Blade Shaving Vs. Electric Shaving--Which Is Better for Your Skin?
When Done Properly, Blade Shaving Is Less Irritating, Especially for Acne-prone Skin
The Essential Information
Blade shaving produces less irritation compared with electric shaving, and reducing irritation is the name of the game when it comes to shaving acne-prone skin. Just make sure you shave with a blade the right way--gently, and using a relatively fresh blade.
From Dan: I have tried over a dozen electric razors, and for some reason, every time I get excited that this latest one really will produce less irritation. But that has never been the case. It's actually not even close. No matter how strongly the electric razor advertises that it is "low-irritation" or "made for sensitive skin," every one I have tried produces noticeable and immediate redness and irritation on my face, and particularly on my neck, and I end up never wanting to use it again.
When it comes to the best way to shave when you have acne, it all comes down to irritation. As long as you are not irritating your skin, you're on the right track. Dermatologists agree that physically irritating the skin is a major contributor to acne, so it's important to shave as gently as possible and with the right razor. As we will see, this means avoiding electric razors and opting for a 2-blade manual razor instead, and shaving gently.
What Is Physical Irritation, and How Is Shaving Related to It?
Physical irritation, known as "mechanical irritation" in most dermatology texts, involves any form of physical irritation to the skin, including friction, tension, rubbing, and persistent pressure. The modern dermatology community agrees that physical irritation can lead to more acne and uses the term acne mechanica to describe acne caused by mechanically irritating the skin.
Shaving necessitates direct contact with the skin and includes some friction, tension, rubbing, and pressure to the skin, making it a suspect when it comes to physical irritation.
In one survey published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science in 2016, we can see that many men experience physical irritation from shaving.
When a razor's cutting edge contacts the skin, it can damage the topmost layer of skin cells that dermatologists call the skin barrier. People with acne tend to already have an impaired skin barrier when compared to people without acne, so it is particularly important for people with acne to keep this barrier as intact as possible.3,4
When the skin barrier is damaged, the skin releases inflammatory molecules. Acne is primarily an inflammatory disease, so anything that causes the release of inflammatory molecules--including shaving--can trigger an acne outbreak.
When it comes to shaving, irritation tends to be most pronounced on the neck, but other areas of the face can also experience irritation.
Long story short, we can see that it is important that acne-prone people are gentle with their skin and try to keep damage to the skin at a minimum.
The Choice in Shaving: Traditional Razor Blade or Electric Razor
Only one study has compared irritation caused by blade razors with irritation caused by electric razors in men. The study enrolled 39 subjects and its results were not statistically significant.7 So, in the absence of more hard data, we are unable to draw any conclusions from clinical studies. Instead, let's look at the two shaving methods and see why blade shaving is likely the best option.
Shaving with a Traditional Razor Blade
In the opinion of the MDs and PhDs on the Acne.org team, properly shaving with a traditional razor blade causes less irritation than shaving with an electric razor, so long as a non-comedogenic (non-pore-clogging) shaving cream/gel/foam is used.
A razor blade also typically provides for a closer shave than an electric razor.
However, because blade shaving carries a greater risk of nicks when compared with electric razors, particularly if the blade contacts the skin with too much pressure or at the wrong angle. Most experts agree that the ideal angle for the blade is approximately 30 degrees. Don't stress about using the perfect angle too much. Instead, staying "confident yet gentle" is a good way to go, making sure to use extra caution if shaving over acne lesions or ingrown hairs (also called razor bumps).
Tips for the best blade shave
- Wait until the end of your shower because the water and steam will soften the hairs, making them easier to cut.
- Apply a shaving cream/gel/foam prior to shaving to lubricate the skin surface and allow for the blade to glide along the surface. Tip: Simply using the lather from a gentle facial cleanser is often just as lubricating and less expensive.
- Stay confident yet gentle while shaving. Do not use excessive force, and try to shave at a 30-degree angle.
- Use a sharp blade. The rule of thumb is to replace your blade every 2-4 weeks.
Shaving with an Electric Razor
In contrast to blade shaving, in which the blade(s) make direct contact with the skin, the blades of electric razors do not actually contact the skin. Instead, they are separated from the skin by a foil. As the shaver moves over the face, hairs poke through small holes in the foil and are cut by spinning blades. While this may seem like it would be less irritating, in practice, it is not. Most men find that they experience more irritation, especially on the neck, when using an electric razor when compared to blade shaving. On the bright side, most electric razors do not require wet skin or shaving cream, but there are some wet-and-dry hybrid electric razors that can be used with water.
Electric razors come in two types: foil and rotary. Both types are irritating.
- Foil shavers contain up to four rows of parallel foils. Hairs poke through holes in the foils and are cut by spinning blades beneath the foil. The most common foil shavers hold two or three foils.
- Rotary shavers have round foils that are held in place by springs, usually three foils arranged in a triangular shape. The springs allow for the foils to conform to the curves of the face. Similar to a foil shaver, a rotary shaver holds foils that contain small holes.
Why Electric Razors Can Be More Irritating than Blades
It might seem that electric razors would be gentler on the skin based on their mechanism of action, but electric razors are less safe for the skin, for two key reasons.
- Foils in electric razors produce heat after a short time of use, which can result in skin irritation. One way to alleviate this problem is to start shaving in the most sensitive area--typically the neck--before the foils become hot. While this may reduce the problem, heat generation cannot be eliminated.5
- People tend to press too hard with electric razors. Most men prefer a close shave, but achieving this with an electric razor requires applying force against the skin to enable the hairs to poke deeply into the foils. Forceful contact with the skin causes physical irritation, which leads to increased susceptibility to inflammation and potentially more acne breakouts.
Tips for the best electric shave
If you don't have a blade razor around, or for any other reason really want to use an electric razor, follow these suggestions to reduce irritation:
- Press gently. Accept that the shave will not be as close and some stubble will remain. This is the tradeoff for avoiding irritation.
- Using a hybrid electric razor that can be used in water at the end of your shower might help. Water softens the hairs, making them easier to cut. However, even hybrid electric razors tend to be irritating, no matter how soft the hairs have become.
- Start shaving in the most sensitive area--usually the neck--before the foils have had a chance to heat up.
- Replace the blades of your razor according to the manufacturer's recommendations. Blades become dull, causing more "pull" on the hair when it is being cut. Most electric razor manufacturers recommend replacing blades every year.
Can Blade Shaving Actually Help with Acne by Exfoliating the Skin?
Exfoliation (from the Latin exfoliare, "to strip off leaves") is the removal of dead skin cells from the outermost layer of the skin.9 When done correctly, exfoliation carries potential benefits, including:
- Helping to prevent and reduce acne
- Improving skin texture, making it smoother
- Evening out skin tone
- Slowing skin aging10
But how you exfoliate is very important, and unfortunately shaving is not on the list of safe ways to exfoliate. When it comes to acne, the only safe way to exfoliate the skin is called chemical exfoliation, which involves putting a weak acid like glycolic acid on the skin to gently remove skin cells.13 Shaving is not chemical exfoliation, and instead involves physically removing skin cells. As we have seen, anything that rubs against the skin or damages the skin's barrier should be met with caution by anyone suffering with acne.
So most likely the exfoliation provided by shaving will not help with acne. However, most people find that they can still maintain clear skin when they shave correctly, with a blade razor and a non-comedogenic shaving cream/gel/foam.
Our Expert Opinion
Since physical irritation of the skin aggravates acne, we recommend choosing the shaving method that best minimizes irritation to the skin. In our experience, this is traditional blade shaving. Electric razors are almost always irritating, particularly to the neck. Even when companies claim that their electric razor is "specifically designed for the neck" or "low-irritation," it usually fails to live up to this claim. In contrast, blade shaving, when performed gently with a non-comedogenic shaving cream at the end of a shower, will provide for the least irritating shave.
- Mills, O. & Kligman, A. Acne mechanica. Arch Dermatol 111, 481 - 483 (1975). https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamadermatology/article-abstract/534895
- Rietzler, M. et al. Innovative approaches to avoid electric shaving-induced skin Irritation. Int J Cosmet Sci 38, 10 - 16 (2016). https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ics.12329
- Cowley, K. & Vanoosthuyze, K. Insights into shaving and its impact on skin. Br J Dermatol 166, 6 - 12 (2012). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22385029
- Kubba, R. et al. Cosmetics and skin care in acne. Acne in India: Guidelines for Management - IAA Consensus Document. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol 75, 1 - 62 (2009). http://www.ijdvl.com/article.asp?issn=0378-6323;year=2009;volume=75;issue=7;spage=55;epage=56;aulast=Kubba
- The 5 rules of electric shaving you need to know. Men's Health (2016). at http://www.menshealth.co.uk/style/grooming/rules-of-electric-shaving
- Lynn, M. How Electric razors Work. LIVESTRONG (2017). http://www.livestrong.com/article/58843-electric-shavers-work/
- Fisher, E. et al. Preferred methods of excess hair removal in pediatric patients with lung transplantation. J Am Acad Dermatol 55, 320 - 323 (2006). https://www.jaad.org/article/S0190-9622(06)00836-X/pdf
- Skin care for acne-prone skin. PubMed Health (2017). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0072392/#i2077.behandlung-6m.shavingwetordry
- DeHaven, C. Mechanisms of exfoliation. Science of Skincare (2015). https://www.isclinical.com/media/WhitePapers/pdf/WhitePaper_MechanismsOfExfoliation_Jan2015_1_.pdf
- Debbarma, D. et al. Clinical review of deep cleansing apricot scrub: An herbal formulation. Int J Bioassays 4.9, 4251 - 4253 (2015). https://www.ijbio.com/articles/clinical-review-of-deep-cleansing-apricot-scrub-an-herbal-formulation.pdf
- Capretto, L. 3 Subtle signs you're over-exfoliating your skin. The Huffington Post (2015). https://www.huffpost.com/entry/signs-youre-over-exfoliating_n_56019a36e4b00310edf8c802
- Exfoliation (cosmetology). Wikipedia (2016). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exfoliation_(cosmetology)
- Howard, D. When razor meets skin: A scientific approach to shaving. The International Dermal Institute. http://myeducation.dermalinstitute.co.uk/us/library/16_article_When_Razor_Meets_Skin_A_Scientific_Approach_to_Shaving.html