Is It Safe for Women to Shave Their Face?

Shaving has been a part of women’s beauty routines since ancient Egypt and Greece. Although it’s not been discussed as often as shaving other parts of the body in the past, women have been increasingly sharing their concerns about facial hair and experiences with shaving it. Whether for aesthetics or believing that it promotes skin health, many women shave their faces for smoother, hair-free skin. Understanding the different types of facial hair, the causes of excess facial hair, and the proper techniques for shaving is crucial to avoiding irritation and achieving optimal results.

Should women shave their faces?

Despite the growing popularity of women shaving their faces, clinical research on this topic is sparse. Most of the currently available research on face shaving is focused on the impact on men’s skin, and much of it includes industry studies done by manufacturers of shaving products.

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There is a common misconception that men’s skin is thicker, making it more resilient to shaving. While it is true that the middle layer of the skin, the dermis, contains more collagen in men, the thickness of the epidermis of the face (except for the forehead) has been found to be relatively equivalent between sexes. This is important because shaving is a superficial form of hair removal that should not affect the skin any deeper than the very uppermost part of the first layer of the skin, the epidermis.

Other differences in skin between men and women may influence how shaving affects the skin, such as lower rates of transepidermal water loss (TEWL) in men. Hydration of the skin helps protect the skin barrier, and a higher TEWL makes the skin more prone to irritation. However, women’s skin has faster healing rates. Based on these factors, the safety of women shaving is similar to that of men, and thus, shaving the face is generally safe for women when done correctly.

As with men, individual reactions to face shaving in women may differ, and shaving should be avoided if the skin is already irritated due to other causative factors.

Why do women shave their faces?

There are two types of facial hair seen in adults:

  • Vellus hair. Thin, fine hair that is also found on most of the body.
  • Terminal hair. Thick, more pigmented hair. These are found on the scalp, eyebrows, and eyelashes at birth. During puberty, an increase in androgens triggers a conversion of vellus hairs into terminal hairs in other locations.

Androgens, such as dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), are produced in the adrenal glands of all genders. In males, the testes produce testosterone and dihydrotestosterone (DHT). The ovaries of females also produce testosterone and DHT, though at lower levels. Genetic factors also influence how receptors in different cells respond to androgens.

However, some medical conditions and medications can cause an excess of androgens or increased follicular sensitivity to androgens, leading to hirsutism — an increase in terminal hairs in androgen-dependent regions in women.

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Non-pharmacologic (not related to medication use) causes of hirsutism are often accompanied by other symptoms that help pinpoint the possible diagnosis. Common causes of hirsutism include:

  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is the most common medical condition associated with hirsutism. PCOS is a complex disorder of hormonal imbalances characterized by an increase in androgens, which may present with weight gain, acne, hirsutism, male pattern hair loss, and often insulin resistance.
  • Primary hypercortisolism, also known as Cushing’s syndrome, is caused by a prolonged increase of cortisol, which may be caused by medication use or overactive secretion of the hormone.
  • Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) is a genetic disorder that is associated with a deficiency of enzymes in the adrenal gland, leading to an increase in androgens and a decrease in other adrenal hormones. Associated signs include low blood pressure and low sodium levels, low sodium levels, and early puberty.
  • Androgen-secreting tumors usually present with a sudden increase in terminal hair growth.
  • Obesity is closely linked with hirsutism as adipose (fat) cells make steroid hormones that convert to androgens when excess occurs. Obesity is also linked to insulin resistance — a lower response to circulating insulin — which causes the body to produce more insulin. Hyperinsulinemia, in turn, increases androgen levels by two mechanisms. It increases the amount of free testosterone by decreasing the production of sex-binding hormone globulin (SBHG), a protein that binds testosterone to transport it in the blood and keeps it from interacting with cells. It also stimulates and increases the production of androgens in the ovary,
  • Menopause can cause hirsutism in some women due to changes in hormones. The level of hirsutism after menopause varies by individual.

Medications and drugs that cause hirsutism include:

  • Anabolic steroids
  • Estrogen antagonists, like tamoxifen
  • Minoxidil
  • Danazol
  • Metoclopramide
  • Methyldopa

Other forms of hypertrichosis may also cause excess facial hair in women. Hypertrichosis is an umbrella term for excess hair anywhere on the body that can affect men and women and may include an increase in terminal hair, vellus hair, or both. Hypertrichosis may take place locally, in one area, or as a general increase.

There is a significant psychosocial burden on women with hirsutism, which is associated with an increased risk for depression and anxiety. In order to relieve this burden, women often turn to hair removal methods, many of which are prohibitively expensive. When done properly, shaving facial hair provides an inexpensive, convenient option for hair removal at home, no matter how much there is.

In addition to removing facial hair that is thick or darkly pigmented, many women also choose to shave fine vellus hair, often referred to as 'peach fuzz,' for cosmetic reasons. Shaving also may lightly exfoliate the most superficial layers of the skin (stratum corneum) that comprise of dead skin cells (keratinocytes).

How do dermatologists view face shaving in women?

While shaving facial hair in women is still considered a way of managing mild hirsutism or as a temporary solution, its increasing popularity is being recognized. The convenience and affordability are often cited as benefits compared to other hair removal practices. Shaving is also not likely to cause a strong inflammatory reaction like other temporary epilation techniques, such as plucking, threading, and waxing. In addition, the cosmetic benefits of shaving have been further explored with dermaplaning, a procedure that uses a scalpel to remove not just the hair but also deeper layers of the superficial skin.

However, shaving too frequently or incorrectly causes irritation to the skin as it acts as a physical exfoliant. Most dermatological literature advises that it may not be a universal solution and that shaving properly is key to getting the desired results without undesirable consequences.

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If you are unsure if your skin will tolerate shaving facial hair, consult a dermatologist for guidance.

How to shave facial hair

Shaving facial hair safely includes preparing the skin, using the right tools and techniques, and caring for the skin afterward. The strategies used in these steps can make a significant difference in avoiding irritation.

How to shave your face

Preparation

Preparing your face well helps to get a smoother shave while reducing the risk of irritation after shaving. This process may differ based on individual skin sensitivity and the amount of hair needing removal.

  • Cleansing. Using a gentle cleanser, preferably with a mild exfoliant, remove dirt, oil, and makeup. Cleansing the skin will lower the risk of infection. The exfoliant will help smooth the skin for a closer shave and remove any excess skin trapping the ends of hair to avoid ingrown hairs.
  • Hydration. Apply warm water or a damp towel for a few minutes. The stiffness of the hair decreases when it is well-hydrated, making it easier to cut with a blade.

Shaving techniques

The right shaving technique is crucial for getting a close shave without causing irritation.

  1. Apply shaving oil, gel, or other choice of lubricant. Choose one that is hydrating to help create a smooth surface and reduce friction.
  2. Pull the skin taut and shave in the direction of hair growth to reduce the risk of cuts, irritation, and ingrown hair.
  3. Apply minimal pressure with gentle, short strokes to avoid cutting the skin. Rinse the razor in warm water between strokes to keep it clean.
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Post-shaving care

Caring for your skin after shaving can help soothe the skin, maximize the benefits of shaving, and reduce the risk of irritation and ingrown hairs.

  1. Cleanse your skin with a gentle cleanser to remove any remaining shaving oil or gel.
  2. Apply soothing and hydrating skincare, such as serums containing hyaluronic acid. If you don’t have sensitive skin, this is also a good time to use a mild exfoliating acid, such as glycolic acid, a retinoid, or other active ingredients, as light exfoliation may increase the absorption of skincare ingredients and may help boost their benefits.
  3. Moisturize to lock in hydration and protect the skin barrier.

Choosing the right tools

There are several types of razors designed for facial use. As there is a wide variation in the amount of facial hair in women, the choice of razor depends on the level of face sensitivity you experience, thickness, and amount of hair you would like to remove.

Multi-blade razors are used on the face more often by men but may be used by women who experience significant hirsutism, with terminal hairs covering a large portion of the chin and cheeks. While multi-blade razors often provide a closer shave, they are more likely to cause irritation and increase the risk of ingrown hairs. Avoid using multi-blade razors if you have very sensitive skin.

Single-blade razors provide a few more options for women:

  • Regular single-blade razors are usually advertised for men. These include safety razors and straight-edge razors. Like multi-blade razors, there may be an appropriate option for women with many terminal hairs in one region. They cause less sensitivity than multi-blade razors but should still be used cautiously as they may cut the skin if too much pressure is applied.
  • Eyebrow razors are the most popular shaving tool for women as they are not as sharp as other razors and are inexpensive. They are also more suited to thinner hair and to remove vellus hair. Some eyebrow razors are angled, which can help use them on the contours of the face more easily.
  • Home dermaplaning tools are similar to straight razors but often come with a guard at the top of the blade and are angled to help maneuver them while shaving the face. The blade on these tools is generally sharper than eyebrow razors.
  • Electric razors are a great option for those with sensitive skin. They do not provide any exfoliation as they cut the hair at the skin. They are also convenient to carry along.

When and how often should you shave?

Shaving requires time. It should not be rushed, as there is a risk of using the wrong technique, missing a step, or applying too much pressure, which will damage the skin. Ideally, if time permits, shaving after a warm shower can be helpful as the steam from the shower can help prepare the hair for shaving.

Shaving in the morning can provide a clean canvas for the makeup to adhere to, but should be followed with a broad-spectrum sunscreen as recently exfoliated skin is more vulnerable to UV damage. Alternatively, shaving at night benefits newly exfoliated skin with better absorption of nighttime skincare products. Shaving may increase irritation from actives, such as exfoliating acids and retinoids, and should be avoided after shaving by those with sensitive skin.

If you have fine or vellus hair, you may be able to go several weeks without shaving. Those with terminal hairs may need to shave more often. The frequency should be determined by your skin’s response to shaving. If it irritates easily, consider shaving less frequently or use it only temporarily while considering more permanent methods.

The dos and don'ts of face shaving in women

Follow these expert tips to minimize irritation and achieve the smoothest, most effective shave:

What are the benefits of shaving the face?

There are several benefits of shaving the face for women. Understanding these benefits can help you decide whether to incorporate shaving facial hair into your routine.

Visually smoother skin

Exfoliating dead skin and removing vellus hair provides a smoother skin texture and makes it seem younger and visibly even.

Temporary hair removal

Shaving is a quick and inexpensive option for hair removal, making it accessible to more women. The convenience of shaving may help alleviate some of the psychosocial burden of facial hair experienced by women. When performed correctly, it is a good option for those with sensitive skin who may not be able to tolerate other forms of epilation.

Enhanced absorption of skincare

Exfoliating the skin’s surface helps increase the penetration of dermatologic and cosmetic products and likely increases their efficacy.

What are the side effects of face shaving?

While face shaving benefits many, without using the right tools and techniques, it can have side effects ranging from mild irritation to more severe reactions with long-lasting consequences.

Skin irritation

Skin irritation is the most common side effect of shaving because hair removal is often accompanied by mechanical exfoliation and tugging of the skin. Those with sensitive skin may experience irritation after every shave, while those with more resilient skin types may only experience it when they shave too often, apply too much pressure, or use the wrong type of razor.

Pain

Pain caused by nicks and cuts to the skin or razor may occur if done too aggressively, by using a dull blade, or by going over the same area again.

Exacerbation of acne

Any area of active acne should be avoided when shaving as it can cause damage to the already irritated skin and promote the spread of bacteria to the surrounding area.

Increased dryness

Exfoliation of the keratinocytes weakens the skin barrier and makes it more prone to TEWL and dehydration. Using hydrating products and moisturizing the skin after shaving can help prevent dryness.

Ingrown hair

Preparing and hydrating the skin smoothes the skin and softens the hair to prevent repenetration by the hair shaft and skin growth over the hair. Shaving too close to the skin can increase the risk of ingrown hairs. The razor can pull on the hair, and the cut of the hair shaft may lay deeper within the skin, where it may grow over it, causing it to be trapped.

Five o’clock shadow

Thicker and darker terminal hair may result in a five o’clock shadow as shaving cuts the shaft at the thickest portion. Those with very thick or plentiful terminal hairs may benefit from other hair removal methods.

Infection

Exfoliation caused by shaving makes the skin more vulnerable to entry by pathogens. Shaving without cleansing the skin first or shaving over regions of active acne can cause skin infections by spreading bacteria. This can lead to infection of follicles or generalized skin infection.

If you experience severe skin irritation, worsening acne, ingrown hairs, or a skin infection after shaving, see your dermatologist.

Alternatives to shaving facial hair

Shaving may not be the ideal method of facial hair removal for everyone. Understanding what the alternatives are to shaving, you may be able to decide which is best suited to your needs.

Temporary hair removal methods include:

  • Waxing. Warm or cold wax is applied to the skin and quickly removed, pulling hair out from the root. Waxing provides long-lasting results but can be painful and may cause irritation and ingrown hairs if the hair breaks along the shaft under the skin. The hair must also be allowed to grow to a certain length before it can be waxed again.
  • Threading. A cotton thread is twisted and moved against the skin to trap the hair and pull it out from the follicle. While painful, no chemicals are used, and if done by someone skilled, it can be less irritating. Threading is usually well tolerated by those with sensitive skin.
  • Depilatory creams. Creams containing chemicals are used to destroy the protein in the hair, allowing them to be wiped away easily. While this is quick and painless, there is a risk of allergic reactions or skin sensitivity. The chemical reaction also causes a strong, unpleasant odor, which is removed when the area is washed.
  • Plucking/tweezing. Tweezers are used to pull out individual hairs from the root. This is a very precise method best suited for a small area of terminal hairs. However, it can be time-consuming if performed on many hairs and may be painful in certain areas of the face. The trauma from the hair being pulled out can also cause local skin irritation.
  • Sugaring. A sticky paste made from sugar, lemon, and water is used to remove hair from the root. While less painful than waxing, it can be messy and requires practice to get good results. The lemon can also cause irritation in those with sensitive skin.
  • Epilators. Electrical handheld devices that grasp and pull out multiple hairs simultaneously. Epilators can be used at home for long-lasting results, but the process may be painful and cause irritation. Like waxing, the hair needs to reach a certain length for epilators to be able to grasp them.

Long-term/permanent hair removal methods include:

  • Laser hair removal. Concentrated light waves are used to target and destroy hair follicles. Lasers reduce hair growth over time and work well over large areas. Newer lasers are also less painful. However, laser hair removal can be expensive and require multiple sittings. Laser hair removal does not always lead to permanent hair removal. It also is limited in the hair color and skin tone it can work on, providing the best results in those with a light skin tone and dark hair.
  • Electrolysis. A tiny needle is inserted into each hair follicle where an electric current is applied to destroy the follicle. Electrolysis is a permanent hair removal solution and works well for all skin tones and hair. However, it is time-consuming and can be painful.

5 common myths about face shaving in women

Shaving has been present in society for thousands of years; however, myths about shaving and its effects have remained pervasive.

  1. Shaving makes hair grow back thicker and darker. Shaving does not change the color or structure of the hair. It also does not increase the speed of growth as it does not affect the hair follicle. However, many people continue to believe this myth as shaving can make the hair appear darker as it cuts the shaft and gives it a blunt end, which is wider than the tapered ends we are used to seeing.
  2. Shaving causes more hair to grow. Shaving cannot stimulate hair growth as it only affects the superficial ends of the hair.
  3. Shaving causes permanent stubble. The prickly stubble that emerges once the shaved hair starts to grow is temporary, and the hair will soften as it continues to grow.
  4. Shaving damages the skin. When performed with the correct tools and techniques, shaving will not cause damage to the skin, although there may be some temporary irritation.
  5. Shaving the face is only for men. Women with hirsutism can benefit from shaving for hair removal in the same way a man would. Women can also use shaving to remove peach fuzz and exfoliate the skin for better absorption of skincare and a smoother surface.

Facial hair in women varies with each individual, from how much there is to how dark and thick it is. The reasons for removing the hair can also vary for each woman. Some may have excessive growth due to medical reasons, while others are looking to increase the smoothness of the skin's appearance. In addition, some forms of shaving provide exfoliation of the underlying skin, making the skin appear brighter and increasing the absorption of skin care products. Using sunscreen daily can protect the newly exfoliated skin from UV damage.

Shaving facial hair in women provides a convenient option for removing unwanted hair. Its relative affordability and availability make shaving accessible to most women. However, choosing the right razor and taking the time to shave correctly is crucial to getting the best result and avoiding cuts, razor burns, and ingrown hairs. Shaving still may not be the right method for all situations. Those with very sensitive skin, active acne, or large areas of darker, thicker terminal hairs may find other methods of facial hair removal better to suit their needs.

Consult a dermatologist for personalized guidance to see if shaving facial hair will help meet your hair removal goals.

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