Shaving is a fast and effective way to remove unwanted hair from the face or other parts of the body. When it goes “smoothly”, shaving is relatively hassle-free. Unfortunately, shaving doesn’t go smoothly for everyone. For some people, shaving leads to an uncomfortable condition called razor burn. Razor burn is often itching and uncomfortable and the symptoms can last for days or weeks. It’s a common condition that affects adults, mostly men who shave their face daily.
The Nature of the Bumpy Beast
Razor burn refers to skin irritation, redness and fine bumps that appear after shaving. Shaving is the most common cause of razor burn, but people who use a tweezer to pluck hairs can experience skin irritation, as well. Skin that’s irritated by the friction of shaving can become inflamed, leading to burning or itching in a recently shaved area. Razor burn is most common in men, although women can develop razor burn as well, especially when they shave their bikini area. The skin in the bikini region is more sensitive than other areas of the body.
Razor burn is sometimes confused with razor bumps also known as Pseudofolliculitis Barbae (PFB). Razor bumps are due to ingrown hairs that curl backwards and reenter the skin at an adjacent point causing irritation. The irritated areas become inflamed and small red bumps appear on the skin. These bumps often itch or burn. In some cases, the bumps become infected with bacteria. In almost all cases, the bumps burn or itch and are unsightly in appearance.
Razor burn is usually less serious than razor bumps. It generally heals more quickly and is easier to control. Razor burn can usually be prevented with careful shaving technique whereas razor bumps can be an ongoing problem in people who are susceptible to them.
The Real Culprits
Razor burn is usually a consequence of skin irritation due to poor shaving technique. It’s more common in males who shave their face since facial skin is more sensitive than skin on the arms and legs. Women can experience razor burn or razor bumps when shaving the bikini area.
Black males are at higher risk for razor bumps and ingrown hairs because they have curly hair. Curly or kinky hair is more likely than straight hair to grow backwards, and then reenter the skin. Once there, it can become trapped beneath the skin. This leads to skin irritation and inflammation. Ingrown hairs can become so inflamed that they become cystic and painful.
Another reason people with dark skin are at higher risk is because their follicles are slightly curved. This makes it easier for the hair to grow back at an angle and reenter the skin. Anyone with curly hair or curved hair follicles is at greater risk for razor bumps when they shave.
Some people appear to be genetically at risk for developing razor bumps due to variation in a gene that affects hair composition. This gene variation changes the structure of the hair in a way that makes it more likely to grow backwards and reenter the skin after shaving.
Enter the Complications
Most razor burn and razor bumps heal in a few days to a week, but some people experience complications. When razor bumps become inflamed, cells that produce the pigment melanin may respond by producing more pigment. This leads to dark spots on the skin that can take months to heal. This is known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. It’s the body’s response to ongoing inflammation.
Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation is more common in people with dark skin. In some cases, razor bumps can become so inflamed that scarring occurs. Rarely, in people at risk genetically, keloid scars can form. These large, unsightly scars are disfiguring, especially on the face.
Prevention is Key
The best way to avoid the discomfort and complications of razor burn and razor bumps is to prevent them in the first place. One way to lower the risk is to use proper shaving technique. Always use a sharp razor when shaving. Dull razors cause more skin irritation than sharp ones.
Shave in the direction that the hair grows, not against it, without applying too much pressure. Use shorter strokes to avoid pressing down too hard. Pushing down too firmly, especially with a dull blade, leads to more skin irritation.
Keep rinsing the blade with warm water to remove hair and dead skin cells that can interfere with smooth movement of the blade. Avoid pulling the skin taut to get a closer shave and don’t repeatedly shave the same areas. This increases skin irritation and the likelihood of razor burn and bumps. Reducing the frequency of shaving from daily to every other day can also reduce skin trauma and irritation.
Using an electric shaver as opposed to a razor can reduce the risk of razor burn and razor bumps since electric shavers tend to be less irritating to the skin. Always use light pressure with a shaver to reduce irritation and trauma.
It’s important to replace the blades before they become dull. If a razor is the only option, choose one with a single blade. Razors with double and triple blades cut the hair too closely and cause more skin irritation.
Before, During and After
Another way to reduce the risk of razor burn and razor bumps is to apply a warm compress to the area before shaving. This softens the hair up so it can be removed without irritating the skin underneath. Use a thick, moisturizing shaving cream to help the razor glide more smoothly over the skin. There’s some evidence that shaving gels containing benzoyl peroxide reduce the risk of razor bumps. After rinsing, pat the skin dry gently with a towel instead of rubbing. This helps to reduce skin irritation and friction.
After shaving, rinse the shaved area with cold water to help close open pores. Then apply a moisturizing cream that’s made for sensitive skin. Look for one that has natural botanicals with anti-inflammatory activity like chamomile or aloe to help reduce inflammation.
Exfoliating the skin regularly helps to reduce razor bumps. Studies show that using skin care products that contain glycolic acid such as PFB Vanish boosts the removal of dead skin cells and smoothes the outer layer of the skin. This means there’s less skin irritation when shaving. Look for a product that contains 8% glycolic acid.
Prescription-strength retinoids used to treat acne may be helpful for preventing razor bumps, although it will take weeks or months to see benefits. They work by exfoliating and removing dead skin cells. They should be used with caution by people with darker skin, since they can irritate the skin and cause post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
When these measures fail to prevent razor bumps, laser hair removal or use of a chemical depilatory is an option. A word of caution – people with dark skin are at risk for post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation with laser treatments.
Relief at Last
People who already have itchy bumps and red, irritated skin may benefit from an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream to reduce inflammation and control the itching. It’s best to reduce the frequency of shaving until the areas heal to avoid further irritating the already inflamed areas.
Severe cases of razor bumps may require topical or oral antibiotics to eliminate secondary infection. Benzoyl peroxide lotion or gel may also be helpful in cases where razor bumps are secondarily infected. For faster healing, reduce the frequency of shaving to a minimum whenever possible.
What You Should Remember
Razor burn and razor bumps are a common and sometimes disfiguring problem. Using the right razor and proper shaving technique, as well as practicing adequate skin preparation beforehand can help lower the risk of these uncomfortably and unsightly problems.
Medscape. “Pseudofolliculitis of the Beard”
Cutis. 1993 Oct;52(4):232-5.
Dermatol Ther. 2004;17(2):158-63.
Skin and Allergy News. “Pseudofolliculitis barbae – tips for patients”
Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never disregard professional medical advice, or delay in seeking it, because of something you have read in this article. We urge you to consult with a qualified healthcare provider for diagnosis and for answers to your personal questions.