The Burning Question: What Causes A Painful Shave?

It never fails — the day you want to throw on a tank top or a pair of shorts is the day the rough, red bumps make an appearance. You’ve most likely dealt with the frustration, but have you ever tried to understand why razor burn/bumps happens? Or, more importantly, what you can do to prevent it? We’re here to teach you about the science behind this irritation, so you can be better equipped to deal with it!


What causes razor burn/bumps?

To put it simply, shaving is an extreme form of exfoliation that can damage the skin’s lipid barrier. This layer of lipids is what keeps moisture in and chemicals out. If it’s damaged, our skin can become dehydrated and vulnerable to irritating chemicals. Razor burn, razor bumps, folliculitis, ingrown hairs, and inflammation, are all signs of skin trauma that’s caused by shaving.

Specifically, razor burn occurs when the hair follicle is twisted and pulled by the scraping action of our razor blade. Some people use the terms “razor burn” and “razor bumps” interchangeably, but they are actually quite different. Razor bumps are small abscesses that develop when hair grows back, but is stuck under the skin. People with curly hair are more likely to get razor bumps and stubborn ingrown hairs. Another common side effect of shaving is folliculitis, which looks almost identical to pimples. It tends to pop up in the areas you shave and is simply the inflammation of a hair follicle.

Many shaving fouls can cause razor burn: shaving too closely to the skin, dry shaving (shaving without shaving cream!), shaving against the grain of the hair, or shaving too hard with a blunt blade (dermatologists recommend replacing your razor after five to seven uses!). It may be time to admit that you don’t change your blade often enough, or might skip cleaning your razor to remove hair and shaving cream. Both of these mistakes prevent you from a good, smooth shave.

What does it look and feel like?

Common symptoms are redness, burning, itching, stinging, and bumps but nicks and scratches count too! Any or all of these symptoms can last a few hours or a few days. People with sensitive skin are generally more susceptible to getting razor irritation, especially if they use multiple-blade razors. New-age blades do allow for a closer shave, but they also tend to create razor burn more often than single-blade razors.

What’s the best way to treat it?

The best way to deal with razor burn/bumps is to prevent it from occurring…! What’s the best way to do that? Paying attention to how you shave. Here are some helpful pointers:

  • Exfoliate prior to shaving, with a scrub containing Glycolic Acid (Glycolic Acid Body Scrub) to clear away any dead skin or debris that has gathered on your skin — to set you up for a nice, direct shave. 
  • Try using a new or sharp razor blade. If you’ve been using the same razor and blade for six months, not only are you going to get a lame shave, you’re also more likely to cause irritation — especially if any rust or mold has grown on your razor while it sits in your moist shower or tub.
  • Make sure you’re wetting your skin before you shave and applying a shaving aid. If you aren’t a fan of shaving in the shower (or just need to quickly shave your pits or legs before a night out!) make sure you wet the area first and then apply a shaving aid. Shaving cream may seem a little outdated, but it’s not just for grandpas and middle schoolers! There are thousands of fabulous moisturizing shaving creams on the market you can (and should) use to make sure you aren’t hurting your skin. With that said, we’ve got a little hack for you: use whatever conditioner we’ve already got in the shower! It makes for a super easy shave and your legs always feel extra smooth afterwards.
  • Try using your razor in the same direction that your hair grows. It seems counterintuitive, but it will actually allow for a closer shave than if you shave against the grain of your hair, and will also help prevent razor burn. By shaving in the same direction as your hair growth, you don’t pull the hair backwards, which is what causes irritation. 
  • Post-shave care is equally important. Make sure you’re applying a moisturizer that contains emollients or glycerin afterwards. SLMD’s Glycolic Acid Body Lotion combines Glycolic Acid with Shea Butter to exfoliate and moisturize the skin simultaneously. We love body oils too — they’re extra hydrating and add a gorgeous sheen to your skin.

If you already have razor burn/bumps..

The best way to treat active razor irritation is by applying a post-shave lotion, which will reduce moisture loss and redness. Placing a cold compress and applying some aloe vera, black tea, apple cider vinegar, honey, cucumber, oatmeal, or a paste made of aspirin and warm water on the affected area can help soothe burning. 

Other effective aids are baking soda and tea tree oil, which each produce a trifecta of relief. Baking soda relieves itching, reduces redness, and tames inflammation, while tea tree oil is rich in antibacterial, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory properties. Baking soda relieves itching, reduces redness, and tames inflammation, while tea tree oil is rich in antibacterial, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory properties.

Moral of the story: take your time and shave thoughtfully!



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