Pseudofolliculitis barbae, known in the common tongue as “razor burn”, is a common and irritating condition that happens when shaving. The ingrown hairs that result from a super-aggressive shave session cause an inflammatory response and the subsequent red, raised bumps characteristic of “the burn”. Though many men believe razor burn is a malady only they can (not so silently) suffer, many women will also experience razor burn at some point in their lives. Fortunately, there are many easy solutions to try to prevent razor burn, as well as some treatments for after the fact.
First, let’s talk technique. Shaving should always be done with a high quality and sharp razor. The razor should never be pushed into the skin and the direction of shaving should follow the direction of hair growth (i.e. don’t shave “against the grain”). If you shave too closely or shave over the same area many times, the chance of razor burn is increased. Opening the pores with warm water (i.e. shaving in the shower or right after a shower) and applying shaving cream/lotion/gel for a few minutes before you start shaving will soften the hairs, lubricate the area and reduce the chance of inflammation. After shaving, wash your face with luke-warm water and apply face lotion to effectively close the pores, once again decreasing the risk of irritation.
If pure technique does not solve your razor burn woes, it is time to turn to some remedies that will soothe, decrease inflammation, and protect the skin from any infection that may occur. First and foremost, the easiest way to apprehend worsening razor burn is to stop shaving the irritated location. Running cool water or placing icepacks over the disturbed areas will decrease the inflammation and redness. In addition, the affected areas should be exfoliated to prevent clogging of pores (acne) and ingrown hairs (the entity that caused your problems in the first place). Just remember, over-exfoliating will cause acne and more irritation to sensitive skin. It is recommended that you exfoliate once every three days to avoid further complications.
Furthermore, there are many additives that have been found helpful when healing razor burn. Products containing aloe vera will protect the skin from infection by providing an antimicrobial barrier. In addition to its protective qualities, aloe vera is an analgesic (thereby soothing any irritation) and will reduce swelling as well as redness. All these properties allow aloe vera to support the razor burn healing process. In scientific studies it was found that the topical application of glycolic acid-containing products would decrease the severity of razor burn by about 60%. In addition, the use of glycolic acid allowed the continuation of the normal shaving regimen with minimal increase in irritation. Salicylic acid is often thought of as an acne-fighting compound, however use after razor burn has been shown to also decrease inflammation and irritation (just think of it as putting “topical aspirin” on your skin). It is recommended that alcohol-containing products should not be used on areas with razor burn, as the alcohol promotes the drying of skin (bad for healing) and clogs pores even more (acne).
If the razor burn is persistent, more drastic measures can be taken such as steroid creams or lasers. Topical hydrocortisone will decrease the discomfort associated with razor burn and the redness of the irritated skin. Treatments with lasers such as the 1064 nm ND:Yttrium Aluminum Garnet (YAG) have been scientifically proven to reduce the bumps and ingrown hairs, resulting from razor burn, in the jaw and neck region of people with darker skin types. After two treatments with the ND:YAG laser, the razor burn symptoms were alleviated for three months.
If you’re one of the unlucky ones afflicted with razor burn, it may be helpful to evaluate your shaving style as well as the products you use during and after a shave. According to the Mayo Clinic there are only a few simple steps you need to follow to get an ideal shave:
apply a warm wash cloth to the skin or shave in a warm bath/shower to soften the hair;
apply shaving cream/lotion/gel before shaving to protect and lubricate the skin;
use a sharp, clean razor;
shave in the direction of hair growth;
after shaving, rinse the skin with warm water.
Now that you know the secrets of shaving properly, shave on (hopefully razor burn free)!
Margit Lai Wun Juhasz
Mount Sinai Medical Student