Feature Archive

Getting a Close Shave

Experts share tips about the best way for men and women to shave off unwanted hair.

By Star Lawrence
WebMD Feature
Reviewed ByMichael Smith,MD

The average man has more than 25,000 hairs as hard as copper wire coming out of his face and spends 3,000 hours in his lifetime shaving them off. The Egyptians were the first to bathe several times a day and remove body hair, sometimes with a clam shell (what is the Egyptian word for "ouch?")

At first, the Romans thought this was gross and the lack of body hair was a deformity; then they too began to scrape it off. The practice became so accepted, members of "unbarbered" societies became known as barbarians.

Now, both men and women like to remove hair from various bodily areas.

Shaving Tips for Men

Roxanne Griego, administrator and director of the Arizona Board of Barbers, has been a barber for 32 years and followed her father and grandfather into the profession.

The first step in shaving, she tells WebMD, is to prepare the surface of the skin.

"You want to remove the hair while preserving the skin's integrity," she says. "Massaging in the cream or shaving soap plumps up the muscle called the erector pilli, which pushes the hair up, kind of like gooseflesh. This also releases skin-softening oils from underneath the skin.

"What you want," she continues, "is to push the hair up and soften it so you can cut it off in one cold snap."

A lot of people, she adds, don't follow the instructions on the creams or soaps, or the creams and soaps do not have adequate instructions. You need to heat the skin and then massage in the soap. "Work it in, form an emulsion," she advises.

David E. Bank, MD, says "Like in those Westerns, where guys sit in the barber chair under a hot towel." Bank is director of the Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic and Laser Surgery in Mount Kisco, N.Y.

"Shaving in the shower is good," Bank says. "Keep the water on the warmer side. You can even put a hot, wet towel over your face for a few minutes."

Choosing the Best Shaving Cream

Bank prefers a gel to a shaving cream. Cheaper soaps lather up and it's the layer of soap next to the skin that counts, not how mounded-up it is. "Gels are more toning," Bank says.

Some people use a badger-hair brush to moisten the cream and spread it around. "I say if you like it and it doesn't hurt you, fine," Bank says of expensive (often British) shaving products. "Remember," he says, "price does not necessarily translate to better quality."

Griego notes also that barbers cannot use badger-hair brushes because they can hold bacteria that can infect subsequent customers. If you use one with an accompanying solid soap, replace the brush when the soap is gone.

Griego prefers a single-edged blade and thinks double- and triple-edged razors can irritate the skin. "If you've prepared the skin, all you need is a single," she says.

Bank agrees, saying he doesn't think double and triple blades make much of a difference. In any case, the blade should be sharp.

Fine-tuning Your Technique

Bank recommends shaving in the direction of hair growth for at least the first one or two passes. "It won't be as close because the hairs are at a 45-degree angle instead of 90 degrees, but it is gentle. You can always do one last pass against the grain."

Remember, hair grows in different directions on different parts of the face. Slide your hand over your face and neck to see which direction it is growing.

After shaving, rinse with cool water and pat, don't rub, with a towel. Since shaving can remove two layers of skin in addition to whiskers, a balm-like moisturizer rather than a perfumed alcohol-toner type aftershave is recommended. The ones made for guys do not leave a greasy film or make skin shiny.

Rinse the blade thoroughly, but do not dry with a towel, which dulls the cutting edge.

Griego points out that there are special shaving creams for African-Americans. "African-American hair is curlier, more coiled," Bank adds. "If it's pulled up with the razor and then slips beneath the skin again, it may not find a straight channel out of the follicle and pierce the side of the channel, regrowing or turning back on itself."

About half of African-Americans, Bank says, use electric razors. Depilatories to remove hair do not solve the irritation problem.

Using a dull blade can also result in razor bumps and ingrown hairs.

Incidentally, it is not true that one must use an electric razor or a blade exclusively. "I know many men who use electrics in the car or on workdays," Griego says, "and then get a blade shave for weekend dates or to go to church. Then back to the electric on Monday."