[Updated February, 2023] Acne on its own can be bad enough. Dealing with trying to shave with acne can be misery. But Sharpologist is all about enjoying your shave. So I have collected wisdom from around the ‘net–including Acne.org, discussion forums, detailed articles from sites like ZsaZsaCreamReviews.com and Simple Skincare Science–and my own experiences–to deal with the problem.
Preparing the face for shaving is an important part of the process but with acne it requires some extra thought. In addition to hydrating the skin and hair, softening it for the shave, you also need to think about cleaning dirt and especially reducing the amount and spread of bacteria on the skin.
I know squeezing a pimple isn’t normally recommended. But if you have a whitehead that’s almost ready and you’re probably going to do it anyway it’s better to pop it correctly before cleansing to get rid of the contents. The razor won’t be doing the breaking and introducing bacteria onto itself and then other areas of skin.
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There are a number of products made specifically for cleaning skin with acne, which can involve a delicate balance between cleaning and not drying out the skin too much. Acne.org’s Cleanser is specially formulated to clean skin while maintaining an acceptable skin pH. It can also double as a shave product (more on that later). CeraVe’s Foaming Facial Cleanser is another often-mentioned product that can work well with cleaning acne-prone skin. More widely available but still acceptable products that can probably be found in your local Mega-Mart include Cetaphil’s Gentle Cleansing Bar. Also consider travel face towels.
Some people suggest soaps with a high glycerin content and vitamin E. But be careful of using too many products with high glycerin content (like using a glycerin-based shaving product after preparing with a glycerin cleansing soap): too much glycerin can have a “rebound” effect, actually drying out the skin more than using other products, and making shaving more difficult.
If you’re young and struggling with acne you may want to avoid using a washcloth (vigorous scrubbing can make acne worse). If you are shaving your face, don’t neglect preparing the neck too!
What about using a pre-shave oil? Generally-speaking, while a pre-shave oil may improve a razor’s glide, problems using them with acne outweigh their benefits. Go ahead and try one if you want but make sure that the product specifically states that it is non-comedogenic (won’t clog pores).
Shaving with acne can be improved by using the right shaving product. Thinner, less dense shaving lathers help the razor glide over the skin while reducing the possibility of clogged pores and aggravated skin. Acne.org suggests using their cleanser as a shaving product as well but I have found very few reviews from those who have used it this way (though the few I did find were positive). Any of the “best” shaving creams that Sharpologist has suggested should work very well. However I suggest using them “brushless” (it is very important to lather them with clean fingers) instead of using a shaving brush, as there is always the possibility that bacteria might get picked up by the brush hair and spread around. You will need to use more of the product than you would if a brush was used but it is a safer method.
Those with acne who shave with modern, multi-blade cartridge razors should be considered casualties in the “razor blade wars.” Multi-blade “lift and cut” razors are a bad idea for anyone with acne. The more blades a razor has, the more likely those blades will irritate the skin, break pimple heads, and spread bacteria. If you shave with a manual razor you should use a cartridge with no more than two blades. This limits you (at least in the U.S.) to Gillette SkinGuard (which does NOT use the “lift and cut” method. See Sharpologist’s review of the SkinGuard razor), “ATRA,” “Trac II,” and “Sensor” style razors, at least for reasonably widely available products.
Less widely available but a better solution are the single blade razors. Most are the “old school” double-edge (DE) but single blade razors your grandfather may have used. And Sharpologist is all about the single blade razor! Check out the “Best DE Razor” post for the full list, but for those with acne you will want to concentrate on razors with a relatively small blade exposure (i.e. a “gentle”) razor–see THIS article for recommendations!
Or you may want to consider using an electric razor. You may not get the closest shave in the world, but a shave that is not particularly close may be a reasonable trade-off for less “trauma.”
Related Post: Can You Use An Electric Razor With Shaving Cream?
The Act of Shaving
A used towel can be a microbial incubator so use a fresh towel for every shave. Some people recommend getting “Bar Mops” because they’re all-cotton, lint-free, easy to launder, and cheap.
Avoid passing the razor over pimples if possible. Shaving over pimples can break whiteheads, causing the bacteria to spread and invade freshly shaved skin.
You want to make shaving as comfortable as possible and avoid irritation and nicks. The best way to do that is by initially shaving with the grain of the beard–the direction that the hair grows in. If you want a closer shave, relather and shave across the grain (at a direction 90 degrees away from the grain). Shaving against the grain provides a closer shave but can worsen an already compromised condition.
Putting too much pressure on the razor may cause problems too. Modern razors can at least partially compensate for too much pressure with things like pretensioners (those “fins” at the bottom of the razor cartridge), pivot schemes, and cartridge designs (multiple blades and “skin guards” that create a flatter surface). But you can avoid all that by simply using a light touch on the razor. Tilt your head to one side and rest the razor on your cheek. Feel that? That’s the most pressure you should use on the razor.
Consider shaving less often.
After The Shave
Rinse the razor head in rubbing alcohol after each shave (and before the next one, too). Another option might be to dry and sanitize the razor using an ultraviolet light product like this example.
After shaving it’s important to remove any shaving lather residue from the skin so it doesn’t further clog pores. Rinse thoroughly with lots of warm water. I like to soak a cotton round with a cleansing toner (or even an astringent like Witch Hazel) and wipe down the area. Then follow up with a cool water rinse. Some also suggest going “old school” by using an Alum Block: after the final rinse glide the block all over the shaved skin (it may sting a little as it is mildly antiseptic), wait a minute or so, then rinse again before applying a light after shave balm.
Others recommend applying a benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid gel to face as a toner. But be careful that you only use a mild version.
If you have decided to use an electric razor follow the manufacturer’s directions for cleaning.
Do you have any advice to give others who are suffering with acne? Be sure to leave a comment! Do you know someone struggling with acne? Be sure to share this post with them.