Can You Exfoliate if You Have Razor Burn or Shaving Bumps?

Razor burn and razor bumps are two of the most annoying conditions related to shaving short of cutting yourself. They're similar but different. They're both skin conditions, though, so the question naturally follows: can you exfoliate when you have one or the other? Will it make them worse, or could it help? Let's do some research.

What is Razor Burn?

No matter what part of your body you're shaving – face, legs, bikini area – you run the risk of developing razor burn. Razor burn is the red rash you get in areas you shaved. It usually develops the day you shave, or at most the day after. It can cause an itchy, tender rash that can be accompanied by small red bumps, a burning sensation, and irritation. 

Razor burn goes away on its own 99% of the time within a day or two. Many people simply accept it as part of shaving and ignore it for a day, never giving it further thought.

But what causes it? What's happening, and how can you deal with it?

Razor burn is essentially skin damage and irritation caused during shaving. As such, it can be caused by a variety of different things. These include:

  • Shaving without any sort of lubricants like shaving cream or soap and water. The razor is more likely to drag across your skin and shave it as well, creating razor burn and irritation.
  • Shaving against the grain of your hair. Hair naturally lays in one direction; shaving against that direction pulls the skin up into the path of the blade.
  • Using an old razor. A dull blade on your razor catches and pulls at hair rather than cutting it smoothly.
  • Using a clogged razor. A clogged razor has a harder time cutting through hair and is more likely to pull and tug at skin instead.
  • Shaving one area too often. When there's less and less hair to cut, the blade can more easily skim the skin.
  • Shaving too quickly. Again, this can catch hair rather than smoothly cutting it and can pull your skin into the path of the blades.
  • Using products that irritate your skin. Some forms of razor burn are caused by shaving creams or other shaving products that cause mild irritation to your skin. 

In all of these cases, the result is the same; the outer layers of skin are damaged by the process of shaving and leave a reddish kind of rash. After a day or two, your skin heals itself, and you'll be fine.

How to Avoid Razor Burn

The first thing you should do is identify whether or not your shaving products are causing the problem. This is easy; simply take some of the product and apply it to a patch of the skin. The inner wrist is a good place; it's sensitive but out of the way enough that it's not going to be largely visible or too irritating. If the skin gets irritated, you've identified a probable cause. Find a new product that doesn't irritate your skin.

If that's not the problem, you will likely need to change up your shaving process. Here are steps you can take:

  • Never dry shave. Soap and water, shaving cream, it doesn't necessarily matter what you use, but you want to smooth over the skin so your razor doesn't catch it. No, the little lubricant strip on many safety razors is not really enough.
  • Don't pull your skin tight when shaving. It's tempting to stretch the skin to get a closer shave, but that closeness is what's causing razor burn.
  • Shave with the grain. As mentioned above, shaving against the grain tends to pull the skin up and catch it, which causes irritation.
  • Use short, light strokes. Longer strokes build up hair and lubricant in the blades and make it more likely to cause razor burn. Pressing too hard, likewise, digs into the skin.
  • Rinse your razor in between strokes. Again, keeping the blades clear is important.
  • Replace or sharpen your blades frequently. Keeping blades sharp ensures a smooth cut without catching or digging in.

One thing you do not have to do is worry about hot and cold temperatures to open and close pores. This is a persistent myth and doesn't really do much. 

Using warm water before a shave can soften hair and make it easier to shave. It also brings blood to the surface of the skin and swells it slightly, making it easier to shave certain surfaces. It's not strictly necessary, but it can make the shaving process a little more comfortable.

Using cold water to rinse after a shave can feel refreshing, but it's not necessary to "close pores" or something else. It helps to rinse off hair, skin, and lubricant, but it's not actually going to affect the pores of your skin. 

What are Razor Bumps?

Many people use the terms razor burn and razor bumps interchangeably, but they're actually different conditions. Razor burn happens immediately upon shaving and takes a day or so to go away. Razor bumps are a skin condition called folliculitis, specifically pseudofolliculitis barbae, which is basically Greek for "skin swelling caused by barbering". It often takes a day or two before it shows up, after shaving, and it can last for several days.

So what is it? Razor bumps are irritated hair follicles where the hair inside the follicle has curved down and started growing back down. This irritates the hair follicle, and can also trap dirt, sebum, and bacteria. It ends up looking almost like an acne condition.

Razor bumps occur most frequently among people who have curly hair and are very common amongst black men. It can happen to anyone, though, when the razor irritates the hair follicles and causes them to swell closed to heal.

It's worth mentioning that razor bumps shouldn't be a recurring problem. If they are, you may want to consider talking to a dermatologist. There's a similar condition called tinea barbae, which is a fungal infection of the hair follicles and causes symptoms very similar to razor burn. You would need medication to treat this version of razor bumps.

Razor bumps are most often simply minor ingrown hairs, but as your skin heals, the follicles open back up and the hairs can escape. It's rare that they get stuck and need intervention to clear up, though it can happen.

How to Avoid Razor Bumps

Most of the methods to avoid razor burn apply to razor bumps as well. The goal is two-fold. You want to avoid getting too tight a shave because a tight shave means it's more likely that the hair curls up before it breaks through the skin again. You also want to avoid skin irritation that can inflame the hair follicles and lead to more ingrown hairs.

Treating razor bumps isn't very difficult. You have a lot of different options.

  • Start with a towel soaked in warm water and wrung out. Place this towel over the affected area and let it sit for a few minutes. The warmth and moisture encourage your hair to break through softened skin and can help clear out the trapped sebum and bacteria that make the follicles inflame.
  • Use an aloe vera lotion or cream or the gel in raw form on the affected area. Aloe has a cooling and soothing effect, and it's antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory. This soothes and helps heal the inflamed hair follicles which allows your hair to grow freely.
  • Use a warm compress with green tea. Similar to how warm water helps open follicles and how aloe helps fight infection, a warm green tea compress does both.

In cases where you have to shave frequently to keep hair away, but you suffer from razor bumps on a consistent basis, you might consider going with a more extreme option. A dermatologist can recommend an antibacterial or other prescription lotion to apply to the area to help minimize irritation.

Another option, albeit a more extreme option, is to try laser hair removal. Laser hair removal uses concentrated beams of light to "burn out" the hair, destroying it and leaving the follicle empty. After several sessions, this removal can be permanent, though it depends on where on the body the lasers are applied. This is, of course, a more expensive option and a more permanent option, so you should consider it as a last resort.

Can Exfoliation Help?

Now that we've figured out what razor burn and razor bumps are, let's talk about exfoliation. Exfoliation is the process of using a scrub, with either a chemical or mechanical abrasive, to dissolve or scrape away the outer layers of dead skin, dirt, and sebum that builds up. This exposes the softer, lower layers of skin that have a more youthful appearance and lush feeling.

Is exfoliation safe to use with razor burn or razor bumps? Can it even help? The truth might surprise you.

If you have razor burn, you might not want to exfoliate. Razor burn is already a case of irritated skin, so using an abrasive can further irritate the skin and make the rash and irritation worse.

However, if you exfoliate prior to shaving, and on a regular basis, it can help prevent razor burn from occurring in the first place. One of the causes of razor burn is when the razor catches on uneven skin surfaces, and when it builds up with hair and dead skin, clogging the blades. Exfoliation helps remove all of that dead skin from the surface of your skin, giving your razor less stuff to catch on and clog up.

We would strongly recommend not exfoliating if you have active irritation from razor burn. However, you can and should exfoliate regularly before shaving to avoid irritation in the first place.

So what about razor bumps? In fact, exfoliation is one of the best simple treatments for razor bumps. Using a mild abrasive and cleaners helps open up the hair follicles and get rid of the infection, clearing out the follicles and manually stimulating them in a way such that they encourage new hair to break through.

We have several recommendations for scrubs that are safe enough to use every day. Which you choose depends largely on whether you want to buy something off the shelf or you want to make your own recipe, and whether you want to use something mechanical like coffee or sugar, or chemical like salicylic acid.

The Final Word

Exfoliating is generally good for your skin. There's some debate over how beneficial it is, and some people are concerned that the constant damage and repair cycles prematurely age skin, but there's not a lot of evidence either way.

What we can say is that regularly exfoliating and cleansing your skin will reduce the chances of you getting razor burn. You can still get razor burn if you're using a dull blade and no lubrication, but it's less likely if you're shaving normally.

Meanwhile, exfoliation won't prevent razor bumps, but it can help minimize them if they occur. Razor bumps are difficult to prevent since they're an artifact of curly hair more than anything else. If you avoid a too-close shave, you'll help prevent the hair from growing back downwards. Meanwhile, exfoliation helps keep the follicles clear to prevent it from happening.

Nothing can fully prevent either razor burn or razor bumps short of not shaving at all, which isn't an option for many people. If you are definitely certain that you don't want hair to grow in certain areas, you can always opt for laser hair removal, but keep in mind that it's an expensive and permanent solution to the problem of shaving, so it's not ideal for everyone.

Have you had to fight with tricky, persistent razor burn or razor bumps? If so, what's your favorite routine? Do you exfoliate before shaving, or after, or on other days entirely? Everyone is different, of course, so what works for some people might not work for others. Experiment with different routines and try to find one that works for you. Let us know your experience in the comments below!

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