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Shaving 101 – How to Screw Up (and Rescue) Your Shave

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Did you ever get stuck in shaving hell? That’s where something goes wrong with your shave and you just can’t figure out what’s causing it. I unwittingly entered that state this past late summer and it took a while to fix the problem.

Going Off-Track

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My shaves were going well. I was using mainstream gear–a Merkur 34c razor with Kai blades–and the resulting shaves were good. Apart from occasional nicks on skin imperfections and a few bumps under the jawline near my ears, the shaves were clean and free from irritation.

But like many shaving fans I enjoy checking out new items in search of the elusive perfect shave. For me, this included getting a new Merkur Progress adjustable razor, a new blade sampler kit and a new cream that I wanted to try. The three items arrived around the same time so I decided to try them for the first time on the same day. The first pass went fine. The razor setting wasn’t too harsh, the blade cut well and the cream, which was perfumed but not obnoxious, worked as expected. The second pass also looked good. A little razor burn indicated I should reduce the razor’s setting, but my face was cleanly shaved with no apparent problems.

But as I rinsed off the cream’s residue, about a dozen nasty little red bumps became visible on both sides of my neck. What was this? In almost 50 years of shaving I never had bumps like these except a couple under my rear jawline and now it looked like a swarm of mosquitoes had attacked me. The bumps weren’t bleeding and I didn’t think ingrown hair problems could develop instantaneously, so I didn’t know what caused the marks.

It took almost a month to make good progress and clear most of my neck. Here are some suggestions based on that experience that I hope will help you get back on track more quickly if your shave goes wrong.

Make one change at a time

If you want to experiment with any part of your shaving routine, think of your face as a science experiment and start with small changes. Introduce just one variation–a new blade or new razor but not both together, for instance–and limit the change to one part of your face or neck, if possible. That way if the change backfires, you’ll know the cause and limit the damage. (You’ll look funny if just one-half of your face is botched up, but at least you’ll recover more quickly.) Don’t introduce multiple changes simultaneously because that makes it much more difficult to identify the problem’s source.

Give it a rest

If you do develop a problem, consider modifying your routine until you figure out the cause. For instance, If you must shave over an irritated area, consider using a milder razor than usual if you have one available. My razors range from very mild to adjustable and the double-edge razors all nicked the bumps. By switching to the very mild OneBlade CORE razor while the irritation was healing, I was able to shave the area without making the bumps worse.

Giving your problem areas one- or two-day rests between shaves is another option if your circumstances permit. It makes for some ugly neck stubble, but I’ve found that resting my neck speeds the healing. When the itch gets unbearable or you have to face the world again, shave the trouble spots as gently as possible. I still follow the advice that Mark (Mantic59) shared in this article and aggressively treat the bumps but keeping the razor off them completely for a few days helped a lot. Not shaving for a short period also maps the beard’s grain more clearly to reduce the likelihood of future problems.

Inspect the damage

I think there is a tendency to blame bumps on ingrown hairs. But as I worked through this recent episode, I became convinced that most of the bumps were pre-nicks; others were a type of adult acne. The trauma marks were probably caused by my lack of familiarity and skill with the Progress razor and the laxity of my aging neck’s skin; the acne might have been an ongoing but unnoticed skin condition under my jawline. Inspecting the irritated spots closely with a handheld mirror helped me identify the problems and it also showed me there were some areas with very little beard growth that I could shave much less frequently.

The fact that the bumps cleared up by each morning and only came back with subsequent shaves convinced me they weren’t ingrown hairs and I decided to treat them as injured skin spots with cold compresses and applying an over-the-counter cortisone ointment. I also changed to Feather blades with my 34c, the logic being that the combination of a mild razor with very sharp blades and a very light touch on the razor should reduce subsequent irritation. (I had broken my CORE razor and was waiting for a replacement, which also influenced this change.) So far it’s worked. The bumps have cleared up nicely and I’m getting closer, less irritated shaves with the Feather blades. There’s a side benefit, too: shaving with a Feather first thing in the morning definitely helps focus your attention.

Settle for good enough (at least occasionally)

A BBS-shave is every aficionado’s goal, but you might want to settle for a good shave instead of a perfect one. In a previous Sharpologist article, a dermatologist whom I interviewed made a case that some shavers, especially those with coarse or curly beard hair, should avoid the usual three-pass technique. He also pointed out that shaving can cause microscopic nicks and disruption of the outer skin layer, even if we don’t see it. That advice led me to reassess my approach. Instead of using my most aggressive razor in an effort to go BBS, I’m using the milder models and doing a maximum of two WTG passes with touch-ups as needed. It takes longer to shave my neck, too, because I’m using an even lighter touch than previously to avoid re-injuring the skin.

I judge the damage from a shave by running an alum block over my face after the final pass. A gentle, mistake-free shave will result in very few or no hot spots from the alum. But if the shave is really close, probably too close, lots of spots will sting, even though they’re not bleeding. Using a milder razor with a very sharp blade reduces the stinging so that approach appears to be working.

Every pre- to post-shave sequence has a finite number of products and steps combined with technique. If your shaves suddenly go south, a change to one of those elements is probably the cause. By reexamining your process and finding the culprit, you can get back to your old shave. At least until the next new thing comes along.

Author Profile:

Ed McCarthy is a semi-retired freelance writer living in rural Pascoag, Rhode Island, with his wife and too many pets. Despite numerous shaving experiments over the past 50 years he has somehow managed to avoid completely destroying his face.

Ed McCarthy

Ed McCarthy

3 thoughts on “Shaving 101 – How to Screw Up (and Rescue) Your Shave”

    1. Not intentionally. I work as a freelance writer and have no business connection with OneBlade and I don’t benefit from Sharpologist’s affiliate arrangement with the company. What I described is my experience. I have four good quality DE razors ranging from very mild to adjustable and I’ve tried numerous blade and razor combinations to eliminate irritation on my neck, where the skin has become much more sensitive with age. Every combination produces at least some skin irritation and the OneBlade razors produce none or very little. I’ve tried to replicate those razors’ neck shaves with my DEs but I haven’t, so I use DEs on my face and the OneBlade on my neck. I’m product-agnostic–whatever works is fine with me.

  1. Hi Ed! Very nice article. The best piece of advice for a new shaver was the one variable at a time. When I bought a new vintage razor(Gillette mostly) I had a lineup of blades ready to go. I’d find a blade that worked with my face. Buy a 100 ct and I was good to go. Depending on the razor, I’m a Voskhod, GSB or Shark guy. Have a great shave, have a great day!

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