Shaving gently with a non-comedogenic (won't clog pores) shaving cream or gel and a fresh, non-irritating blade razor might help to prevent acne by removing dead cells from the outer layer of skin. This exfoliation stimulates the underlying skin to replace cells more quickly, which may help prevent pores from becoming clogged.
However, shaving with a comedogenic (clogs pores) shaving cream or gel can make acne worse. And shaving in an overly-aggressive way, especially with the wrong razor, can create skin irritation, which can also lead to more acne.
The Bottom Line: Gently, yet confidently shaving every day with a sharp, non-irritating razor and a non-comedogenic shaving cream or gel should not be bad for acne, and may just prove to be beneficial.
Tip: Using a gentle facial cleanser in place of shaving cream or gel is a safe way to avoid potentially pore-clogging ingredients in many shaving creams/gels.
Shaving poses both potential benefits and risks for acne. When you shave your skin, you are removing hair, but also removing skin cells from the surface of the skin. This means you are not only shaving hair but also exfoliating the skin. In order to understand how shaving affects acne, we need to first understand the process of exfoliation.
The Process of Exfoliation
The word exfoliation comes from the Latin exfoliare, which means “to strip off leaves.” For the skin, it means to strip dead cells from its outermost layer. This outermost layer of the skin is called the stratum corneum, and the dead cells of this layer that are stripped off are called corneocytes.
Skin exfoliation is always happening and occurs naturally as the skin renews itself, but cosmetic procedures like shaving can speed up the process. When exfoliation happens naturally, it is slow because only a few corneocytes peel off at a time. Cosmetic exfoliation speeds up this process by removing a greater number of cells, which in turn alerts the skin underneath to speed up the replacement of skin cells.
When cosmetic exfoliation is done in a non-irritating way, it can be beneficial for keeping pores from becoming clogged. On the other hand, if you exfoliate in an irritating way, this can trigger more acne.
When done correctly, cosmetic exfoliation:
- Improves skin texture by making it smoother
- Evens out skin tone
- Slows signs of aging1
- Helps to prevent clogged pores2-4
Exfoliation can be either chemical or mechanical. Shaving is a form of mechanical exfoliation.
- Chemical: Chemical exfoliation involves applying an acid to the skin to peel off the top layer of cells.
- Mechanical (includes shaving): Mechanical exfoliation normally involves physically removing skin cells by shaving, or by rubbing the skin with abrasive material such as a washcloth, crushed apricot seeds, brushes, or sponges.
Chemical exfoliation is normally preferable to mechanical exfoliation because it is less irritating. Anything that irritates the skin can lead to more acne, and scrubbing the skin is irritating to the skin in most circumstances. However, gently shaving with a sharp, non-irritating blade razor, can be an exception to this rule and can provide mechanical exfoliation without irritation.
Potential Benefits of Shaving as Mechanical Exfoliation
There are no controlled scientific studies that demonstrate the effects of shaving on acne. However, shaving removes dead skin cells from the skin, and this may signal the skin to speed up the production of skin cells, thus increasing skin cell turnover and helping to prevent pores from clogging. Clogged pores is the first step in acne, so anything that prevents or reduces them helps with acne. However, remember this is only the case if shaving is done gently and without much irritation. Irritating the skin leads to more acne.
Note: Wet shaving with a razor blade is more effective in removing dead cells than electric shaving since it provides for closer contact of the blade with the skin.5
Potential Risks of Shaving as Mechanical Exfoliation
While there are reasons to believe shaving might be beneficial for acne, we should still be cautious. Vigorous shaving, shaving with a dull blade, or shaving with the wrong razor can cause physical irritation. The last thing anyone with acne wants is to increase skin irritation. Skin irritation is well known to lead to more acne. Also, "over-shaving," which refers to shaving over an area too many times or pressing too hard with the razor can removing too many cells and damage the integrity of the skin, which is tantamount to skin irritation.3,6 In short, to lessen the risks of shaving, stay gentle, don't go over any area too many times, and use a sharp 2-blade razor.
The researchers, Mills and Kligman, established this connection in a 1975 study published in the journal, Archives of Dermatology. They performed experiments showing that physical irritation aggravated the symptoms of acne in seven of ten study-subjects. To emphasize the importance of physical irritation as a cause of acne, they introduced the term, acne mechanica.7
Irritation of the skin is a common side effect of shaving, including electric shaving, and is a frequent complaint from men in the United States and in Europe, as we can see in more recent studies.2,8,9 This reinforces the need to reduce irritation when shaving acne-prone areas.
Expand to read details of studies
A study published in 2015 in the International Journal of Bioassays reported that 41% of men who had sensitive skin reported skin reactions after shaving. The most common reactions were redness, burning, and stinging.2
A 2012 study published in the British Journal of Dermatology showed a similar connection between shaving and irritation: men reported that the neck was the area where they most likely were to experience irritation due to shaving. The symptoms included redness, cuts, burning, stinging, tightness, dryness, and itching.8
A study in 2007 made a connection between acne mechanica and shaving. This study, published in the International Journal of Dermatology, surveyed men who possessed a serious form of acne called acne keloidalis nuchae (AKN). AKN is a chronic condition in which hair follicles on the back of the neck become inflamed and form fibrous plaques (scaly, red, bumpy areas) and papules. Ninety percent of the men believed that their AKN started with a haircut at a barbershop. The authors of the study noted that barbers commonly use electric razors during haircuts and observed, “These instruments have a sharp edge when new and can easily traumatize the skin of the nape of the neck. With continuous use, the cutting edge becomes dull and blunt and, in an attempt to obtain as close a [haircut] as possible, force is applied, leading to further trauma to the skin.”9
Weakening skin barrier function
The top layer of our skin provides us with what is referred to as the skin barrier function. The skin barrier function keeps water in our skin and protects its deeper layers from harmful chemicals in the environment. Shaving in an irritating way can damage the skin’s barrier, allowing water to escape and chemical irritants to penetrate the skin more easily. This is important because acne sufferers tend to experience an impaired skin barrier function. Therefore, for acne-prone people, it becomes even more important to not further weaken this already impaired barrier.
Alcohol-based aftershave lotions may contribute to the problem because alcohol can dehydrate the skin and enhance penetration of other chemicals into the skin.4
For people with acne, it is important to keep the skin barrier function as intact as possible. This means shaving gently with a non-irritating shaving cream and razor and not using aftershave.
Nicking existing acne
Shaving, especially with the wrong type of razor, can be difficult if you have active acne lesions in your bearded area. Shaving can nick or cut existing or burgeoning acne lesions, causing further damage to the skin and greater risk of scarring.
Electric shavers tend to cause irritation by pressing skin into tiny holes in the shaving foil, resulting in mild abrasion of the outer skin.3 This abrasion stimulates the nerve endings in the skin and activates the release of inflammatory molecules called cytokines. Acne is an inflammatory disease, so anything that produces cytokines and causes inflammation should be met with caution. Researchers believe that cytokines induce the burning and itching sensations that occur after shaving with electric razors.10 To keep acne in check, for most people this means avoiding electric razors altogether.
Potential Effects of Shaving Creams/Gels
Products applied to the skin before shaving can be comedogenic (pore-clogging), and clogged pores can lead to acne. In the mid 1940s, French dermatologists first studied the problem of skincare products causing acne. Since that time dermatologists have performed studies to determine which skincare product ingredients might clog pores.
For instance, stearic acid, an ingredient used in almost every shaving cream and gel on the market, may be moderately comedogenic. Coconut oil is another common ingredient in cosmetic shaving products that is known to clog pores.
Both stearic acid and coconut oil were among more than 200 ingredients tested in a 1989 study published in the Journal of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists. The intensity of pore-clogging was measured on a scale of 0 to 5. Stearic acid scored a 2-3, depending on the source material. Coconut oil rated 4, indicating severe pore-clogging. Other ingredients sometimes used in shaving creams and gels also came back with high ratings. You can see them here.11
When researchers tested stearic acid and coconut oil, they did so at 10% strength. In the real world, manufacturers use these ingredients at various percentages, sometimes low percentages, in shaving creams and gels. Unfortunately, the testing does not tell us what levels of these ingredients are safe. To complicate matters further, the study was performed by applying substances to the inner ear of rabbits. The rabbit ear is more sensitive than human skin, so the effects might not be the same.12 There is no research currently available that studies specifically the pore-clogging effects of finished shaving products themselves, but to be safe, aim to avoid stearic acid in your shaving cream or gel, and most definitely avoid coconut oil.
A great alternative to shaving creams and gels is simply a gentle facial cleanser. Most facial cleansers contain ingredients called surfactants that provide the slip that you need to shave, and they usually do not contain stearic acid or coconut oil.
The Bottom Line
Don't be scared about shaving if you have acne. When done in the right way, shaving with a sharp, non-irritating razor and a non-comedogenic shaving cream or gel (or gentle facial cleanser), can exfoliate the skin, which may lead to fewer clogged pores. Don't expect shaving to clear your skin, but also don't expect it to break you out if you do it the right way.
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- DeHaven, C. Mechanisms of exfoliation.<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).
- Capretto, L. 3 Subtle signs you're over-exfoliating your skin. The Huffington Post (2015).
- Kubba, R. et al. Cosmetics and skin care in acne. Indian J. Dermatol. Venereol. Leprol. 75, 55–56 (2009).
- Exfoliation (cosmetology) <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exfoliation_(cosmetology)>
- Howard, D. When razor meets skin: A scientific approach to shaving <http://www.dermalinstitute.com/us/library/16_article_When_Razor_Meets_Skin_A_Scientific_Approach_to_Shaving.html>
- Mills, O. & Kligman, A. Acne mechanica. Arch. Dermatol. 111, 481–483 (1975).
- Cowley, K. & Vanoosthuyze, K. Insights into shaving and its impact on skin. Brit. J. Dermatol. 166, 6–12 (2012).
- Salami, T. et al. Prevalence of acne keloidalis nuchae in Nigerians. Int. J. Dermatol. 46, 482–484 (2007).
- Rietzler, M. et al. Innovative approaches to avoid electric shaving-induced skin Irritation. Int. J. Cosmet. Sci. 38, 10–16 (2016).
- Fulton, J. Comedogenicity and irritancy of commonly used ingredients in skin care products. J. Soc. Cosmet. Chem. 40, 321–333 (1989).
- American Academy of Dermatology invitational symposium on comedogenicity. J. Am. Acad. Dermatol. 20, 272–277 (1989).