While shavers and razors cut hair off at skin level, epilators use motorized tweezers that pluck it out at the root. Because of that, there's no getting around the fact that an epilator can be painful to use.
"If you ask me, I would say that [the epilator is] a great hair removal method, my favorite one," says Denisa-Alexandra Cinca at EpilatorGirl.com, who then adds, "If you would ask others, they would straightforward say that it's a torture device." Cinca lists several ways of easing the pain, including lidocaine cream (which numbs the skin so that you don't feel a thing) and making sure you hold the skin taut while epilating.
Epilating takes a long time, but these nifty devices have quite a few things going for them. Over time, epilated hair comes back finer and stays away longer; after the first few epilations, some women can go a couple of weeks between touch-ups. Experienced epilators also say that as your skin adapts, the whole process becomes less painful -- delivering more of a tingling or prickling sensation than real pain. If you're used to waxing, they say, making the switch to epilation is a cinch. Epilators can also save you money because you don't have to pay for shaving cream or replacement blades.
The Braun Silk-epil 9 Wet and Dry Epilator (Est. $120) "removes hairs from the root like no other," Cinca says, awarding it 4.7 out of 5 stars. Owners at Amazon.com, Target.com and Walmart.com like the Braun better than any other epilator, too, making it the runaway favorite in this category -- despite its steep price.
You can use the Braun Silk-epil 9 in the shower, or dry. Some owners say it hurts less if they use it in the shower, although they tend to get smoother skin when they use it dry.
The Braun epilator is cordless, and you can't use it while it's charging. Braun says it takes 1 hour to charge, and will run for up to 40 minutes. Owners don't complain about battery life -- but remember, the first epilation will take a long time. Users say you can easily spend 15 to 30 minutes epilating one leg initially. After the first time, epilating will go much faster, they say. A few minutes per leg will keep things smooth for one to four weeks, depending on the hair type (although not as smooth as a razor).
The Braun Silk-epil 9 has two speeds: Speed 1 is gentler, while Speed 2 is faster. It has a wider head than earlier Braun epilators, which helps the hair removal process go more quickly. The Silk-epil 9 carries a two-year limited warranty; Cinca notes that the Braun 7 series suffered from poor battery life, but the Silk-epil 9's warranty does cover the battery.
The base Silk-epil 9 comes with two heads -- a regular one and a high-frequency one that massages while you epilate -- a carrying pouch, cord and cleaning brush (you can also rinse the Silk-epil 9 under water to clean it). The Braun Silk-epil 9 Bonus Edition (Est. $125) adds a charging stand and heads for facial epilating, facial cleansing, shaving and trimming.
For a cheaper option, try the Philips Satinelle Epilator HP6401/50 (Est. $30). It costs only a quarter of the price of the Braun epilator, and it earns high marks from owners at Walmart.com.
"The best cheap epilator," Cinca says of the Phillips Satinelle HP6401/50. Unlike many cheap epilators, she finds that the Phillips really does pluck hairs out by the root (rather than cutting or ripping them). It has two speeds, and Cinca says it's no more painful than a pricey epilator.
The cheaper Phillips does have its drawbacks, however. It has only 21 tweezers (versus 40 for the Braun), so it epilates more slowly. Unlike the Braun, Cinca wouldn't recommend it for facial hair, and it lacks a built-in light. "That little light is a helpful aid in spotting hairs you would otherwise miss entirely," Cinca says. "At the end of an epilation session I even do a checkup just using the light to see if I've missed any hairs."
Unlike the rechargeable Braun, the Phillips epilator is corded -- which can be a plus or a minus, depending whether you hate being tied to a cord, or hate waiting for things to charge. The fact that it uses a cord precludes it from being used in a shower, and the Phillips isn't waterproof, but it does have a removable head that you can rinse off for easy cleaning.
Owner reviews aren't as good for the Phillips epilator as for the Braun. Owners are more likely to complain of broken or ingrown hairs, slow performance and leftover stubble with the Phillips. Still, Cinca says the Phillips is a good starter model for first-timers who want to test the waters before they dive headfirst into $100-plus epilators.