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A common piece of advice given to people who are going to have hair removed by waxing is to take an analgesic like ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or aspirin 30 minutes before their appointment.  The implication is that taking them will help reduce the pain that a client feels during waxing. 

Analgesics like aspirin and ibuprofen have a proven track record of easing pain that has set in after an injury, but does taking an analgesic before waxing really do anything to reduce the pain of hair removal?

how do analgesics work?

Ibuprofen, acetaminophen and aspirin all share a common method for reducing pain.  They all suppress the production of prostaglandin, a hormone that is closely associated with inflammation and pain.

Prostaglandin is somewhat unique among hormones in that it is not produced from a gland, but is produced from the cells themselves at the site of an injury. Prostaglandin has an important role in the inflammatory process, but it also irritates certain nerve endings that sense pain.  Therefore, when prostaglandin accumulates around the site of an injury, it irritates the nerves and causes pain.  When we suppress prostaglandin with an analgesic, we also suppress pain.

Prostaglandins are not produced immediately after an injury.  They take a while to be released because they are triggered by other chemical actions that must take place first.  Specifically, they are produced after white blood cells have been released into the tissue, and that doesn't happen until several other steps have already been completed.

Prostaglandin hormones serve to keep inflammation going, and one of the ways they do this is by irritating the nerve endings around the area of injury. As long as the nerve endings register pain, the immune system will keep producing inflammation. Prostaglandin therefore provides a signal to the immune system to keep inflammation going. Up to a point, this is good because if inflammation is shut down too quickly it may not be effective. 

When the pain of an injury doesn't go away quickly and instead sets in as a dull, prolonged ache, then the pain is probably being regulated by prostaglandin.  Taking an analgesic at this stage of recovery will help relieve some of the pain because it suppresses the prostaglandin causing it.

does prostaglandin contribute to the pain of waxing?

If the pain of hair removal was the type that continued to hurt for a long while afterwards, then we might expect that taking an analgesic would provide some benefit. But waxing does not cause pain that lasts a long time.  Typically, the pain of hair removal only lasts a few seconds and then diminishes on its own.  The pain doesn't last long enough for prostaglandins to make a contribution.

The pain of waxing is caused by the sudden movement of hair that happens when we remove it by waxing.  Nerves that are clustered around the base of each follicle register this movement and send a strong signal to the brain.  It is the strength of this signal that causes it to be interpreted as pain.  The pain is immediate but short-lived. 

It is nerve stimulation that causes the pain of waxing, not prostaglandin. Therefore, taking an analgesic that suppresses prostaglandin will not diminish the pain that is felt when hair is removed. Analgesics like ibuprofen reduce the prostaglandin that irritates nerves, but they do not reduce the overall sensitivity of the nerves. Since prostaglandin is the not the source of pain in waxing, analgesics can't do much to help.

analgesics have value in waxing, but not for pain

That doesn't mean that taking analgesics before waxing is worthless. Analgesics help to reduce inflammation, and this is an important benefit.  When skin turns red after waxing, this is a sign of inflammation.  Inflammation is the immune system's response to the strong nerve signals generated when we remove hair, and it is very common after waxing.

The inflammation produced by waxing is not painful, but is unsightly and most people want it to go away as quickly as possible.  One of the things that keeps inflammation going is prostaglandin, so taking an analgesic like ibuprofen will help sped the client's recovery because it will suppress the prostaglandin that keeps inflammation going. 

so, what's the bottom line?

The advice to take an analgesic before waxing is good, but it is not for the reduction of pain. The primary value of taking ibuprofen, acetaminophen or aspirin before waxing is to reduce how long inflammation lasts. 

Keep this in mind if you have clients who experience problems with inflammation lasting a long time after waxing, or who routinely break out with pimples in the days following.  You may want to suggest they use an analgesic of their choice for a few days to help ensure that prostaglandin does not contribute to their inflammation.

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