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How to Choose a Good Shaving Cream, Foam, or Gel

Look for a Shaving Product That Is Free of Comedogenic (Pore-clogging) Ingredients and Stearic Acid, or Use a Gentle Facial Cleanser as a Shaving Cream

By: Dan Kern, Acne.org Founder & CSO
Last updated: May 15, 2019

The Essential Information

Many shaving creams, foams, and gels contain ingredients that can trigger or worsen acne. Before buying a shaving product, take a close look at the list of ingredients. Avoid products that contain pore-clogging ingredients and/or a particular ingredient that is almost always in shaving creams called stearic acid, which may contribute to acne. Ideally, look for a shaving product that is also free of fragrances and cooling agents like menthol, as these may irritate your skin. 

A shaving product that meets this criteria can be difficult to find, so another extremely effective option is to simply use a gentle facial cleanser in place of a shaving cream. The slip that a cleanser provides on the skin can help produce a shave on par with shaving creams, foams, and gels.

To avoid irritating the skin during shaving, apply shaving products delicately with your bare hands instead of a brush or other implement, and while shaving, stay gentle yet confident with your strokes, and while not stressing about it too much, try not to go over any area too many times.

The Science

Shaving cream, foam, and gel are skincare products for wet shaving, in other words, for removing hair from the body using manual razors and water.1,2 Although the terms "shaving cream," "shaving foam," and "shaving gel" are sometimes used interchangeably, there are differences between each type of product, and this can become important in the case of acne-prone and sensitive skin.2

Shaving Cream, Shaving Foam, Shaving Gel

We will get to some guidelines for choosing a safe shaving cream, foam, or gel in a minute, but before that, its even more important to talk about how to reduce irritation while shaving, because whether you are using a cream, foam, or gel, if you physically irritate your skin while shaving, this can increase acne symptoms. 

Avoiding irritation while shaving

The skin surface is slightly uneven, so when a sharp razor blade slides across the skin, it physically removes some of the cells and oils from the outermost layer of the skin. When done properly, physical irritation can be kept under control, but when done incorrectly, skin irritation in the form of redness, burning, stinging, cuts, and/or dryness can result, potentially aggravating acne.3,4

So, 

A good shaving cream, foam, or gel helps to prevent irritation during shaving by:

  • Hydrating the skin: Moisture in the shaving product makes the skin more elastic and less likely to be damaged during shaving
  • Hydrating the hair: Moisture in the shaving product makes hair softer and easier to cut
  • Reducing friction: Ingredients, including oils as well as ingredients called surfactants, in the shaving product help the razor blade to glide easily over the skin4

Guidelines for Choosing a Shaving Cream, Foam, or Gel for Acne-prone Skin

Before buying any shaving product, always check the list of ingredients. To find a product that will minimize skin irritation and will not contribute to acne, look for a shaving cream, foam, or gel without:

  • Pore-clogging ingredients: Avoid shaving products that contain comedogenic (pore-clogging) ingredients, for example, coconut oil, sweet almond oil, isopropyl myristate, isopropyl palmitate, and sodium lauryl sulfate. The table below provides a complete list of common comedogenic ingredients. 
  • Fragrances: Fragrances are the ingredient most likely to provoke allergies. Even if you are not allergic to fragrances, they may irritate your skin and thus acne.5 It is best to select a fragrance-free shaving product.
  • Cooling agents: Many shaving products contain cooling agents like menthol, camphor, and eucalyptus. While these ingredients are supposed to be soothing, they may actually irritate acne-prone skin.6,7 The best strategy is to choose a shaving product without cooling agents.
  • Stearic acid: Most shaving products contain stearic acid, which helps to emulsify (mix) the other ingredients together and to soften the skin. Research shows that stearic acid may contribute to skin irritation and acne.8,9 Finding a shaving product without stearic acid can present a challenge, but it is worth the time.

Choose a shaving product without pore-clogging ingredients, fragrances, cooling agents, stearic acid.

A safe alternative is to use a gentle facial cleanser in place of a shaving cream. Like shaving creams, cleansers contain surfactants, which allow for the razor blade to glide smoothly across the skin, reducing the chances of skin irritation or injury during shaving. Just make sure to check the ingredients to verify that the cleanser itself does not contain comedogenic ingredients or fragrances.

List of Common Comedogenic Ingredients

Many scientific studies have investigated how likely various ingredients are to cause comedones (clogged pores).5 We have thoroughly reviewed this research and compiled two lists.

  • Avoid: These are ingredients that people with acne-prone skin should definitely avoid, because a convincing body of evidence shows that they are comedogenic
  • Consider avoiding: These are ingredients that people with acne-prone skin may wish to consider avoiding, because some evidence suggests that they might be comedogenic

Common Comedogenic Ingredients

The results of scientific studies related to the comedogenicity of Vaseline® petroleum jelly are contradictory. Namely, in several studies using REA and the human method, it was shown to be comedogenic. However, a more recent study disproved this by pointing out that the REA method used previously was not accurate. In repeated analyses with an improved REA method, authors showed that Vaseline® petroleum jelly does not possess a pore-clogging potential. Considering that this product was also tested on the face of acne patients and that no worsening of acne was observed, it can be concluded that there is no evidence that it is comedogenic in humans.11

Apply Shaving Products Gently

Research shows that any physical irritation of the skin, such as pressure, tension, or rubbing, can aggravate acne.3 Since the process of shaving can itself be irritating to the skin, it is important not to induce any additional irritation when applying shaving products. We recommend applying shaving cream, gel, or foam with your bare hands using a light touch. If you really want to use a shaving brush, choose one with fine bristles to minimize skin irritation.

Shaving Cream, Foam, and Gel Ingredients: The Full Scoop


To obtain the best results and minimize skin irritation, wet shaving should include three stages.

05 Shaving Steps - Prepare, Shave, Post-shave Skincare

  1. Preparation: Wetting the skin and hair with water
    Soaking the skin with water makes it more elastic, in other words, more likely to adapt to the razor blade and less likely to be torn or injured. Wetting the hair makes it softer and easier to cut. One of the main components of hair is keratin, a protein which can soak up large amounts of water, which is why wetting hair produces good results.
  2. Hair removal: Applying shaving cream, foam, or gel, and shaving with a razor
    Shaving products like shaving cream, foam, and gel facilitate shaving in two ways.
    1. They hydrate the skin and hair, because they contain a large amount of water
    2. They reduce friction between the skin and razor blade, because they contain cleansing ingredients, oils, and polymers that help the blade glide smoothly over the skin
  3. Post-shave skin care: Moisturizing the skin after shaving
    The act of shaving removes skin oils from the skin surface and damages the skin barrier, which is the outermost layer of the skin. One of the main functions of the skin barrier is to prevent water loss from the skin. When the skin barrier is damaged, the skin is prone to drying out. To help restore moisture to the skin, it is advisable to apply a moisturizer after shaving.4

Shaving product ingredients

Shaving product ingredients vary depending on whether the product is a cream, foam, or gel. The table below shows the most common types of ingredients in shaving products.2,10 Some of these ingredient types are marked with an asterisk (*) because they may be comedogenic or irritating. Before buying any shaving cream, foam, or gel, always consult the list of ingredients and verify that none of them appear in the list of comedogenic ingredients above.

Common Shaving Cream Ingredients

References:

  1. Shaving, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaving>
  2. Shaving cream, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaving_cream>
  3. Mills, O. H. & Kligman, O. Acne mechanica. Arch Dermatol 111, 481 - 483(1975).
  4. Draelos, Z. D. Cosmetic Dermatology: Products and Procedures. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).
  5. Katoulis, A. C., Kakepis, E. M., Kintziou, H., Kakepis, M. E. &Stavrianeas, N. G. Comedogenicity of cosmetics: a review. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol 7, 115 - 119 (1996).
  6. Ernst, E. Adverse effects of herbal drugs in dermatology. Br J Dermatol 143, 923 - 929 (2000).
  7. Ali, B. et al. Essential oils used in aromatherapy: A systemic review. Asian Pac J Trop Biomed 5, 601 - 611 (2015).
  8. Melnik, B. C. Linking diet to acne metabolomics, inflammation, and comedogenesis: an update. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol 8, 371 - 388 (2015).
  9. Fulton, J. E. (Jr.). Comedogenicity and irritancy of commonly used ingredients in skin care products. J Soc Cosmet Chem 40, 321 - 333 (1989).
  10. Post foaming shaving gel composition. (1993). US5248495 A. 
  11. Kligman, A. M. Petrolatum is not comedogenic in rabbits or humans: A critical reappraisal of the rabbit ear assay and the concept of "acne cosmetic." J Soc Cosmet Chem 47, 41 - 48 (1996).

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