Hair, Hair! Here’s What a Derm Has to Say About the Hair on Your Face
What’s the science behind facial hair as we age? We wanted to know the long and the short of it, so we asked dermatologists.
If you’ve ever looked in the mirror and suddenly noticed a few backlit facial hairs, or if you’ve pricked your thumb on a spiky one, or if you’ve spotted an eyelash on your face but then realized, no, no, it’s attached, you may have wondered: Why? Why me? Why now? And what next?
The thing is, hair on your face is very normal, and the reason is simple: Wherever there’s a hair follicle, hair will grow. In fact, “the only places hair will not grow are the palms of the hands and soles of the feet,” says Monica Li, a dermatologist in Vancouver.
We all have two different types of hair: vellus and terminal. Vellus hair is often referred to as peach fuzz, which pretty much grows on all of your skin during childhood. It can be fair or dark, a light amount or heavy. Terminal hair includes thicker, typically darker hair that makes up your head of hair, your brows and your lashes. It also replaces some of your childhood vellus hair during the hormonal storm of puberty, typically for women in the underarm and pubic areas. (For men, terminal hair starts growing on the chest, abdomen and face.)
Li says that some women who are of Mediterranean or South Asian backgrounds tend to see more terminal hair growth, and on more areas of the body. But there’s no biological or regional explanation for this.
Certain medications can also trigger excess or unwanted hair growth, including cyclosporin, an immunosuppressant used to treat conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. And biotin, a supplement believed to benefit skin, nails and hair, could also cause hair to grow not only on the top of your head, but also anywhere else on your body. Think about it: How is a supplement you take orally supposed to know that you want fuller, longer locks only on your scalp, and not, say, your upper lip? “It can’t isolate hair growth to a certain area and not another,” says Li. (The research on biotin’s efficacy is inconclusive, she adds.)
Some medical conditions where there’s a hormonal imbalance—such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia and polycystic ovary syndrome—can also cause excessive hair growth. Called hirsutism, it occurs when a woman has a greater amount of male sex hormones than female sex hormones.
“What this looks like,” says Irina Oroz, a dermatologist in Saskatoon, “is basically increased hair growth in what we associate with a typically male distribution, so that’s going to be on the chin and the upper lip.” Hirsutism can also develop for postmenopausal women. As we get older, estrogen production decreases and our testosterone stays the same—and an excess amount of testosterone, compared to dropping estrogen, can cause facial hairs to start sprouting.
Now to address the obvious question: If facial hair is so common, why do we feel pressure to pluck it out, wax it off or shave it down? In the early 1900s, manufacturers of safety razors wanted to expand their market, so they propagated the idea that pretty much all hair below the lower lash line on women was masculine, vulgar and unhygienic—and therefore had to go. Marketers felt shaving was too manly for women to do, so they were encouraged to use a razor to “smooth” their legs and underarms, and to use bleach, wax and depilatory cream to remove facial hair. Unfortunately, these rudimentary hair removal practices could also irritate the skin. In some cases, women were exchanging hairs on their face for sore red bumps.
Over a century later, facial hair removal for women is still the norm‚ though beauty standards are shifting. We’re seeing more acceptance around facial hair, particularly among gender-fluid communities, with more people choosing to subscribe to the beauty practices that suit themselves (and not the patriarchy) best. We’ve also come a long way since the reaction-inducing bleach, wax and hair-dissolving products of the early 20th century.
If you’re interested in removing hair from your face, we’ve got expert tips from dermatologists for doing it right.
If you’re talking about one little chin hair, an unruly nose hair or an out-of-place eyebrow strand, tweezing is your best bet. “Because you’re pulling the hair out of the hair follicle, it takes weeks for that hair follicle to grow new hair,” says Li. Another perk: You don’t need to wait for a hair to be a certain length before getting rid of it.
Lasts three to six weeks.
These are creams that are applied to skin and, after a few minutes, start breaking down the keratin protein in hair, making it easy to simply wipe them off at the skin’s surface, leaving you hair free for about a week. Warning: Most of these creams still have an unpleasant odour, caused by the chemical reaction between the cream and the hair. On the upside, “the hair grows back with a tapered end,” says Oroz. That means it won’t grow back feeling pokey or sharp.
Lasts one week.
Vaniqa (eflornithine is the generic term) is a prescription cream approved by Health Canada and the FDA that helps slow the growth of facial hair. Usually applied twice a day as an adjunct to other hair removal methods, studies have shown that hair growth is reduced by an average of 58 percent after six months, according to Oroz. It’s safe for all women, regardless of age, except those who are pregnant, breastfeeding or allergic or sensitive to one of the ingredients.
Lasts six months to see reduced growth (then continue use to maintain results).
Threading, which is similar to tweezing, is most commonly used for brows in a professional setting because of the precision results. While there are many different threading methods, the technician typically uses a single piece of cotton thread to twist and pull along unwanted hair, lifting it from the root. (Sometimes the tech will hold one end of the thread in his or her mouth.)
Lasts three to six weeks.
Dermaplaning is a fancier version of shaving, which comes with the added benefit of exfoliation. “A lot of celebrities are advocating for dermaplaning because it can make skin look more glowy,” says Oroz. It’s used for removing peach fuzz as well as dead skin cells. However, dermaplaning can disrupt the skin barrier, causing irritation and razor burn. If you choose to do it yourself at home, make sure to use the right tool—Sephora has a highly rated Facial Razor Set for $15—because the razor you use on your legs will likely be too rough for your face. Dermaplaning razors should only be used when they’re relatively new (the blade needs to be sharp), on dry, clean skin, and Oroz recommends moisturizing afterward.
Lasts a few days.
Waxing and Sugaring
If waxing at home, Li advises using hard wax for sensitive areas like the face (or your underarms and bikini line), since hard wax sticks to hair but not skin. (Soft wax will stick to both the skin and the hair and is best suited for large areas such as the back, arms and legs.) She recommends cleansing skin before applying warmed wax in the direction of hair growth, pulling skin taut and yanking wax in the opposite direction, then following with a moisturizer to soothe the skin. Waxing may not be the best option for everyone, particularly those who take Accutane, have recently used retinol or have sensitive skin, according to Oroz. It can potentially lead to irritation, bruising and even scarring. For a gentler version, try going to a salon that does sugaring, which is similar to waxing but uses a paste typically made of sugar, lemon and water instead. The paste is ripped off by hand—no wax strip necessary—and is said to pull less on the skin.
Lasts three to six weeks.
Electrolysis and Laser
Electrolysis treatment involves multiple sessions, usually spaced two to three weeks apart, by a trained technician who uses a “very fine needle that passes a bit of electric current into the actual hair follicle to burn off the individual hair and damage the follicle, which prevents regrowth,” says Li. It’s not necessarily a permanent solution, especially if the underlying causes of hair growth haven’t been addressed, but it can last—potentially—for years, adds Oroz. Laser treatment, meanwhile, offers partial, short-term hair reduction for up to six months on average after completing four to six sessions, she says. Because it targets pigment at the base of the follicle (damaging the cells there that allow hair to grow), it works best when the contrast between hair and skin is high, e.g., dark hair on fair skin, but there are lasers that will be helpful for those with blond or reddish hair, she says. Li recommends that patients with darker skin who have an inherently higher risk of post-procedure dyspigmentation perform a test patch (though it’s not a bad idea for everyone to test before either laser or electrolysis treatment). And proceed with caution if you’ve recently used retinol.
Laser hair removal lasts anywhere from six months to two to three years. Electrolysis could theoretically last forever, but in reality, expect efficacy for several years only.