The Great Depilation Debate

Let science settle it.

A longtime liaison between pantry and powder room, sugar may be demonized for its dietary effects, but it’s broadly lauded for its exfoliating, hydrating, and rejuvenating properties. In the past few years, a hair removal technique called “sugaring” has hit the mainstream, emerging as a trendy alternative to traditional waxing. Many anecdotal claims cast sugaring as the less painful, less harmful and more effective option—but are these claims scientifically sound?

Several estheticians assert that sugaring is “less painful” because the paste—a simple blend of caramelized sugar, water, and lemon juice—attaches only to hair and dead skin, avoiding live skin cells altogether. Indeed, cosmetic science expert Perry Romanowski confirms that live skin cells are not affected by sugaring, but he also maintains that waxing doesn’t actually damage them, either.

“Sugar does not know the difference between alive and dead skin cells,” says Romanowski, whose decades-long cosmetic chemistry career has primarily focused on hair and hair products. “Wax also does not attach to live skin cells. Wax and sugar remain on the surface of the skin, where there are no living cells.”

Even so, the harmful nature of these depilation methods is hotly debated. Though irritated skin can result from either approach—sometimes leading to ingrown hairs or infection—sugaring is almost universally touted as the safer method, with a lower likelihood of causing negative side effects. In the case of infection, specifically, Romanowski admits that “sugar has the potential to be food for microbes in away that wax does not,” but in the context of sugaring, “it is used in a concentrated form that does not support microbial growth.”

For folks with especially sensitive skin, sugaring is almost universally touted as the safer option.

Many enthusiasts also believe that sugaring has longer-lasting effects than waxing, therefore requiring fewer treatments and even resulting in a permanent state of smooth skin. Romanowski disagrees. “Sugaring will not lead to permanent hair removal,” he says. “Both waxing and sugaring are temporary measures: they pull out the hair but do not remove the hair-creating cells in the follicle.”

He adds that “harm depends on how well the ingredient sticks to your skin, and that will depend on how the product is formulated.”

While fans of sugaring believe that the paste permeates hair follicles more deeply than wax, the opposite is likely to be true: sugaring paste tends to be less adhesive than a typical wax, which is usually made from beeswax and a tacky polymer, like rosin.

“In sugaring, the sugar actually forms crystals that trap the hair. [With wax], the sticky polymer attaches to the hair and it comes out when you pull off the product,” says Romanowski.

Something else that sets them apart is heat. Wax is often warmed, which increases the sensory intensity of the experience and ups the potential for peripheral risks like burns or inflammation. With its lower level of stickiness and lukewarm temperature, sugaring paste actually pulls the skin with less tension than wax, yielding less discomfort and a lower capacity for harm.

These benefits may remain rather subjective, but one thing is for certain: sugaring is more sustainable than the alternative. It does not require the use of sticks or strips, and being water soluble, there’s no need for an oil-based product to remove residue after a session. And that really is sweet—when hunting for an optimal beauty routine, earth-friendly options are always the better choice.

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