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.
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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.
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.