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A smoother shave -- it's all in the technique

Fancy gels and creams don't protect the skin any better than cheaper versions, experts say. How you handle the razor matters the most.

September 08, 2003|Timothy Gower | Special to The Times

I've noticed of late that companies that traditionally sell women's skin-care products -- such as Aveeno, Neutrogena and Nivea -- are offering shaving creams and gels, competing with familiar brands including Barbasol and Edge. These products tend to be more expensive than the old standbys, but their labels also promise greater skin protection, claiming to reduce or prevent razor bumps and irritation, as well as nicks and cuts.

These claims caught my eye. Some mornings my face and neck are so raw and splotched with blood I may as well have shaved with a weed whacker. Why is this daily ritual so traumatic for some guys? And can these nouveau cosmetics help?

Razor bumps are caused by hair shafts that grow beneath the skin, a condition called pseudofolliculitis barbae. Men often mistake this for acne, says Patrick Lee, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine. "They come in and say 'I should be beyond this,' " says Lee. But in most cases those red bumps, which tend to appear on the neck in particular, aren't pimples. Men with curly hair often develop this condition simply because a hair shaft refuses to sprout straight out of the pore. Instead it coils under the skin and becomes inflamed.

Shaving against the grain can produce razor bumps too, says Lee. Like many men, I shave in the opposite direction that my face and neck hair grow to get the smoothest possible result. But doing so can shear a hair follicle so short that it no longer rises out of the pore and begins to grow beneath the skin, producing the unsightly and uncomfortable bumps. (Apparently, friends tell me, I could have picked up shaving and other grooming tips by watching "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," the popular makeover show on Bravo.)

Shaving against the grain also can cause irritation, simply because you're "raking the skin red" with the razor, says Lee. What's more, nicks and cuts can become inflamed. But can using the right shaving cream or gel combat this cruelty?

Lee is skeptical of such claims. "I don't think there's a magical product out there that's going to make a difference," he says. In most cases of chronic skin irritation, he says, faulty shaving technique is the culprit.

But, wait -- if these products cost more, doesn't that mean they contain special skin-protecting ingredients? I asked Mort Westman, a cosmetics industry consultant based in Oak Brook, Ill., to compare the ingredient list of a heavily promoted shaving gel introduced last year that retails for nearly $5 with an older brand that costs $2 less. He said both products contained many of the same essential ingredients for performing the basic function of a shaving cream; that is, to keep facial hair damp and soft, making it easier to cut. Although some of the chemical names were different, Westman pointed out that most had similar properties. "These ingredients are virtually identical," he said.

Although the way in which ingredients are blended may make a difference in their effectiveness, Westman and Lee agree that most shaving creams and gels on the market are equally effective. Westman does caution against using ultra-cheap shaving creams, which may dry too quickly.

Lee advises men who have razor bumps and other shaving problems to find a cream or gel they like that suits their budget, then follow a few simple steps. First, wash your face with the hottest water you can tolerate, to make your beard stand up. Apply the cream or gel and let it rest on your face for five minutes -- or as long as you can tolerate -- to soften the hair. (Lee suggests brushing your teeth to pass the time.) Then shave with slow, downward strokes on your face, upward on your neck. Bumps and irritation should gradually fade, though you probably will have to grow accustomed to not getting a cue ball-smooth shave every time.

Which doesn't set well with some guys. "Men tell me 'I'm not sure the boss will let me come to work without a close shave,' " says Lee. His response: "Why not? He let you come to work with all those bumps, didn't he?"

If your skin stings after a shave, rub on some moisturizer or hydrocortisone cream. Be sure to change blades every three or four shaves (or once a year if you use an electric razor). And be sure not to leave a razor sitting in a puddle in the shower or at the sink, because micro-nicks in the blade will absorb bacteria. Instead, rinse the blade with hot water and, if possible, hang the razor with the blade end down to dry, experts advise.

Lee says that fixing flawed techniques can clear up about 80% of shaving-related problems in men with all types of beards. However, stubborn razor bumps, which tend to be more common in dark-skinned men, may require more drastic steps. Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi, a dermatologist in Washington, says that when all else fails, men might want to consider laser surgery, which typically does not remove hair altogether, but makes the shafts finer, lessening the severity of razor bumps.

I've been following Lee's advice, as well as using one of the pricey new gels. I haven't had a bad day at the sink in weeks, and my neck no longer resembles ground beef.

Is it the technique or the gel? I don't know, and as long as I save face each morning, I don't care.


Timothy Gower can be reached by e-mail at tgower@comcast .net. The Healthy Man runs the second Monday of the month.

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