For most people, shaving leaves the face, neck or legs soft, smooth and fresh looking. Others aren't so lucky: Shaving means days or even weeks with skin that's sensitive to the touch and has quite visible breakouts. For men, this seems to offer the option of sporting a lifetime beard or presenting to the world a freshly shaved rash where the neck, jaw and cheeks once existed. For women, the dilemma could make for a long summer wearing pants.
But not all of us can run from our shaving problems. Men in the military must shave daily. Societal norms favor smooth, hairless legs for women. People working in the hospitality industry are usually required to project a clean-shaven visage. For those of us prone to shaving rash, the world has some painful customs, demands and expectations when it comes to the length of hair we're expected to maintain on our faces and bodies.
What exactly is shaving rash? It's different from what's commonly called "razor burn." Razor burn is mild skin irritation following shaving due to a dull razor or insufficient use of moisturizer or a shaving lubricant. Razor burn can also occur when sweat or chemicals (such as lotions with fragrances or deodorant) make contact with the multitude of tiny nicks and cuts shaving creates in the skin, which we normally don't detect unless we really give ourselves a good slice.
Shaving rash -- also called shaving bumps, razor bumps or pseudofolliculitis barbae -- is quite a step up on the irritation scale from razor burn. It occurs when recently shaved hair grows back into the skin, becoming an ingrown hair.
How and why does hair grown into the skin? What can be done to prevent it? Is growing a bushy mountain-man beard totally off the table as an option? See the next section to find out.
Shaving with Warm Water
When using a standard razor, there are certain methods you can use to help prevent shaving rash. First, take a shower immediately before you shave. Ideally, you'll be able to shave in the shower (or bath, if you're shaving your legs). Allow the water to make direct contact for several minutes with the area to be shaved. Take your time -- after several minutes of exposure to steam and warm water, your hairs will become quite soft. Now, when you shave them, they won't be as sharp at the ends and won't be as likely to pierce the skin should they curl back into it. Also, the skin will swell slightly after you've been in the shower for several minutes. This makes for a less-than-ideal shave under normal circumstances, since it leaves behind stubble once you've shaved and your post-shower skin has tightened back up, but this is desirable for those dealing with shaving rash.
Anyone who's gotten an "old-fashioned" shave from a barber (or seen a Bugs Bunny cartoon) knows that a barber will cover your face with a warm washcloth for several minutes before getting started. Warm water on the skin serves several purposes:
- Warm water makes hairs stand up, which makes shaving easier.
- Warm water relaxes the skin, giving it a looser feel. This will prevent you from shaving too close, as you would with taut skin.
- Warm water also opens up your pores and helps keep them clean. Clogged pores will result in acne that disturbs the smooth surface of the skin, potentially blocking or redirecting hairs that otherwise would grow out normally away from the face.
- Warm water will help prevent the tips of hairs from being sharp, as the hair will both stand up during shaving and give slightly when the razor passes over, creating a more rounded hair tip.
What, besides warm water, will improve your shave while helping to prevent shaving rash? Proper shaving techniques, as we'll learn in the next section.
Using Proper Shaving Techniques
When you shave, it's important to use proper shaving techniques. Shave in the direction your hairs are growing in, and not against the grain. You may make a second pass over the skin, but do it gently, and don't push down too hard against the skin. Again, it's not in your interest to get a super-close shave. As such, don't pull your skin taut when shaving a particular area. When you release the skin, the hairs you just cut will recede beneath the follicle opening and be more likely to grow back into the skin or sideways through the follicle itself.
People susceptible to shaving rash should shave with a single-blade razor. Despite the marketing hype, you don't want an especially close shave. As such, you should avoid shaving systems that cut the hair beneath the surface of the skin by lifting or pulling the hair as it's being cut. Hairs cut below the opening of the follicle can easily become ingrown.
If left unchecked, shaving rash can result in discoloration that can last for months, and in severe cases, it may cause permanent scarring. But as painful and unsightly as shaving rash can be, it's also pretty easy to prevent, so long as you're willing to adjust your shaving routine. The severity of your shaving rash may determine how extreme those adjustments need to be.
Others may have better luck getting rid of shaving rash by using an electric razor. Electric razors, even at their best, usually don't create as close a shave as regular razors, which is favorable when it comes to avoiding shaving rash. You can also adjust how close a shave your electric razor gives you -- this works the same way lawn mowers work, allowing you to adjust the height of the grass (or hair) that's left when you're done. While a five-o'clock shadow doesn't look as fresh or clean-cut as a perfectly smooth shave (especially if that shadow is on your legs), cutting the hairs slightly off the skin allows them to grow out naturally without curling back and becoming ingrown.
Cleanliness may or may not be next to godliness, but it'll get you close enough when it comes to shaving, as we'll learn next.
Using Clean Razors
If you get shaving rash, it'd be understandable if you thought the irritation on your skin was the result of slicing and dicing it with too sharp a blade. However, as any worker at an Alaskan fish camp will tell you, you're more likely to cut yourself with a dull knife than with a sharp knife. The same holds true for razors. When a razor dulls, its edge becomes slightly rounded, and tiny, imperceptible chips may form along that edge. When you run it over your skin, it now snags on some hairs while passing over others. Add to that the sloughed off skin and hair particles clogging the razor, and you're in for a rough shave.
Wash your razor after each pass over your skin. If you're not getting an easy pass over the skin with your razor, don't think twice about replacing it. Using a dull, dirty razor will make you more likely to pass several times over your skin, agitating it and cutting hairs unevenly. While missed hairs will stick out on the skin, hairs you've given the hatchet treatment to will likely curl and grow back into the skin. The result? Skin that's not only painfully scraped and full of ingrown hairs, but also skin that shows off unsightly hairs that were missed during the shave.
Also, don't forget to regularly take apart and wash your electric razor, if that's your weapon of choice. Roughly rubbing a poorly functioning electric razor over your skin repeatedly won't do anything to bring you a sense of relief.
If you have a bad shaving rash and the freedom to avoid shaving for a few weeks, most ingrown hairs will eventually free themselves when left alone. The same curl that caused this trouble will eventually behave like a spring, and the tightening coil created by the hair's continued growth will pop the hair free of the skin it's embedded in. Ingrown hairs can also be freed using a sterilized needle or tweezers to pull on the exposed loop of hair until the embedded tip comes free of the skin.
Start warming the water, sharpen up your technique, clean that razor and see the next page for lots more information.
- Crutchfield III., C.E. "Razor Bumps." Aveeno Products/Rydelle Labs. 1996. (Jan. 17, 2011)http://www.crutchfielddermatology.com/treatments/Pseudofolliculitisbarbae/1.htm
- Greidanus, Thomas G. and Beth Honl. "Pseudofolliculitis of the Beard." March 27, 2009. (Jan. 17, 2011)http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1071251-overview
- Healthwise. "Razor Bumps Overview." Web MD. July 19, 2005. (Jan. 17, 2011)http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/tc/razor-bumps-topic-overview
- Oakley, Amanda. "Pseudofolliculitis barbae." New Zealand Dermatological Society Incorporated. Feb. 27, 2010. (Jan. 17, 2011)http://dermnetnz.org/acne/pseudofolliculitis-barbae.html