What Are Epilators & How Do They Work?

Epilation has emerged as an inexpensive, DIY hair removal method that hurts less than waxing and lasts longer than shaving. Like tweezing and waxing, epilation removes hair by the roots.

The procedure involves a single tool called an “epilator” – either manual or electric – that is moved across the skin like a razor. The process may be painful when you start, but it gets easier each time (I promise!).

Epilation is a temporary method that over time will cause individual hairs to grow thin and sparse. Epilators come in different forms (explained below), but the most common models look sort of like a computer mouse or an electric shaver. Epilators are effective on many areas including the legs, arms, face, underarms, and bikini area.

An epilator works by capturing hairs at their base with spinning discs or springs. The device’s moving parts catch hairs and pull them out by the root – leaving skin soft and smooth.

Most people find epilation painful, at least when they start. Individual pain tolerance plays a role, but the pain typically lessens each time as your body becomes accustomed to the procedure.

If you’re worried about pain, I recommend choosing a model with a slow speed and small head (the Braun Silk-epil 3, for example). The newest models are designed to minimize discomfort, incorporating pre-massage features and wet options. With regular use, most men and women find they can epilate regularly with little discomfort.

Types of Epilation

manual spring

Epilation is easy and involves little risk, leading it to become a popular DIY hair removal method for men and women. All epilators remove hair by the roots, as I explained above, but there are a few different types of models to choose from: spring type, rotating disc type, and tweezer type.

The first epilator was invented in Israel in the 1980s. The simple design involved a coil spring that when bent into a “U” shape caused one section to open while the other squeezed shut. This is called a spring epilator. 

A rotating mechanism causes the device to bend and open on alternating sides. As it is moved over the skin, the coils on the bent side catch hairs. The rotating movement then yanks those hairs out while the coils on the device’s other side catch and pluck out more hairs.

Unfortunately, metal becomes weak with repeated bending and this type of epilator breaks easily. Today, this simple model is used almost solely on the face (it would be very inconvenient to use this type of model on large areas like the arms or legs).

Some spring or “facial” epilators are manually operated (image above). 

Remington pioneered the rotating disc epilator, a machine that incorporates rotating metal plates or discs instead of a coiled spring. Plates/discs are mounted on the device’s head and contained inside a protective plastic guard.

As they move, the tips of the plates/discs work like tweezers to pull hair. As the user moves the epilator across his or her skin, those rotating parts continuously catch, pull, and discard unwanted hair.

tweezer type epilatorThe third type or tweezer type is a modern, more efficient version of the rotating disc type. The device’s head contains moving plates that alternative between opening and closing as the head moves. This creates an effective cycle of hair pulling. Think of it like an electric tweezer.

Tweezer epilators are typically considered the “most advanced” and “best” in the epilation world, but which type you pick depends on personal preference. Some people choose different hair removal methods for different body parts. 

While most epilators in today’s market are appropriate for use on all parts of the body, a few specialized models exist for small, delicate areas. These models are smaller and more maneuverable – great for areas like the bikini line and face. To minimize pain in those areas, you may want to use wet wipes, numbing creams, or other accessories. Pulling skin taut during the procedure can also help.

What to expect afterwards

waxing-vs-epilator-bad-things-about-epilatorThe skin may be red and irritated after epilation – especially the first few times. That’s why I recommend epilating just before bedtime. Use a soothing cream after the procedure and your skin should be smooth and soft when you wake up the next morning. Individuals with sensitive skin should choose a product with hypoallergenic parts.

Not all hairs were created equal – some are dry and brittle, others are thick and stubborn. Some may resist epilation or snap off when pulled. In other words, you might end up with some stubble, but it will be nothing compared to that “5 o’clock shadow” some of us get after shaving.

The single biggest downside to epilating is that it is notorious for causing ingrown hairs (more so than other methods of hair removal). You can take steps to minimize or prevent this problem by:

  • Moving the epilator in a smooth and consistent motion
  • Epilating against your hair’s natural direction
  • Hydrating the skin prior to treatment
  • Using exfoliating scrubs or creams (not directly before treatment)

Does epilation work?

Definitely! Epilation has become one of the most popular ways to remove unwanted hair. Compared to shaving, waxing, and lasering, here are just some of the benefits:

  • Quick
  • Portable
  • Inexpensive
  • Works for every hair and skin type
  • No mess
  • Can be used regularly

braun-tweezer1For many, shaving leaves your skin smooth for only a day or two. Epilation has been known to provide results that last two weeks or longer! This is because you’re pulling the entire hair out.

On top of that, frequent epilation will damage your follicles, causing slower growth and thinner hair over time. In some instances, hair will stop growing altogether. Unlike laser treatments and waxing, where professional results are far better than anything you can hope to achieve with an at-home product, epilation is effective and easy to do on your own.

There’s no question about which method is better when compared to the messy, complex process of waxing.

With at-home IPL devices, frequency of use is limited and there’s a risk for eye damage and burns. Epilators carry no such risk and can be used every day. Modern epilators are so effective they can catch and yank out hairs that are less than one millimeter in length.

Before you buy

In order to help you decide which epilator is right for you, I suggest considering the following before you buy:

  • Amount of tweezers (more tweezers = faster removal, but more pain)
  • Pain tolerance (some models have features to minimize pain)
  • Dry or wet (the process works best on dry skin, but is less irritating and painful on wet skin)
  • Area (choose a special head or model when using on bikini line/ face)
  • Speed settings
  • Cordless or corded
  • Price (ranges from $30 to $120 depending on complexity)

As I mentioned above, tweezer models are generally considered to be the most effective. The epilator you choose, however, should depend on your specific goals and needs. Each model out there has its own accessories and features and what may work for one person may not work for another.

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