Razor burn or Pseudofolliculitis barbae as it is known in the circles of science! Is the plight of most men who shave. It has been estimated that this phenomenon afflicts up to 85% of men with varying degrees of severity. Ethnicity plays a role as men with African ancestry are more likely to get it after shaving than Indo-Europeans for example.
What Makes Beard Shaving a Challenge
Shaving is the most common cosmetic procedure men have. This may sound surprising mainly because men don’t consider shaving as such.
Cosmetic procedure for most men is something related to the skin. Comprising most likely a greasy goo you need to spread all over your face. But if you look up the word in a dictionary, it means “affecting only the appearance of something rather than its substance.”
While most men shave daily without any issues, there are those who find it their worst nightmare. And even those who usually manage it without complications occasionally experience discomfort. So what makes shaving such a challenge?
Well, there are 8 features that all affect our shaving:
- Density – this means how many hair follicles are growing on square inch/cm. This can be anything between 20 – 80
- Thickness – or the diameter of a single beard hair. Beard hairs have more cuticle layers than scalp hairs. As a consequence, their width is twice that of scalp hairs
- Stiffness – some men really do have beards as tough as copper wire. Others are more fortunate and have softer whiskers
- Shape – You can not see it, but hair can have different shapes. Oblong, elliptical or asymmetrical are some of the most common shapes of beard hair
- Growth rate – We all know men that suffer from very fast growing beards. 5’o clock shadow is not just an expression. Some men could shave twice a day
- Growth pattern – beard doesn’t grow in an orderly fashion or towards one direction like trees reaching for the sun. You can be shaving with the grain and very next moment going against it
- Low emerging angle – this is something that is rarely discussed. When hair is growing out of the follicle, and the angle is very narrow, almost parallel to the skin, the hair can start to grow inwards
- Sensitive skin – some men have very sensitive skin. They can get pain sensation when shaving even when they do proper pre-shave prep and use a new razor
Why Razor Burn Occurs?
Our current understanding is that razor burn is a local immune response to the biomechanical forces endured during shaving. Thus you will develop all the symptoms of inflammation – redness, heat
How Long Does It Take For Razor Burn To Go Away?
This is a hard question to answer. Some men will get mild redness and itching sensation that disappears in a few hours. Then there are men who develop papules, secondary bacterial infection and ingrown hairs so that the rash can last for days.
Are Clipper Burn And Electric Razor Burn Related?
Using clippers or electric razor or any other tool to cut hair will impact those same forces on the skin as a razor does. So yes they are related. To be precise – it is the same thing.
Is Razor Burn Hereditary?
“My grandfather had it, my father has it, and now I do – does it run in the family?”. Funny as it may sound, but there is some evidence that this might be the case. If you happen to have a specific mutation in your genome, you are more prone to get razor burn.
Can You Get Razor Burn Everywhere?
Unfortunately yes. Razor burn can happen on your legs, pubes, armpits – well you see where this is going right? Because razor burn is a response to biomechanical forces, it can happen in every area that was shaved.
Understanding The Biomechanics Of Shaving
If you are not into physics and are merely searching for a cure to this troublesome issue, then skip this part.
But for those who are seeking knowledge and wish to understand the inner secrets of shaving. Read on!
Three main forces affect our skin when we are making a shaving stroke – load, drag and cutting angle. The load is the force we apply on our skin with the razor. Shaving drag is a friction between the cutter and skin when dragging it parallel to the skin. And finally, there is the cutting force applied on the hairs.
The load is made up of the weight of the razor with gravity. The weight is aggravated when we shave because we apply force on it. Essentially it means that we are pushing the razor against our skin. This is a big “no-no,” but we are still all guilty of doing it. So the actual load applied to the surface of the skin increases.
This load is not a constant though. Because our face is curved, it will be changing all of the time. Take for example the area near our sideburns. When we look straight at the mirror that plain is almost angled 90 degrees with the floor. So the load will be less than in some other areas because our stroke is moving towards the ground. We don’t need to use extra force as the weight of the razor is doing the work.
Now as we approach the jawline, the shaving plane starts to curve towards the neck. Gravity starts working against us because the head of the razor moves away from the skin. So to compensate and to assure that our razor cuts, we have to apply more force on the razor. We are now pushing it against the skin. Hence the load will increase. The same thing happens when we shave under the jaw.
The neck is again perpendicular to the ground and should reduce the load on the skin while shaving. Paradoxically this is one of the most common regions where men get irritation. The reason for this is that here we are dealing with increased friction. Neck skin is less smooth compared to the face. To overcome this, we need to apply more force, and again we unconsciously apply more load on the surface than we should.
The second reason why men may feel discomfort when shaving is the drag. Skins elasticity is assured by two major components: collagen and elastin. During shaving, skin strains up to 20% to its capacity.
The drag force happens between the razor and skin covered with shaving foam. Both the applied load by the user and the coefficient of friction at the razor/skin interface play a role. Sounds complicated? I suppose the physics is, but for us mere mortals who wish to avoid razor burn – not so!
To minimize shaving drag we have to use less force and more lubrication.
On cartridge razors, there are usually lubricating strips. These are composed of polyethylene oxide or PEG as it is better known (polyethylene glycol). This coupled with proper shaving gel/cream/soap guarantees minimal friction between the razor and skin.
If using a safety razor or a straight, you don’t have this benefit. What you can do though is use pre-shave cream or oil. This extra layer of lubricant under the traditional shaving lather will reduce the drag.
By one study cutting a single beard hair needs 0.05 N of force. This is interesting for some readers no doubt, but let’s keep it practical.
Cutting force can be extrapolated from the previous two. The key is to find the most efficient cutting regime with minimal load and drag.
Beard hairs are tough and when somebody says they have copper wire for beard they aren’t far off. Indeed both of them have similar elasticity. To make beard hair more pliable, we need to hydrate it first. This will reduce the force we need to use to cut down the beard hair up to 40 %.
Besides the load, drag and our beards state of hydration, there is also the cutting angle. This is the angle that is most efficient mowing down beard. It is usually around 30 but can be way higher on some DE razors.
How This Translate Into Getting Better Shave?
Like I already said in the beginning, razor burn is a reaction to abnormal forces used when shaving. These forces change when we shave different areas. They also change because of the various features of our beards. You need to use more force when you have thick beard compared to light beard. General recommendations can be made
- Reduce load – when you use DE, SE or SR remember not to push on the razor. A light touch is
- Increase lubrication – always use and prepare proper lather. Avoid the stuff in the can because it dries your skin. If needed use pre-shave creams and oil
- Avoid steep cutting angle – 30 – 45 is the optimal range. More and you will be peeling off outer layers of your skin
- Keep your razor sharp – razor blades usually last 5-7 shaves depending on your beard type
What’s Razor Burn
We have covered the reasons why shaving can be a real pain in the ass. We also went through different forces that are applied when we shave. And how can they damage our skin. Now let’s look at how the skin irritation happens.
Nerve endings surround the hair follicle just like in the skin. Human skin with its hair is our biggest sensory systems. It receives and transfers information from the environment.
We need it to survive. Our skin tells us when the temperature drops, and we need to put clothes on. Or it will warn us if something has penetrated our skin for example. But it also gets activate by tearing, pulling and cutting forces we use when we shave.
Nerves aren’t just cables to transfer information. They also have a role in our immune system. Once they are excited, they can produce molecules that will trigger an immune response.
Previously discussed biomechanical forces can overcome the local immune response threshold. If too much pressure or drag is used on our skin, the nerves will sound the alarm. A complex inflammatory response within the skin will then take place. The result? Full blown razor burn.
Once the immune response gets triggered, there is little we can do.
How Razor Burn Looks Like
Affected skin turns red, it itches and feels hot when touched. This is a classical inflammation triad. Symptoms can also include stinging and pain immediately after shaving.
A more severe form will also develop razor bumps — clinically knowns as follicular and perifollicular papulae. The papules may be firm, skin-colored, erythematous or hyperpigmented.
While shaving, you can get small cuts and nicks. Some are so minor that you won’t notice them. But they can still get infected. Your skin is covered with bacteria that will happily party inside those small cuts. Pimples will follow.
After the initial irritation, we can see how hairs while regrowing can grow inwards. This is caused by a low emerging angle from the hair follicle. Something that is more common for men with African ancestry.
Ingrowing hair will irritate the skin and will act as a foreign body prolonging the whole mess.
What is interesting and downright illogical is that razor burn lessens if you shave regularly. Then again if you happen to be a man who has a very severe form you might be better off with a beard.
How To Prevent Razor Burn
No magic pill will restore your healthy skin appearance in a matter of minutes. But there is plenty you can do to reduce it.
With a proper understanding of how this condition occurs, you can minimize the damage. And many will be able to shave without any razor burn at all.
Remember! It is more important to get a comfortable shave than trying to accomplish the smoothness of a baby butt.
Hair grows in a specific direction. On your face, though, it can be very confusing downright mesmerizing. It is not unheard of do have some places on your face where hair is literally growing in a circular pattern.
It is usually recommended to start shaving With The Grain (WTG). This will reduce the tugging and pulling you experience while shaving.
To understand the direction your hair is growing start by stroking your beard in different directions. You will notice that in some areas your fingers glide over the hair smoothly. On other regions you may feel resistance – this means that you are going Against The Grain (ATG).
Mark down all the areas where you have beard growth and which direction it is growing. Now when you start shaving always start WTG.
Know Thy Beard
What is your beard like? Is it thick or do you have a thin beard? How dense is it? Do you shave every second day, once a week or is 5’o clock shadow your trademark? Assessing this at first may be hard. How many of us go around patting other men’s chin? To whom do you compare it with?
But we usually can give some estimate. Very thick, dense and fast growing beard. Light, twice a week type of beard, etc. If we know the way, our beard is we can plan out our shaving routine. If you are a man who has the first option, it means that you need to use excessive force on your beard usually.
For these men, it is paramount to switch razor blades more frequently as they get duller faster. This can be 2-3x a week.
Also, you may need to take extra time to moisturize your beard. Beard hair loses almost 40% of its stiffness once it is hydrated.
And you might need a more aggressive razor. This again may sound counter-intuitive, but it is not. Aggressive razor means that you can mow than that thick forest growing on your chin with less effort, tugging and with one pass.
The opposite is true for men who are at the other end of the spectrum. They benefit from milder razors. They also need to keep their tools sharp, and beard moisturized but with less vigor.
The idea behind pre-shave preparation is to moisturize your beard. Use the same routine I describe here.
Using water, soap and heat your beard will become softer. This means it is easier to shave because you need to use less force. And that reduces the load and drag ergo less chance of getting razor burn.
It is also very relaxing. Even if you don’t suffer that often from razor burn, your shaving will become much smoother and enjoyable.
It is usually recommended to shower yourself under warm water before shaving. This may not cut it though. It has been estimated that to moisturize your beard to the saturation point you should do it at least 4 minutes.
Some of us live in regions where you can’t afford to soak under the water that long. Or if you are in a hurry those 4 minutes can feel endless.
The best way to do it is to use a moist towel. Thicker cotton towels retain heat better. Just soak it under the water and wrap it over your face. Once it cools down which it does rather quickly, repeat the process. Mind that for most men 2 minutes is more than enough.
Face cleanser is a good idea as well. Soaps that are alkaline help to soften the air further. They will also speed up the moisturizing process.
I often cover my face with soap and then wrap the towel over. Let the soap, heat, and water do its magic! After two minutes rinse your face, and you can start shaving.
You can use those 2-4 minutes to prep your safety razor, strop your straight razor or any other tool you use for shaving.
Well maintained shaving tools
Choosing the right tool for shaving can also make a difference. Cartridge razors are notorious for causing razor burn. Yes, they are easy to use and are very safe, but people often tend to use them for too long. I can’t blame them if you have to spend every month 20$ just to keep your razor sharp this adds up over time.
Once the razor gets dull, you will start asserting too much pressure on the razor. This is to compensate for the impaired cutting ability. You will also make too many passes that will stretch and scrape the skin. In the end, you will be more abrasive on your skin than you would with a straight razor. And this will lead up to razor burn.
Also if you have kept your razor unclean, you can get a secondary bacterial infection from it. Getting pimples in the region, you just shaved.
So what other options are there? You could try out safety razors for example. There are many mild safety razors that are excellent for beginners. They are known to help against razor burn. The initial expense aside they are very inexpensive in the long run.
One razor blade costs around .10$ cents average, if you switch them once a week, you will pay around 5$ a year. Besides the economic benefit you will get a much closer shave as well.
Or you could try out the straight razor. These have a learning curve though. It can take some time until you manage to get a cut free shave. And even more time, until you learn how to avoid pressure. But once you do learn the art, they give fantastic shave, feel manly, and you are free from the bondage or razor blades. Regular stropping is enough.
Electric clippers and shavers are also an option. They tend to be less aggressive on your skin, so razor burn is not as common. And you don’t have to prep your beard because you want the hair to be dry. It is a real time saver.
But it comes with an added price tag. Remember that you have to buy replacement heads too occasionally. They also can leave stray hairs behind, and the overall shave is not as close compared to DE and SR razors.
Last but not least is the post-shave preparation. This stage is meant to deal with the shaving aftermath. To reduce burning sensation, to moisturize skin, stop bleeding from small cuts that might have occurred during shaving and kill off bacteria that could colonize those cuts.
Cooling agents are used to reducing the itchiness and burning sensation. Many different aftershave balms and gels exist. Most achieve the cooling effect by including menthol or aloe vera in it.
There is little evidence that these products actually hinder the inflammatory response happening in our skin though. Most likely they affect our sensory system overloading it with a cooling sensation. Just as good because you won’t feel the burning and itchiness – rather unpleasant sensations. But this means that they do little to reduce redness, papulae or pimple formation.
Astringents is a general name for all products that cause constriction of small blood vessels. This helps to stop the bleeding.
In theory, this could also help against the redness that accompanies skin irritation. As for redness or hyperemia, as it is clinically called, is caused by dilatation of blood vessels.
My own experience is that it does little of that. But it does stem the bleeding and act as a topical antibacterial agent. Astringents that are commonly used are Alum block, witch hazel and aftershaves with alcohol content.
Tip 1: map your beard
Tip 2: switch razor blades more often than not
Tip 3: find yourself the right razor
Tip 4: always do a pre-shave prep
Tip 5: use a light touch when shaving
Tip 6: lubricate, lubricate and lubricate
Tip 7: keep your razor sharp
Tip 8: always use aftershave
Tip 9: remember to moisturize your skin after the shave
Tip 10: should you still get minor irritation, try out local cortisone ointment (1% – no stronger! using strong cortisone cream on your skin for a prolonged time can cause skin damage by itself)
This article tries to give you an understanding of what causes razor burn. Once you recognize the forces that govern our face when we shave. And once you have implemented the ideas, we have presented here. You should be able to reduce the severity and even prevent this unpleasant skin condition altogether.
Two medical doctors were consulted when this piece was written so you can rest assured that this article is as accurate as it can be.
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- Gray, J. and McMichael, A. J. (2016), Pseudofolliculitis barbae: understanding the condition and the role of facial grooming. Int J Cosmet Sci, 38: 24-27.
- Daniel A1, Gustafson CJ. (2013), Shave frequency and regimen variation effects on the management of pseudofolliculitis barbae. J Drugs Dermatol. 2013 Apr;12(4):410-8