Trans Ed 101: facial hair

The face presents one of the starkest differences between a genetic male transitioning to female and a genetic female transitioning to male.

When a trans man (genetic female) goes on hormone replacement therapy (HRT), introducing to his system a significant amount of testosterone, in a very short time he can be growing facial hair. For many trans men, significant whiskers appear in a few months. For others, it takes a year or more, or might never grow in well (as happens for cisgender guys, too). As with all things, your mileage may vary . . . er, your personal genetics is the ultimate determining factor.

A before-and-after of a trans man’s facial hair growth.  He provides a video of his hair growth:

When a trans woman goes on HRT, she will lose her facial hair in similar time ranges—


Where adding testosterone causes beard growth for trans guys, we gals don’t enjoy the opposite outcome. Though our body hair growth eases—I lost almost all of my chest hair, and my arm and leg hair thinned—our beards just keep-on-keeping-on as if no hormonal changes have taken place.

For most trans women, this presents a host of challenges. Covering one’s shaved face with makeup might work, and it might not. Some have such heavy, dark beards—especially on the mustache and chin—which takes a mountain of makeup to hide and, unless one is a professional artist, one is left looking like she is wearing a bucket of goop.

Even if you achieve good coverage, if you do it early in the day by five o’clock the shadow that’s named for that hour will come shining through. Over the long run, makeup simply doesn’t cut it.  Besides, what woman wants a beard?  It has to go.

There are two reputable options, but for some folks one of them won’t work; that is, the easier, quicker, less expensive one won’t work. Ugh.

For people with darker hair—that’s right, you redheads, really blonde folks, and those gone gray, have to skip to the second, more arduous and expensive option—laser hair removal is the better choice. In as few as five sessions, and up to ten sessions, of perhaps an hour each, most of your beard can be zapped away. Generally, follow-up sessions over the next years will be needed as minimal hair growth continues.

Laser hair specialists usually claim that this procedure produces a bit of discomfort. For some folks, this is true; the zap of each laser pulse, dozens of times across the entire face, is hardly felt on parts of the face (for example, the cheeks) and produces only a pinch of pain in other places (above the lip, especially). I’ve heard gals brag, “I hardly felt it.” I hated them.

Many folks find it to be more painful. I still had enough dark hair above my lip and on my chin to be able to have laser, and had six treatments. Each pulse hurt so much that I had to hold my breath and grasp my hands tightly together. These sessions only took ten minutes, with a couple of dozen zaps, but I was virtually left out of breath and in a sweat.

I took this picture the day after my most recent electrolysis treatment.  Note the red spots above my lip, to the far left.  Barb the Impaler worked all around my mouth, leaving those.  On my chin, note the red areas.  But, chiefly, notice that no stubble is evident.  I have very few whiskers left above and below my mouth.  No more need for makeup cover.

So, you know, your mileage may vary with how much pain you experience. If you experience only mild discomfort, please don’t brag about it . . . unless you don’t mind having zero friends.

There are topical pain creams you can apply. Lidocaine is available over the counter and numbs the skin a bit. For better numbing, a cream which is equal parts lidocaine and prilocaine is available by prescription. I wish I knew about this when I began work on my face. Once I started using it, my discomfort was greatly reduced.

Laser treatments are spread every four to six weeks. Hair grows at various times, with some growing and some resting at any given time. That’s why several treatments are needed, and spread out by several weeks. Besides, each session’s zapped hairs won’t fall out until a week or two has passed. (When the time arrives, t’s fun to watch them just sort of flake away. Brushing at them with your finger increases the sense of achievement.)

As for the cost, I know folks who have invested only several hundred dollars to get the job done—they bought a package of deal of something like ten treatments for $600—while it might be more common to break the thousand dollar mark. If you think that’s a lot—I know it is, but just wait—compare it to the other option—electrolysis—and keep reading.

For those with red, really blonde, and gray hair, electrolysis is the only way to permanently remove your hair. For me, that was most of my gone-gray face. Where lasers zap an area—laser head sizes vary, depending on hair density, covering a pen size on up to a nickel size—the electrolysis needle takes one hair at a time.

One. Hair. At. A. Time.

Oh, and by the way, the male face has from 7,000 to 30,000 hairs.

Since I had neither a light nor a heavy beard, I would guess I was in the 15,000 to 20,000 hair range. How many dark hairs did I have, which the laser got? 1,000? 2,000? The whiskers are the thickest around the mouth, and the laser treatments got rid of my shadow, so I benefited a lot from those six treatments. They reduced by dozens the number of electrolysis hours I required.

2016-03-01 13.32.48
Barb the Impaler and I, in March of 2016, at the occasion of the publication of my article in Indianapolis Monthly magazine.

Last week, I asked Barb the Impaler—she does business as “Arborcrest” and “Barb Clayton,” but I’m onto her—how far along my beard removal is. She hemmed. She hawed. She finally guessed. “60%? Maybe 70%? It’s so hard to guess.”

I sure hope it 70%. As of this week’s hour session, she’s performed electrolysis on me for 91.5 hours.

I don’t like talking about how much this costs. Suffice it to say, Julie and I could buy a really nice used car with what we have invested in removing my facial hair.

I affectionately call Barb “the Impaler” because of how she needles me so badly. The electrolysis is pesky, too.  (Cue the rim shot.)

The process works this way: an electrified needle is inserted into a hair follicle, a pulse of electricity is applied, and the hair is removed.

Shampoo bottle instructions are well known: Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Electrolysis goes this way: Stick. Zap. Yank. Repeat.

Accent on the Zap and Yank.

About every ten seconds.

Another picture from when I returned from my most recent encounter with Barb the Impaler. While a large section of my cheeks is cleared of hair, the gray ones simply didn’t photograph well.  Look by my ear, then follow that to my neck, and you will see some hairs left to be stuck, zapped, and yanked.

Some hair pulls are barely noticeable. Other hair pulls are excruciatingly painful, enough to make me jerk and say “Ow!” Most are somewhere in between. Suffice it to say, I am always glad when the hour has ended.

Because the hair has to be pulled out, one cannot shave for a couple of days ahead of a session. (The opposite is true for laser: shave away!) By the second day, I look shabby. Even with large areas where whiskers no longer grow, there’s plenty left and, despite my appearance in the two photographs, those white hairs are very evident. I try really hard not to schedule anything where I have to meet people those two days.

Looking closely at the two pictures, you can see that the zapped areas are left a bit blotchy, and some of the larger hairs leave little blood spots. It takes a couple of days for this clear up. Thankfully, mine is not so bad that it keeps me from going out in public.

Facial hair removal is the longest process in transitioning from male to female. The progress is painfully slow. Patience is paramount.

When I shave on a daily basis, I am at the point where I hardly see anything before applying my razor, and I can zip across my face really quickly. Gone are the days of exacting work to get a clean shave. Hopefully, in one more year, shaving will entirely be a thing of the past.

And no more Barb the Impaler.

2 thoughts on “Trans Ed 101: facial hair

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