Body hair is a furry fact of life. Yet sometimes, you want to remove it for whatever reason — the decision is up to you. Maybe your happy trail is looking a little more like a field of dreams. Or perhaps your peach fuzz isn’t feeling so peachy.
You could grab a razor — but if you want the results to last for weeks without stubble, waxing is your best bet. If you’re the DIY type who likes to save money and minutes, you might opt to forego the salon for at-home hair removal.
But all waxing endeavors require safety precautions to avoid injury or infection. Here’s how to tackle an at-home wax job safely and with aplomb.
Waxing removes the hair by the follicle — aka, pulls your body hair out by the root — giving germs an invitation to the opened hair follicles. In many cases, waxing also removes the top layer of dry, dead skin cells, making the skin more smooth — but also more vulnerable to irritation. And heated wax has the potential to burn.
Simply put, there’s a lot that can go wrong.
Possible waxing mishaps
That’s why proper skin prep and aftercare combined with good waxing practices are essential for avoiding issues that could derail the smooth skin you’re after.
As long as you follow these steps, you should be able to safely remove your hair and enjoy the results for weeks.
Prep the skin and hair to be waxed
Exfoliating helps loosen existing ingrown hairs and improves your waxing results. Just make sure to be gentle — if you scrub too hard you could irritate your skin, which isn’t ideal for waxing.
Always start your waxing session with freshly washed skin. Scrub up with a mild soap to remove any germs, sweat, oil, makeup, dirt, or other residue.
Grime increases your chance of incurring infected bumps, and oily skin and hair can prevent wax from sticking.
Wax won’t adhere to wet hair either. So dry the area thoroughly with a clean towel.
Add a little talcum powder, too. Powder can help sop up moisture if you’re sweating from heat or humidity, or if you’re nervous about waxing. It also helps protect the skin during the dreaded pull.
Cut hair first if necessary
Although your hair needs to be at least a quarter-inch to be waxed, hair that’s too long can make waxing more complicated and painful.
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends cutting hair to three-fourths of an inch if it’s longer. Trim hair using a clean personal grooming tool, such as an electronic trimmer or safety scissors.
- Test waxing temperature. Applying a small patch to your outer wrist can help you gauge whether your heated wax is too hot to proceed. It should be hot, but tolerable.
- Apply wax in the direction of hair growth. Whether you’re using wax with strips or a stripless wax, always smooth wax onto the skin following the grain. Apply your strip in the same direction. Never double-dip your applicator in your wax container. This avoids introducing bacteria to your wax.
- Pull in the opposite direction. Follow specific instructions for your particular wax. Some waxes require time to harden, while others can be pulled almost immediately. When you’re ready to pull, hold skin taut with one hand by pulling it slightly in the direction of hair growth. Then use the other hand to pull off the strip or wax in the opposite direction in one fast, swift motion.
- Ease the pain of the pull. To minimize the sting, take a deep breath and exhale as you pull fast. Then place a hand on the just-waxed skin to calm it. If you’re prone to waxing pain, you can apply a lidocaine product like Plum Smooth Plumb Numb about 30 minutes before waxing.
Remove wax residue
Many waxing kits come with pretreated wipes to help you remove any leftover wax stuck to your skin. But if not, a little olive or jojoba oil will do the trick.
Use tweezers to pick off any remaining bits of wax and pluck any rogue hairs you missed.
Apply an aftercare product
Immediately after a wax, you want to use a product that soothes the skin — but the trick is to use something that will also fight bacteria.
Exfoliate after 24 hours
While it’s best to wait a day before exfoliating again, continued exfoliation between waxings can help prevent ingrown hairs and keep the skin smooth. Always follow up with your favorite aftercare product.
Everyone naturally has bacteria on their skin. Plus, your household surfaces hold germs, too, no matter how much you like to clean. So you can’t totally avoid germs. Bacteria, sweat, and friction on exposed follicles can all lead to irritation or in some cases, infection.
A case of itchy bumps or a painful swollen spot is the last thing you want when going fuzz-free, but it can happen during or after a waxing session and lead to one of the following infections:
- Folliculitis. This is an inflammation or an infection of the hair follicles and usually looks like pimples or a rash. It may cause a whitehead — try not to pop it.
- Boils. Also called abscesses, these result when a bacterial or fungal infection of the hair follicle creates a raised red bump that may rupture.
- Ingrown hair cysts. These can occur when your waxed hair starts to grow back. Instead of growing toward the surface, the hair grows into the skin, causing a bump. If it becomes inflamed, it may result in a cyst. Not all ingrown hair cysts are infected, but taking precautions to prevent ingrown hairs from developing and treating them properly can reduce the chance of infection.
- Molluscum contagiosum. This is a viral infection that causes benign bumps in the pubic region, and pubic hair removal has been linked to a possible increased risk for contracting it.
How to avoid an infection
Avoiding infection starts with proper skin preparation mentioned above, but you should also take precautions to wax yourself in a clean space and use clean equipment. That may mean using a disinfectant spray or wipes first, and sterilizing equipment.
Don’t store a waxing warmer on a bathroom counter where it can collect germs from the air. If it’s grimy, give it a scrub or wipe it off with a cotton ball dipped in alcohol.
What to do if you get an infection
If you end up with what looks like any of the above infections, don’t panic. A product like Fur Oil’s ingrown concentrate with disinfecting tea tree oil can tackle the problem. You can also use an over-the-counter antibiotic ointment like bacitracin.
Bumps will likely subside on their own in a few days. To avoid further irritation, avoid tight clothing or friction on the area and shower after heavy sweating.
Seek medical care if you notice the infection spreading or getting worse, or if you develop an unexplained fever or illness. Also, see your doctor if you suspect molluscum contagiosum.
Any time you’re dealing with something hot, you have the potential to burn yourself if you’re not careful. In a small study of 21 people with wax burns,
These burns were a result of using microwave-heated wax. The study concluded that this type of wax can reach unsafe temperatures and that users have the potential for hurting themselves when they remove the container from the microwave.
How to avoid a burn
If you’re using microwaveable wax, the study authors recommend placing the wax container on a microwave-safe plate. Use an oven mitt to remove the dish from your appliance after heating, rather than gripping the wax container directly.
Keep in mind that soft wax requires higher temperatures than hard wax and increases your risk of discomfort or a burn. Soft wax is the kind that requires muslin strips for the wax to be pulled. Hard wax is pliable when you apply it, but it hardens as it cools so that you can pull the wax off directly rather than needing a strip.
No matter what type of heated wax you use, test the temperature first.
What to do if your wax burns you
If you experience a minor burn to a small area, cool it with cold water for 5 to 15 minutes. Then gently attempt to remove the wax.
Apply aloe vera gel and an antibiotic ointment, and take an over-the-counter pain reliever if necessary.
Seek medical care if you can’t remove the wax, if the burn is over a large area, or if the skin appears charred or deep brown.
Although the goal of waxing is to rip out unwanted hair, waxing, in most cases, also removes some dead surface cells on the skin. This might lead to a nice exfoliating effect, but sometimes wax can pull away a thin layer of skin, leaving a raw or bleeding patch.
How to avoid injuring your skin during waxing
Skin injuries are less likely to happen if you use hard wax rather than soft wax. Hard wax adheres to the hair only, rather than the skin. Soft wax, which is great for removing those downy hairs, adheres to both the hair and the skin.
Regardless of the type of wax you use, make sure your skin isn’t already injured, irritated from over-exfoliating, or too thin for waxing.
Avoid waxing if you…
- have a sunburn
- have open sores
- recently had a skin procedure
- use bleaching products
- use acids or peels
- take oral acne medications
- take oral or topical retinol products
- take oral or topical antibiotics
Never wax skin that’s already red, irritated, inflamed, itchy, sunburned, cut, scraped, or sore. You don’t want to add to any existing ouch.
Skip waxing facial hair if you’ve had recent laser skin resurfacing, microdermabrasion, or any other cosmetic procedures that heavily exfoliate skin. Ask your dermatologist or aesthetician when it’s safe to begin waxing.
Some topicals can also make skin more susceptible to injury from hair removal. Lay off of waxing for about a week if you’ve been using:
- chemical peels
- skin lightening or hair bleaching products
- alpha or beta hydroxy acids
- benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid
Antibiotics can also impact skin sensitivity, so wait to wax until you’ve been off your script for about a week.
What to do if you injure your skin
If some of your skin does come off with the wax, you’ll need to treat that patch with care to avoid irritation and infection. Cleanse the open wound gently and apply an antibiotic ointment.
To keep it moisturized and protected, apply a barrier like Un-petroleum jelly and wear sunscreen if the skin is exposed.
Seek medical care if the wound is deep and you’re unable to stop the bleeding, or if you suspect an infection. Watch for pus with a foul odor, an increase in swelling of surrounding tissue, or a wound that won’t heal. Also seek care if you develop an unexplained fever or illness.
Although these waxing complications may sound a little concerning, waxing at home is generally safe if you follow these tips. Plus, you’ll find plenty of products on the market to help you do it with ease.
If you’re a waxing newbie, it can be helpful to take a trip to the salon for your first wax to watch a pro in action.
For your first DIY wax, opt for a body part that’s reachable with two hands and is easy for you to see. Start with a small patch first and see how things go before moving on to a larger section or a harder-to-reach hairy part.
If you decide waxing isn’t for you, no worries. You’ve got other hair removal options. Or you can keep fuzz in place and flaunt it. The choice is yours.
Jennifer Chesak is a medical journalist for several national publications, a writing instructor, and a freelance book editor. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill. She’s also the managing editor for the literary magazine, Shift. Jennifer lives in Nashville but hails from North Dakota, and when she’s not writing or sticking her nose in a book, she’s usually running trails or futzing with her garden. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.