Finding Balance: A Blog for Healthy Living
A Brief History of Hair Removal
December 14, 2017
How far would you go to remove unwanted hair? Since the time of the Ancient Egyptians, women have gone to great lengths to remove unwanted body and facial hair. While we are fortunate to live in a time where technology provides safe and effective methods, such as electrolysis, the women who lived before us experimented with more precarious – sometimes harmful - techniques.
The ancient Egyptians harbored an obsession with cleanliness and personal hygiene and viewed body hair as shameful and unclean. Egyptian women (as well as men and even children) removed almost all of the hair from their bodies, including their heads, using razors made of flint and bronze. They also used a technique called ‘sugaring’ in which a sticky past (oftentimes beeswax) was applied to the skin then ripped off with a cloth strip.
In the ancient Roman Empire, hair removal was associated with socioeconomic status. Wealthy Roman women removed almost all of their body hair by shaving, plucking, scraping with a pumice stone, or ‘stripping’ using a resin paste. They also used a tweezing instrument called a ‘volsella’ which resembled a crude obstetric tool. Depilatory creams – predating Nair by a couple thousand years – contained ingredients such as goat’s gall, bat’s blood and powdered viper.
Hair removal practices became increasingly creative – and increasingly peculiar - during the Renaissance period. Queen Elizabeth, herself, set the trend for removing all facial hair (while leaving body hair untouched). Following her majesty’s example, Elizabethan women removed their eyebrows and hair from their foreheads using bandages soaked in ammonia and vinegar. (The ammonia they obtained from the urine of their feline companions.)
A popular 16th century handbook of household remedies charmingly entitled ‘Book of Secrets’ promoted actual hair removal recipes for use on every part of the body. One such recipe reads as follows:
“Boil together a solution of one pint of arsenic and eighth of a pint of quicklime. Go to a baths or a hot room and smear medicine over the area to be depilated. When the skin feels hot, wash quickly with hot water so the flesh doesn’t come off.” Jill Burke, Did Renaissance women remove body hair?
Another memorable hair removal recipe found in a 1532 publication encourages women to wash the area where hair is to be removed in a mixture of cat dung and vinegar.
The late 19th century ushered in a new, more civilized, era of hair removal. In 1880, American businessman King Camp Gillette introduced the first modern day razor for men. Three decades later, Gillette created the first razor for women. Wax strips became available in the 1960s and became a popular method of removing leg and underarm hair.
While electrolysis, was first introduced in 1885, it did not become popular until the early 1970s. The earliest forms of electrolysis involved the use of sewing needles to deliver a negative galvanic current into the hair follicle. Each hair required a 1-3 minute treatment, making the overall process slow and tedious. Over the decades, electrolysis has evolved to become more efficient and more effective. Today, fine, hair sized probes are used, and each hair can be treated in seconds – or in fractions of a second (depending on the modality used). Today, Electrolysis remains the only FDA approved method of permanent hair removal.
These historical examples reveal the extent to which women throughout history have lamented over unwanted facial and body hair. While we still tend to obsess over our unwanted hair, we can be thankful that we no longer rely on remedies comprised of bat’s blood and cat urine.
Burke, Jill. Did Renaissance women remove body hair? [Blog Post] Retrieved from: https://renresearch.wordpress.com/2012/12/09/did-renaissance-women-remove-their-body-hair/
ELLE. History of Hair Removal [Online Article] Retrieved from: http://www.elle.com/beauty/makeup-skin-care/tips/g8155/history-of-hair-removal/
Herzig, R.M. (2015). Plucked: A History of Hair Removal. New York, NY: NYU Press
Hinkle, A.R & Lind, R.W. (1968). Electrolysis, Thermolysis and the Blend: The Principles and Practice of Permanent Hair Removal. San Francisco, California: Arroway