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Treating Acne When You Have Facial Hair

The Shorter the Hair, the Better

By: Dan Kern, Acne.org Founder & CSO
Last updated: January 28, 2020

The Essential Information

When you treat acne on the face, the length of your facial hair matters--the shorter, the better. With a full beard or even a short beard, chances are that only a fraction of acne medication will reach the skin and get absorbed. If you really love your facial hair and are determined to keep it, here are a couple helpful tips:

  1. Consider trimming it to a close stubble - approximately 1/10 of an inch or less. This will help more medication reach the skin.
  2. Apply more medication, taking extra time to smear it around. Since physical irritation of the skin can make acne worse, make sure to stay extremely gentle.

The Science

A Beard May Reduce Absorption

Most topical medications, including acne treatments, are effective only when absorbed deep into the skin. To get absorbed, the medications have to contact the skin directly. If you wear a full beard or even a short beard, it may be difficult for the skin to absorb the drug because facial hair literally stands in its way. Applying more medication would probably help. However, you should be reasonable with how much you apply: it doesn't help if most of the medication remains on your facial hair.

Acne Treatments Can Get Stuck to Hair

When applying the medication, make sure you do this very gently. Always remember that we want to avoid irritation because irritation can make acne worse.

Maintaining a Close Stubble Is Not Ideal, but Should Be Acceptable

A close stubble, approximately 1/10 of an inch or less, is a good alternative for people who need to treat acne on the face, but do not want to part with their facial hair completely.

To achieve this sort of stubble, trim your beard with a beard trimmer, which is designed specifically for keeping facial hair short without removing it completely.

Maintaining a Close Stubble Is Not Ideal, but Should be Acceptable

What Do Studies Say Regarding Hair Length and Absorption?

All we have to date to help us gauge whether topical medications can still absorb into the skin when hair is present comes from one study performed on monkeys. In the study, the researchers applied the hormones testosterone and hydrocortisone to the inside of the monkeys' forearms and observed how well the hormones get absorbed.

In one group of monkeys, the inside forearm was shaved with an electric shaver, and in the other it was left unshaven.

The researchers concluded that hair length did not matter for the absorption of hormones.1 However, this was only one animal study and may not translate to humans in any way. So we are left having to rely on our common sense.

Expand to read details of study

Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology

In a 1975 study in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, the researchers applied testosterone and hydrocortisone to the inside forearm of the rhesus monkeys and tested how well the hormones were absorbed. In one group of monkeys, the inside forearm was shaven with an electric shaver, while in the comparison group the forearm was left unshaven. The study showed no difference in absorption of the hormones between the two groups.1

On the first glance, such results may seem to indicate that hair length does not matter, but this assumption is false.

First, as the researchers themselves note, the inside forearm of the rhesus monkey "is not very hairy," which most likely means that the hair was short enough for the medication to directly contact the skin even on the unshaven forearm.

This study shows us that the hair did not interfere with topical absorption. However, animal studies do not always give us a clear insight into humans. How much hair did the monkeys have on their forearms in comparison to a human face, for instance? And is the skin of the monkey similar enough to human skin as far as how well it absorbs medication? These variables remain unknown. Therefore, the results of the study are inconclusive, and we need more research in this direction.

The Bottom Line

Since we have no science to tell us how the length of facial hair impacts absorption, it is best to use common sense. If you have acne and don't care whether you have a beard or not, shave every day. This will allow topical treatments to best absorb. However, if you want facial hair, consider trimming your beard to a close stubble. Then, when applying medication, apply more to make up for the medication that is bound to attach to hair and not absorb, and be sure to take extra time to smear it around so it can get absorbed. But remember, physical irritation of the skin can lead to more acne, so stay very gentle.

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  1. Wester, R. C. & Maibach, H. I. Percutaneous absorption in the rhesus monkey compared to man. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol 32, 394 - 398 (1975). https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0041008X75902306

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