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If you’ve ever tried to shave over a breakout and wound up with cuts or inflamed skin, you know that shaving over pimples can make the acne worse. But you don’t have to skip shaving just because you have a breakout.

Let’s talk about how to shave properly and safely during a breakout or if you have acne-prone skin.

The first thing to note is that if you have painful or inflamed cystic acne, it’s best to skip shaving until the skin calm downs a bit, or at least speak with a dermatologist first. But if you have mild to moderate acne or a breakout in one area, you can still shave. You’ll just need the right tools and techniques.

Here’s what you’ll need before you begin:

  • exfoliating cleanser
  • light moisturizer
  • anti-acne shaving cream
  • multi-blade razor with closely spaced blades

Before you shave

The key to shaving with acne is prepping your skin before you even pick up your razor. You’ll want to do this with an exfoliating cleanser. These cleansers can be physical exfoliants (think scrubs that have a grainy texture) or chemical exfoliants like AHAs and BHAs.

After cleansing, apply a moisturizer for acne-prone skin to your face. This will soften the hair and make it more pliable. You can also warm a washcloth and leave it on your face for a few minutes to soften skin and hair.

As you shave

Apply a shave gel or cream in a thin, even layer. It’s best to use a shaving cream or gel designed for acne-prone skin. These will have gentle, nonirritating ingredients and may also include acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid or tea tree oil.

Then it’s time to shave. It’s best to use a razor with multi-blades that are sharp and spaced close together. The closer the blades, the less room there is for skin to get tugged and, therefore, inflamed. Some razors have indicator strips that change color when the blade is dull. Make sure the razor is clean before use.

Shave in whatever direction is most comfortable and natural to you. Facial hair doesn’t all grow in one direction, so inevitably you’ll be shaving against the grain, which is OK.

Avoid passing over pimples, if possible. But if not, try to only pass over active pimples once or twice, and always use light strokes. Even if your skin isn’t currently breaking out, using lighter force on the razor is a good idea. Some studies suggest that heavier razor strokes (sometimes needed with thicker beard hair) lead to irritation like razor burn.

Following your shave

After you shave, wash your face with warm water. Follow again with a moisturizer, which can be applied to slightly damp skin. You may want to shave less often if you have acne.

If you have acne-prone skin, you should shave similarly to how you would if you had an active breakout (those steps are explained above).

If you don’t have an active breakout but have oily, acne-prone skin, you could consider using a shaving brush to lather the shaving cream. This will help the hair stand straight up so it’s cut blunt across instead of on an angle, which can cause ingrown hairs and irritation. Shaving brushes can be irritating to people with breakouts, however.

One study found that 41 percent of people who consider themselves to have sensitive skin reported skin reactions after shaving — most commonly redness, burning, and stinging. If you find using a razor is too irritating to your skin, you could try trimming your beard instead.

If you shave improperly when you have acne, you risk making your breakouts more irritated or inflamed, which in turn can make them take longer to heal. You could also unintentionally break open a whitehead with the razor, which could cause acne scars.

If you shave too quickly or without properly prepping your skin, you could get razor burn or razor bumps, which are different from acne but have a similar red and bumpy look.

Can shaving cause acne?

Shaving doesn’t cause acne, but it can cause razor burn which looks a lot like acne. Razor burn is typically caused by:

Razor bumps can also occur as a result of improper shaving. The bumps look similar to razor burn and can happen when you get ingrown hairs, meaning the hair grows into the skin instead of out, causing a bump.

Studies show that razor bumps (called pseudofolliculitis barbae) usually clear after 24 to 48 hours of a close shave, and they’re also more common in Black and Asian people.

Acne is typically caused by excess sebum production. Pores get clogged with oil or dead skin, causing a blackhead or whitehead to form. Shaving shouldn’t cause acne, but it can irritate existing acne or cause razor burn.

You don’t have to skip shaving altogether just because you have acne or a breakout, but it’s important to prep your skin and shave properly to avoid making acne worse.

Before you shave skin that’s acne-prone or breaking out, wash and moisturize your face to soften hair. Then use a shave gel and a sharp razor to avoid nicking the skin. Follow with moisturizer. If your acne is deep, painful, or open, speak with a dermatologist before shaving.