When the weather gets warm, the tank tops and swimsuits come out -- as do the razors, tweezers and hot wax. Women go to great lengths to look smoother and sexier during the summer, and that includes shaving those underappreciated underarms.
Of course, skin problems can arise when people shave. The most common underarm skin issues are the bumps and discoloration that usually come from shaving. Doctors call those unsightly, irritating red bumps folliculitis, which is an infection of the hair follicles [source: Mayo Clinic]. Lest you think that folliculitis is little more than a nuisance, keep in mind that the condition can be painful and can actually cause permanent baldness and scarring.
The skin underneath our arms can get irritated even when it's not being constantly scraped by a razor. The reason for this is simple. Human skin is home to trillions of bacteria [source: Pennisi]. Researchers are only beginning to understand the complex relationship between the human body and the army of microscopic creatures that reside on the surface of our skins. One thing's for sure: The damp, warm underarm area is an oasis for bacterial life [source: DeNoon].
We've assembled the top five tips for keeping the skin underneath your arms healthy, smooth and soft -- even after the rigors of shaving. Let's start with a good exfoliation.
Exfoliation is the process of scrubbing away dead skin cells from the surface of the skin. If layers of dead skin are allowed to pile up, they can become a breeding ground for bacteria.
The underarm area deserves regular exfoliation as much as your face does. In fact, exfoliation is an ideal way to smooth and soften the underarm skin because the process exposes hair follicles, leading to a closer, smoother shave [source: Muniz]. It also unclogs pores and reduces the formation of acne.
To exfoliate the underarm, use a gentle exfoliating cleanser applied with a loofah, washcloth or your hand. If you want to exfoliate without taking a shower first, you can also try disposable exfoliating wipes. You can find them in any drug store.
Since exfoliation removes layers of skin, it's important to let the skin rejuvenate between treatments. To avoid skin irritation and damage, dermatologists recommend exfoliating the underarms no more than twice a week [source: Bergman].
Shaving can be rough on sensitive underarm skin. Make sure that you use products free of common allergens and irritants, and that also help retain the skin's moisture levels.
You don't need to use a special shaving gel or cream for your underarms -- but avoid using soaps that contain deodorants, fragrances, alcohol or other ingredients that can dry out and irritate sensitive skin. Whether you use regular body soap or a special shaving gel, choose mild products that contain moisturizers.
This may sound obvious, but you should make sure that you use a new, sharp razor when you shave. Of course, you should use your own razor when you do so; shared razors spread bacteria. Don't push down too hard, either, because the blade can push bacteria into your hair follicles and cause infection [source: Monroe].
One of the best ways to be sensitive to your underarm skin is to shave less often. If you allow more time for the hair underneath your arms to grow, the skin there will retain more natural moisture and be less prone to irritation. That said, allowing your armpit hair to grow may be a luxury you can't afford during beach season.
Shaving at night has nothing to do with the healing power of moonlight. In actuality, it's all about shaving your underarms when the skin has the most time to heal and rejuvenate.
During the day, your underarms accumulate a lot of sweat and bacteria. If you shave in the morning, you expose your recently shaved skin -- which is often raw and sensitive -- to an entire day's worth of bacterial invaders.
It's also common practice to apply antiperspirant or deodorant to your underarms right after shaving. This makes sense in the morning, because you want to protect yourself from excessive sweating and body odor during the day ahead. But as we mentioned earlier, recently shaved skin is highly sensitive to the chemicals in many antiperspirants and deodorants. So, applying deodorant directly after shaving will increase the likelihood of skin bumps, redness and irritation.
That's why some dermatologists recommend that you shave your underarms at night. This way, your underarm skin has time to repair itself from the shave before the onslaught of bacteria that comes from daytime sweating. It also allows the skin time to recover before you apply deodorant or antiperspirant in the morning.
For many people, shaving isn't the ideal method for underarm hair management. During the process of shaving, you effectively scrape away layers of healthy skin cells. This constant abrasion often leaves skin feeling raw and irritated.
What's more, shaving is also a temporary fix. Depending on the color of your body hair and its growth rate, you may have to shave a couple times a week to stay smooth and soft.
Depilatory creams like Nair can be very harsh for sensitive underarm skin. The active ingredients in Nair -- potassium thioglycolate and calcium hydroxide -- attack the proteins in skin and hair [source: Di Justo]. So even if the hair falls out, the skin still might take a beating.
Waxing provides a slightly more permanent hair removal solution, but it can be extremely painful when used on the skin underneath the arms. The skin of the underarm is looser and softer than other skin, meaning it stretches more when the wax is pulled free. Plus, since the effects of waxing don't last forever, you'll have to endure this particular brand of agony every couple of months.
Electrolysis and laser hair removal are two of the most popular long-term hair removal solutions available today. Electrolysis is a time-consuming, but effective process where individual hairs are zapped directly at the follicle and tweezed out. Laser hair removal uses beams of targeted light to "destroy" the hair follicle [source: Mayo Clinic]. In reality, laser hair removal isn't permanent, but hair grows back much softer and lighter [source: Heppt].
Despite the disadvantages associated with some shaving alternatives, the biggest potential benefit is smoother, softer underarm skin for longer periods of time.
If you already use special moisturizing products for your face, hands, feet, arms and legs, why skimp on your underarms? Even though the skin of your underarms is naturally moisturized by your own sweat, that area can get dry and irritated after shaving or from reactions to harsh deodorants and antiperspirants.
One solution is to use a deodorant that also contains moisturizers. There are several products on the market that are designed to provide smoother and softer underarm skin [source: Daily Beauty]. Some contain dimethicone, a moisturizing agent that helps replace the lipids that hold skin cells together. Others are made with a touch of olive oil, an effective natural moisturizer.
Moisturizing deodorants may also contain fragrances and chemicals that act as antiperspirants. If you find that you're sensitive to those ingredients, you can simply use the same moisturizer on your underarms that you use for the rest of your body.
For more beauty and skin care tips from HowStuffWorks, take a look at the links on the next page.
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Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Bergman, Elisabeth. "Summer Skin Makeover." Oprah.com. (September 7, 2009)http://www.oprah.com/slideshow/health/wellnessandprevention/slideshow2_ss_soh_200706_makeover
- Daily Beauty. "Younger Underarms." July 26, 2007 (September 10, 2009)http://www.newbeauty.com/dailybeauty/entry.aspx?ID=1125
- DeNoon, Daniel J. "Human Skin Alive with Bacteria." WebMD Health News. May 28, 2009 (September 7, 2009)http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/news/20090528/human-skin-alive-with-bacteria
- Di Justo, Patrick. "What's Inside: Nair Hair Remover, Feel the Burn!" Wired Magazine. December 20, 2007 (September 10, 2009)http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/magazine/16-01/st_nair
- Heppt, Wendy Korn. "Hair Removal How-To Guide." Prevention. (September 7, 2009)http://health.yahoo.com/beauty-treatment/hair-removal-how-to-guide/prevention--23328.html;_ylt=AuSTWJvTjh8UH3hs7zGU2_hLvs8F
- Mayo Clinic. "Folliculitis" (September 7, 2009)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/folliculitis/DS00512
- Mayo Clinic. "Laser Hair Removal."http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/laser-hair-removal/MY00134
- Monroe, Valerie. "How Can I Avoid Underarm Razor Bumps?" O, The Oprah Magazine. (September 7, 2009)http://www.oprah.com/article/omagazine/val_omag_200712_razor
- Muniz, Alex. "Exfoliation: The Secret to Healthy Skin." Askmen.com. (September 10, 2009)http://www.askmen.com/fashion/fashiontip_200/248_fashion_advice.html
- Pennisi, Elizabeth. "Bacteria Are Picky About their Homes on Human Skin." Science. May 2008 (September 7, 2009)http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/summary/320/5879/1001