I hate shaving every day. What would happen if I used one of those temporary hair-removal products on my face? What about the permanent ones? --Dan, Merrick, New York, via e-mail
For a minute there I thought I had the perfect solution--castration! No more shaving, and as a bonus you don't go bald and are happy to ask for driving directions when lost. However, on calmer consideration I realized that while castration prevents the development of male sex characteristics, it generally doesn't reverse those you've already got, facial hair in your case apparently being one. So we're forced to turn to plan B, namely the treatments you refer to, which unfortunately are just as likely to involve a lot of pain, money, and fuss.
Temporary chemical hair-removal products like Nair--depilatories, they're called--can dissolve some of the hair on your face, but they're primarily intended to remove the relatively lightweight hair of women. One male Straight Dope staffer has tried several such products on his face and been disappointed with the results, claiming he saw pretty much no hair removal and got a serious headache from the fumes. Beard hair often won't respond to topical treatments before the skin becomes too irritated to continue. (Some depilatories are marketed to men as a means of fighting razor bumps--ingrown whiskers that can interfere painfully with shaving--but anecdotal evidence suggests they don't always work so well in this role either.) Vaniqa (eflornithine hydrochloride), an increasingly popular prescription ointment, is said to suppress facial hair growth in women, but it's not recommended for men, and even among women doesn't appear to have an especially high rate of effectiveness.
What else can you do if you're determined not to shave? A local hair-removal expert told me some men have tried facial waxing or sugaring (both techniques involve pouring on sticky stuff topped with a layer of fabric, then ripping the fabric off quickly, taking the goo and ideally the hairs with it), but generally this doesn't work due to the thickness, depth, and tenacity of the roots. Some hardy individuals pluck their beards, but as beard hairs typically number in the hundreds per square inch, well, making any serious progress becomes a real test of manhood. Worse, none of these methods is permanent--you're simply accelerating the hairs' normal growth cycle, in which old ones fall out and are replaced by new ones pushing up from below. While plucking will eventually damage hair follicles, men who've tried it estimate the regrowth rate at something like 98 percent.
That leaves electrolysis, laser treatment, or a combination of the two. Electrolysis has been around for more than a century and can achieve nearly 100 percent permanent removal if done by a skilled practitioner. The drawback with using it on beards, I'm told, is that it hurts like hell--any prior belief that big boys don't cry will be sorely tested by this procedure. Anesthetics are available and a gradual course of treatment can help spread out the pain, which may be a good or a bad thing depending on how you look at it. I don't recommend home electrolysis kits--due to user inexperience they tend to have low permanence plus increased risk of burns, skin lesions, scarring, and infection.
Laser treatment is a popular choice for permanent beard removal, offering the advantages of speed, less pain, and few complications if done properly. But the effectiveness of laser is highly dependent on your hair and skin type. Some people can get close to total permanent removal, but for those with red, light blond, or white hair, deep roots, or thick, dark skin, permanent removal may require many treatments and in some cases may not be possible. Laser treatment carries a risk of severe burns, although the technicians I spoke to claim that this can be avoided by patient feedback, i.e., when it hurts, you scream. (No joke--a common problem apparently is that patients, not wishing to complain, don't warn the technician when their skin is getting too hot.) Finally, laser is expensive: permanent beard removal typically takes from six to more than a dozen treatments at a cost of anywhere from $50 to $300 per. Some experts recommend a mix of laser and electrolysis--laser to beat back the worst of the facial hair and thin out the roots, then electrolysis to finish the job. This is good for tough cases but can be even more expensive.
Given these options, Dan, you might recall a story attributed to George Bernard Shaw: As a child Shaw was watching his father shave one day and asked him why he did it. Shaw senior stopped, stared at his son, then threw his razor out the window, saying, "Why the hell do I?" Thereafter he grew a beard, an approach famously adopted by G.B. Maybe you should do the same.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.