The Risks of Hair Removal: Does Nair Cause Cancer?

Nair is a brand that produces various hair-removal products, also called depilatories. Nair offers several hair removal creams for various parts of the body, including the face, legs, arms, and chest . For those unfamiliar with the products’ underlying biochemistry, hair removal creams might seem like magic: simply applying a mystery substance to the skin’s surface for 3-10 minutes allows body hair to be easily wiped away. In fact, the website has a button titled, “Where can I buy these magical products?” which links consumers to a store locator page. Contrary to this mystical illusion, the scientific mechanism underlying this process is actually pretty straightforward. In this article, we discuss how Nair hair removal creams work, which active ingredients they contain, and whether such ingredients are associated with increased cancer risk.
Faith Wershba

Faith Wershba

Postgraduate researcher at the University of Cambridge.

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Bottom Line: Does Nair Cause Cancer?

Current evidence does not support the claim that Nair hair removal creams cause cancer. However, Nair products do contain harsh chemical irritants that can be harmful to the skin. If you choose to use a depilatory cream for hair removal, always be careful to follow the product’s instructions and monitor for signs of irritation or allergic reaction.

What is Nair hair removal cream?

Nair hair removal cream is a depilatory that can be purchased at generic pharmacies or beauty stores and used at-home. The company offers several lines of depilatory creams, lotions, and sprays, including leg masks, face creams, bikini creams, face creams, and body spray [1]. The products are applied to dry, clean skin and left to sit for 3-10 minutes before being wiped off with a damp towel [2]. The underlying body hair, which has been broken down by the product, is wiped away as the product is removed.

How does Nair hair removal cream work?

Nair depilatory creams work by breaking down structural proteins contained within the hair shaft [3]. The products primarily break down keratin, a fibrous structural protein abundant in the hair, skin, and nails [4]. Keratin alpha-helices are held together by noncovalent intermolecular forces, allowing them to form bundles that comprise the bulk of the hair shaft [5]. By disrupting these intermolecular forces (particularly disulfide bridges [6]), the chemical components in Nair hair removal creams cause keratin bundles to degrade and the hair shaft to break apart.

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What are the active ingredients in Nair?

Nair depilatory creams contain two main active ingredients [3]:

  • Potassium thioglycolate: potassium thioglycolate is a potassium salt derived from thioglycolic acid. Thioglycolic acid is a harsh and corrosive chemical and exposure to pure thioglycolic acid can cause irritation [7]. Thioglycolic acid has a high (acidic) pH value of 1.5 [8], which would cause damage to the skin; as such, thioglycolic acid is complexed with metal ions—such as potassium—to form less reactive salts for use in cosmetic products.
  • Calcium hydroxide: calcium hydroxide is a basic inorganic compound used in various cosmetic and body care products. It is typically included in products as a pH regulator. When exposed to water, calcium hydroxide ionizes into Ca2+ and OH– ions, the latter of which can absorb excess H+ ions and thereby reduce the acidity of the product [9]. Calcium hydroxide can also disrupt noncovalent forces between keratin molecules and thereby contribute to hair degradation.

Nair products also contain various emollients, fragrances, and stabilizers. However, these do not actively contribute to the products’ depilatory effects.

Are the chemicals in Nair harmful?

Because the active depilatory ingredients in Nair hair removal creams are used in relatively small amounts and are partially neutralized by other ingredients, the chemicals are unlikely to cause serious harm when products are used as recommended [6]. This being said, the active chemicals in Nair are classified as irritants and can certainly be harmful. Because of this, products should never be left on the skin for longer than 10 minutes and the skin should be thoroughly washed after use [2]. Moreover, some individuals experience allergic reactions to the product, meaning that particular populations may be at greater risk of harm [10]. Because the active ingredients in Nair are corrosive, they have the potential to cause severe skin burns, eye damage, and result in toxicity if ingested [10].

There is some evidence suggesting that depilatory chemicals can increase skin penetrability [6], which means that the skin might become more susceptible to absorbing other irritants and harmful toxins from the environment after using Nair. Nair hair removal creams might also provoke inflammation at the cellular level: in one study, mice treated with depilatory creams containing calcium thioglycolate had increased levels of IL-6, TNFα, and TNFβ within dermal fibroblasts [6], suggesting increased inflammation.

Lastly, the chemicals in Nair are toxic to aquatic wildlife and harmful for the environment [10], which represents a broader form of harm to the wider ecosystem.

Is Nair carcinogenic?

Currently available evidence does not suggest that Nair causes cancer. Of course, establishing cause-and-effect relationships is notoriously difficult when it comes to cancer, since there are many different types of cancers and various risk factors associated with each. This being said, there does not appear to be a positive correlation between Nair use and increased cancer incidence, though perhaps such data has simply not been explored. Regardless, the current evidence does not support the claim that Nair causes cancer or is positively correlated with cancer.

Several studies have examined the potential mutagenicity and carcinogenicity of the active chemicals contained in Nair. For example, a report published in the International Journal of Toxicology concluded that potassium thioglycolate is not mutagenic or carcinogenic, though the authors did note that the chemical can cause skin irritation [11]. Similarly, calcium hydroxide has not been found to exhibit carcinogenic or mutagenic properties [12].

The results of a mouse study did report that skin exposure to depilatory creams promoted the induction of anagen phase [6], which is the period in which hair follicles proliferate and differentiate most rapidly [13]. Theoretically, such an effect could promote cancer development if proliferation became excessive or uncontrolled. However, this is a purely theoretical possibility and was not demonstrated within the study. Moreover, this anagen-promoting effect has not been replicated in humans.

Conclusion: Is Nair hair removal cream safe?

Overall, Nair hair removal cream appears safe for most individuals when used responsibly. The active chemicals in Nair have not been shown to induce mutagenesis or carcinogenesis and Nair use has not been shown to correlate with cancer incidence. Thus, the claim “Nair causes cancer” is unsubstantiated by current data. This being said, Nair does contain chemical irritants and corrosives that can be damaging to the skin. Nair also contains various inactive ingredients and fragrances, which may cause allergic reactions in some individuals. Therefore, Nair products are not without risk and, if used, should be used with caution.

Faith Wershba

Faith Wershba

Faith obtained her Honour’s Bachelor Degree in Human Biology, Immunology and History & Philosophy of Science at the University of Toronto. Currently, she is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Cambridge, focusing on the philosophy of medicine, science, biomedical research methods, and bioethics.