One common comment I hear from those interested in ‘traditional’ wet shaving is along the lines of “I have a thick beard and sensitive skin!” But is your skin genuinely sensitive? Is your beard genuinely thick? Or have you just been shaving wrong all this time?
Just What Is A “Thick Beard?”
The growth of facial hair is determine by a combination of genetic and non-genetic factors.
Your genes determine how sensitive your hair follicles are to testosterone: if your follicles are more sensitive to testosterone then you’ll have more beard growth.
Scientists don’t yet fully understand the role of DNA in facial hair thickness but they have found that a marker in the LNX1 gene plays a role in facial hair growth. This gene seems to influence how thickly (or thinly) facial hair grows.
Other genes are likely involved as well. As scientists learn more about the genetics of beard growth, they may find a better predictor for facial hair thickness.
It comes down to this: facial hair thickness is an “additive” trait. The more “thick” gene variants you inherit from each parent, the more likely you are to have thicker facial hair. If your father or grandfather had thick beard hair, you’re likely to have a thick beard also.
What About Grey Hair?
Grey hair is thicker and harder than “regular” hair (why? Hydrogen peroxide builds up in the hair follicle, causing the hair to “bleach itself” from the inside out) so it does make the beard coarser and more difficult to cut. Older shavers have additional challenges. Take a look at this article for some help if you find yourself in that situation: Shaving Challenges for Older Guys
Just What Is “Sensitive Skin?”
Here are some of the signs that go along with truly sensitive skin:
- Dry/flaky patches
- Itchy skin
- Rashes (of any type)
- Sensitivity to sunlight
- Smell of fragrance or cologne makes your eyes tear up
But “sensitivity” reactions can have time windows ranging from immediately to up to 72 hours. And sensitivities are usually dosage-dependent: the greater the exposure, the more likely will be a sensitivity reaction and the stronger it will likely be. There can also be a reaction threshold, below which there may be no symptoms.
What Really Causes “Sensitive Skin”
Causes of sensitive skin reactions include:
- Excessive exposure to skin-damaging environmental factors like sun and/or wind, or excessive heat or cold
- Overly dry or injured skin that can no longer protect nerve endings, leading to skin reactions
- Skin disorders or allergic skin reactions such as eczema, rosacea, or allergic contact dermatitis
Like a “thick beard,” genetic factors, age, gender, and race differences are less well-understood but still may play a role in causing skin reactions.
Sensitivity vs. Allergy vs. Intolerance
If you think you have “sensitive skin” what you may really have is a sensitivity to a specific ingredient, an allergy, or an intolerance. For a lot more detail on the topic take a look at this Sharpologist article: Is Shaving Making You Sick? Sensitivities to Grooming Products
How To Know If You Have “Sensitive” Skin
The most accurate way to find out if you really have sensitive skin or whether something else is causing your skin condition is to consult with a dermatologist.
What May Be Really Going On
So, if you don’t really have a thick beard and sensitive skin, what may be going on when you get uncomfortable, poorly-performing shaves? It’s probably going to boil down to:
- Poor pre-shave preparation
- Inadequate lubrication
- A too “aggressive” razor and/or blade (or cartridge) design.
- Poor shaving technique
Poor Pre-Shave Preparation
First things first: thoroughly wash your hands with plenty of warm water before you do anything else. If your hands are dirty–or worse, contaminated–you are just making it that much tougher to clean the area to be shaved. This may be particularly important in these days of higher world-wide health concerns. For a lot more about the topics read this: Wash Them Hands
Rinse and clean the area to be shaved with generous amounts of warm water and a cleanser made specifically for the face. If you are going to be shaving your face be sure to pay close attention to your neck area. Doctors say it takes up to about three minutes to properly hydrate the skin for shaving. Leave the skin you are going to shave wet if you’re using a manual razor; don’t bother drying it off.
What About Pre-Shave Oils?
Pre-shave oils as a part of preparation may help with lubrication during the shave. Personally, I think that if you use good enough products you won’t need them anyway. But if you do use a pre-shave oil as part of your shave preparation, apply it after cleansing.
For much more about shave prep check out this article: Shaving 101: Tackling A Tough Beard
One fairly common reason for a shaver getting lousy performance is because they’re using a lousy lubricant. All other things being equal, shave foam out of a pressurized can is probably one of the least effective lubricant strategies: the propellant in the can can dry out the skin. Additional ingredients must be added to make up for the drying effect, which in turn may cause additional opportunities for skin sensitivity as described earlier.
A good shave cream can make a significant difference in the performance of your shave.
Aggressive Hardware Design
There are a number of design specifications in manual razors that govern how “aggressive” or “mild” (some say “efficiently”) a razor shaves. Two important ones are blade gap and blade span.
The blade-bar gap is the shortest distance between the blade edge and the safety bar/comb.
The blade-bar span is the distance between the blade edge and the line of the safety bar/comb that contacts the skin.
The blade-bar gap is influenced by the safety-bar/comb cross-section contour, while the span indicates the functional distance between edge and bar/comb. Span affects razor aggressiveness in two ways.
Firstly, span influences the length of hair that a razor will cut. The larger the span, the longer the whiskers it will effectively shave. This is because as a razor head is drawn across the beard, the safety bar/comb to some degree (depending on its design) will push the hair over as it passes. The larger the span, the more space the hair has to recover toward upright prior to contacting the blade.
Secondly, span influences how much skin can bulge up between bar/comb and blade. Larger spans allow for more skin bulge, which increases the opportunity for the blade to injure delicate dermis. Of course, shaving technique affects skin bulge as well. Very light pressure reduces skin bulge, as does skin stretching.
Overly-aggressive razor head designs can easily cause nicks, cuts, and irritation. A milder razor may be more beneficial.
If you want a lot more discussion this design, read this article: How Much Razor Aggressiveness Do You Really Need?
Poor Shave Technique
Perhaps the biggest factor in getting unsatisfactory shaves is poor shave technique, ignoring important concepts such as:
- Blade Sharpness
The Importance Of “Grain”
Let’s assume you’ll be shaving your face, though the concepts apply to shaving pretty much anywhere. Last week’s homework was to carefully map how the grain on your skin grows and you were given a choice of three different facial diagrams to map with. Now it is time to put that map to work.
Knowing how the hair grows is essential to a comfortable (and hence, more enjoyable) shave because it allows you to remove more hair per stroke with less chance of irritation, providing more beard reduction more quickly. Understanding beard growth is essential when using a multi-blade razor! It may be less essential when using a single blade razor but still important.
Grain is also important to know so that if you decide to pull the skin taut to shave you can know which direction to pull. Over-stretching the skin makes the possibility of irritation or ingrown hairs much more likely.
Reduction By Passes
No matter what kind of razor you use, an essential razor technique is to shave in passes, re-lathering between each pass, with each pass progressively removing hair more closely to the skin. Even multi-blade razors with their “lift and cut” theory follow this technique, along with the “grain” concept above.
Putting too much pressure on the razor creates a “valley” for the blade, not only reducing the efficiency of the blade but also making irritation more likely. Modern cartridge razors that pivot can partly compensate for too much pressure but don’t rely on it. Hold the razor by the bottom of the handle, tilt your head to one side, and let the head of the razor rest on your cheek. Feel that? That’s the most amount of pressure you want to use.
Proper Blade Angle
If you are not using a razor with a replaceable blade cartridge, you will have to be concerned with the angle where the blade meets the skin. Blade cartridges set this angle for you, with some engineer (or marketer) deciding what is best for everyone. If you are using a classic double-edge or single edge blade (including a straight razor) you must set this angle yourself.
Segmenting the area to be shaved into its flattest parts may help you maintain a proper blade angle. Take shorter strokes on curved areas like the chin. Rinse the blade between segments so that you always have a “clean” blade on each part.
A Sharp Blade Or Cartridge
It may seem obvious but a good, enjoyable shave needs a good, sharp blade to shave with. That means not using a blade or cartridge that is beyond it’s prime. Here is a recent article about how to maintain a sharp blade longer: How To Maintain A Sharp Shaving Blade
There are certainly situations where a shaver my have genuinely thicker-than-average hair density or some real, acute sensitivity to an ingredient in a shave product. But the more likely cause is how they are shaving. Proper preparation, using decent products, and practicing good shave technique are the keys to shave happiness.