Personal grooming choices are, well, personal—especially when it comes to hair removal. While there is no “right” way to go about it, or do it at all, many people opt for services with high-quality ingredients that cause the least pain-filled yelps as possible. Which is why sugaring has seen a rise in the hair removal hierarchy, due to its all-natural formula and less abrasive appeal. But how does it compare to a traditional wax, and which one is better in the long run? Here, we get to the bottom of the sugaring-versus-waxing debate. (Spoiler: It’s all about skin type).
Sugaring versus waxing: What’s the difference?
Sugaring and waxing are both reputable hair removal treatments that look fairly similar at first glance: Both involve removing the hair at the root by applying a layer of adhesive goop, letting it set, and then pulling it, extracting the hairs in the process. However, there are some slight nuances to keep in mind when deciding which path to follow.
For starters, the mixtures themselves are completely different. Sugaring paste is made from 100% natural ingredients—sugar, lemon, and water. The gloop is able to penetrate the hair follicle and adhere to individual hairs before removing them at the root. Wax, on the other hand, is often a mixture of beeswax, rosin, and oil—but beware of synthetic versions, which can include additives and paraffin, a wax derived from petroleum (which, as we know, is not too environmentally friendly).
You should also know that there are two different kinds of wax: hard and soft. Soft wax is applied in a very thin layer with a muslin strip on top to grab and remove the hair immediately. It’s what you’d typically see for eyebrow and lip waxes in particular, as those areas require a little more precision (you can cut the muslin strip to whatever size you like). Hard wax, on the other hand, cools and hardens on the skin in a thick layer before being removed without the muslin strip, so it doesn’t pull on the skin (and is considered to be a lot less painful). Both hard and soft wax are typically heated to a much higher temperature than sugar paste (which usually remains lukewarm).
But the biggest difference between sugaring and waxing? The direction in which the hair is pulled. With sugaring, the paste is applied in the opposite direction of hair growth; when removed, it extracts the hair in the natural direction of hair growth. (Here’s a visual: The esthetician spreads the sugar paste in an upward motion, then pulls it downward to remove the hair). During a wax, the hair is pulled in the opposite direction of the hair follicle—against the grain, if you will.
Final point before we begin: You may also want to hold off on hair removal services if you’ve used topical retinoids on the desired area within the last week, as you may end up causing damage to the epidermis.
Sugaring: Pros and cons.
Here’s what to know about sugaring.
Sugaring definitely trumps on the all-natural front: While there certainly are natural, premium-quality waxes available, you might have to seek them out at the right salon. With sugaring, you know exactly what you’re putting on your skin each time—always sugar, lemon, and water.
Pro: More hygienic
“Sugaring can also be more hygienic than waxing because double-dipping isn’t a possibility,” says Courtney Claghorn, founder of the sugaring studio SUGARED + BRONZED. While most waxing estheticians will grab a brand-new applicator before dipping into the mixture, sugaring mitigates the risk altogether—an esthetician will use a ball of sugar until the consistency is no longer adhesive, then throw it out and grab a new one.
Pro: Better for those with sensitive skin
For those with sensitive skin, sugaring may be your go-to. Because it pulls the hair in the same direction it grows, it can be less abrasive on the skin and prevent hair breakage (a precursor for those gnarly ingrowns). “Removing hair in the same direction of growth significantly reduces the tension put on the hair, making it less likely to break during the removal process,” says Amanda Mulea, licensed esthetician at SUGARED + BRONZED. Especially if you have fine, sparse hairs, sugaring can effectively clean up those bits without pulling too harshly at the skin.
Con: May leave some hairs behind
But because sugaring involves pulling the hair in the direction it grows, it might not extract the entire hair like a traditional wax would. While sugaring is a gentler process, sometimes people need that extra power (especially those with thicker hair); if sugaring is unable to extract coarser hair cleanly from the root, it might actually lead to hair breakage and ingrowns, in addition to faster regrowth.
Waxing: Pros and cons.
Here’s what to know about waxing.
Pro: More effective removal
If you have coarse hair, sometimes extracting in the same direction of hair growth just won’t cut it—because waxing removes against the grain, it can be more effective for those folks who need the extra maintenance.
Pro: Slower regrowth
With a wax, you might also be able to wait longer between appointments; if you don’t uproot the entire follicle, it can lead to faster regrowth, says Carolina Tincovan, master esthetician at Miami’s WaxSpa. So if you find yourself in the salon more often than you’d like, you may want to re-evaluate your options.
However, if you have supersensitive skin, a traditional wax may be too abrasive for your pores. While there are waxes made for those with sensitive skin, sugaring still reigns as the gentler in-office option. Because of the heated temperature, waxing also runs the risk of burns—be sure to tell your esthetician if the wax feels too hot to handle.
Which is more painful?
Unfortunately, the first time you opt for any hair removal service, you might experience some pain. Especially if your hair is longer, uprooting it from the follicle might be a little cringeworthy in the beginning (no matter which treatment). “A client’s first sugaring session is often the same pain level as a typical waxing session,” says Claghorn.
After your first go, it’s an entirely personal matter—one person might be a stickler for sugaring, while another may feel no pain from a high-quality hard wax. But the general key here is maintenance: If you routinely wax or sugar, the pain should subside.
“Waxing, if done with premium-quality hard wax, is not painful, especially if maintained every three to four weeks,” says Tincovan. So even if your first experience in the treatment room is a little nightmarish, keep in mind that it should become less painful with each recurring appointment. Just be sure to consult your derm if any extreme pain or redness persists or if you notice a reaction to either formula.
In terms of which treatment is better? It’s ultimately up to you to decide depending on your skin and hair type: If you have sensitive skin or fine, sparse hair, feel free to stick to sugaring. But if your hair is coarse and thick, waxing may be the better option for you, as you might need the extra help gripping the hair at its root.
No matter which service you choose, the right prep and after care are essential: “Much like any other beauty regimen, [they] require regular skin care maintenance,” Claghorn explains. A freshly sugared or waxed patch of skin may be more sensitive to bacteria, and you definitely don’t want to clog those follicles—especially after you put in the effort to clean them out.
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