In 1915, Gillette introduced Milady Décolletée, a razor created especially for women.
In 1931, the year King Gillette retired, Jacob Schick challenged the razor blade with the invention of the electric shaver. Schick’s shaver was in turn challenged by Remington, who in 1940 introduced the dual-headed shaver and the first electric shaver designed especially for women.
Gillette introduced Gillette Daisy, the first disposable razor for women, in 1975; in 1992 it introduced Gillette Sensor for Women, and in 1995 it came out with the first non-soap-based moisturizing shave gel.
After the development of tweezers, there was little advancement in “mechanical” hair removal until the invention of electronic tweezing in the late 1950s. Although electronic tweezing employs an electronic current during the tweezing process, the results are no more effective than regular tweezing and can be costly.
In the late 1800s, physicians tried killing the hair root by inserting and twisting a barbed needle with sulfuric acid into the hair follicle. During the 20th century, this process was refined into what we know as electrolysis. It involves inserting a fine needle into the hair follicle and electronically charging the root of the hair to kill it; however, a new root cell can form in the same area, causing re-growth. Compared to other hair removal methods, it is relatively new, time-consuming and expensive.
Depilatory Lotions and Creams
Depilatory lotions and creams dissolve the protein structure of the hair. The birth, in 1940, of the first modern depilatory, Nair® Lotion from New York-headquartered Carter-Wallace, Inc., was the result of wartime shortages. Stockings were scarce and legs went bare. Veet®, another old-time depilatory, was imported to the United States from France. Although the product is still produced in France and distributed in the U.S. Another brand, Sally Hansen, introduced its Facial Hair Creme Remover in 1981, followed by Lotion Hair Remover with Baby Oil in 1985.
While creams and lotions are still the most popular at-home method of depilation, their popularity among consumers is being challenged by longer lasting, more modern methods, such as wax strips.
Waxing uproots the hair from its follicles for the longest-lasting (up to eight weeks), smoothest results of all temporary hair removal methods. Long popular in Europe, it was introduced to American women primarily through beauty salons (hence the phrase European Hair Removal, frequently used today in skin care salon advertising, and European Salon Formula, used to describe some at-home waxing products). Indeed, the popularity of waxing is increasing with the variety of in-home products that offer convenience and affordability.
The original waxing method involved heating up a tray of solid wax derived mainly from tallow and resins. Once the wax was hot, it was applied to the skin and pulled off –almost as if it were a layer of skin with hair (from the roots) attached to it. This painfully slow method is still used in some salons today.
There are two kinds of wax more commonly used today, warm and cold. Both methods remove hair at its root below the skin’s surface.
What we call warm wax or hot wax was developed in the 1980s in Australia. Actually, it is a sugar mixture, heated, applied to the skin and then removed with muslin or cotton strips which absorb the wax, allowing it to grip the hair.
The invention of the microwave oven revolutionized the warm wax treatment, improving the process by speeding it up and allowing it to stay warmer without continuous reheating. In 1990, Marzena, market leaders in Australia and New Zealand since 1994, introduced its Sugaring Wax. This product can be heated in a microwave or conventionally on a stove.
Cold wax, in either paste or gel form, is applied to the skin without heating. However, most cold waxes are messy to apply (delivery from container to skin is difficult) and thickness of application cannot be controlled. The colder the room temperature, the more difficult the application and removal; what’s more, the product is not in contact with the skin long enough to be warmed to maximum effectiveness.
Laser Hair Removal
Laser hair removal is a costly procedure in which a laser beam is used to disable hair follicles. Not only is it the newest method of hair removal to be marketed, but it is also among the newest cosmetic laser treatments available in the U.S. and must be performed in a physician’s office or in a special salon that is licensed to operate a Class II medical device. In the United States, manufacturers are prohibited by the FDA from claiming the hair won’t grow back, but some estimates say one treatment can eliminate 30 to 40 percent of the hair for up to a year (the rest may grow back, but with a finer texture). While the number of treatments required to effectively remove the hair depends on the size of the area involved, typically two to four sessions are needed.