Should You Exfoliate Before Or After Shaving? How To Get Silky, Soft Skin
There's a reason body scrubs and razors are popular shower neighbors (well, other than to save shelf space): Exfoliation helps you achieve the smoothest shave. Now, shaving is a form of manual exfoliation in and of itself, as you're using the blade to scrape off unwanted hair from the surface of the skin, which sloughs off excess dead skin sitting on that top layer. But some extra buffing can enhance the process and make the area even silkier.
But exfoliation, as we know, requires appropriate care and a delicate balance. So when and how should you exfoliate during your shave routine? Ahead, find everything you need to know for an easy, smooth glide.
Should you exfoliate before or after shaving?
Experts agree: It's best to exfoliate before shaving. "Gentle exfoliation can help [loosen] the free edge of hairs that may be trapped under the skin," says board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D. "This can give you a smoother shave and lower the likelihood of razor bumps or irritation."
Razor bumps and ingrowns happen when that free edge of hair becomes trapped within the skin, so it curls downward and grows back into the skin instead—resulting in sore, inflamed, pimple-like spots. Those with coarser hair are more likely to get ingrowns, but "it is also more likely to happen if there is skin covering where the hair is growing," says board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, M.D. Exfoliation removes that top layer of excessive dead skin cells—without that covering, you increase the chances that your freshly shaved hairs will grow freely.
And on a practical level: Your razor will have an easier time removing hair without a film of dead skin cells blocking the area.
Both King and Zeichner agree that pre-shave exfoliation is always a good idea, no matter which part of the body you're shaving. Just know that more sensitive areas, like the armpits, bikini line, or face, might require gentler exfoliation methods (which we'll get into later).
What about waxing?
A trickier answer: "Exfoliate regularly and before waxing, but not immediately before waxing," says King. "You want the skin barrier to be intact to minimize risk of burning or irritation from waxing." Just think about applying hot wax on raw, freshly exfoliated skin: Um, ouch.
However, you'll still want to regularly exfoliate those areas (just not right before your appointment!), as it helps minimize ingrowns and encourages the hairs out of the follicles as they grow—when they're trapped underneath the skin, the wax won't adhere to those hairs.
What products should you use?
For your regular exfoliating routine, both physical and chemical formulas get the job done—and while everyone has a unique exfoliating schedule, we generally recommend two or three times a week or once a week if you have dry skin. But right before you grab your razor, Zeichner recommends a (gentle) physical scrub: "It gives instantaneous effects," he says, as you're manually removing the dead cells from the surface of the skin. Here's an easy body scrub recipe you can tweak depending on your specific skin concerns, or if you'd prefer a market option, we love Herbivore's Coco Rose Coconut Oil Body Polish and Fur's Silk Scrub.
You can also use a warm, wet washcloth to physically exfoliate the skin pre-shave, says King, especially if you use a firmer pressure and coarser fabrics. On that note: Dry brushing is also an effective physical exfoliator for the body, as you buff the skin with those synthetic nylon or natural boar bristles. (Find our step-by-step guide to dry brushing here.)
In between shaving or waxing sessions is when the chemical exfoliators come in handy. King recommends finding a moisturizer loaded with AHAs or BHAs (lactic acid or salicylic acid, for example) that can simultaneously nourish the skin barrier and encourage gentle exfoliation. First Aid Beauty's KP Smoothing Body Lotion and Drunk Elephant's T.L.C Glycolic Body Lotion are both winners.
Finally, the exfoliator you choose will vary depending on where you'd like to shave. "Body exfoliators shouldn't be used on the face. They are often thicker in consistency and contain higher concentrations of acids and could be too irritating for delicate facial skin," says board-certified dermatologist Raechele Cochran Gathers, M.D., about body exfoliation. "Likewise, using a facial exfoliation on your body may not be strong enough to give you the results you're looking for."
A derm-approved shave routine.
So you should exfoliate before shaving—but what comes after? You're in luck: Find all of our must-have shaving steps below:
- Soften the skin: "Prior to shaving, spend about 10 minutes in warm water to help soften the outer layer of skin," says King, as it makes it easier to remove hair and decreases the chance of razor burn. A long soak in the bath will do, or simply shave toward the end of your shower so the water has time to soften the skin.
- Exfoliate: Here's where your exfoliation step comes into play. Choose one of the methods above and get scrubbing.
- Apply shaving cream: Don't skip the shaving cream step. "It's important to use a shaving cream or mousse, because when you shave, you are shaving the outermost layers of skin, too," says King. "If you don't use a good product with emollients and occlusives to protect and moisturize the skin, you can end up with abrasions and irritation—this is razor burn." Whether you use a foam, gel, mousse, or oil, make sure you have some sort of lubrication before taking a razor to the skin.
- Shave: "Shave in single strokes in the direction of hair growth, cleaning the razor between strokes," says Zeichner. Don't go over the same area more than once, and make sure your razor is clean and sharp each time you use it: "If you feel any tugging on the skin, it means that the blades are getting dull and they should be switched out," he adds. If you're searching for a refill, check out our list of razors for sensitive skin.
- Moisturize: After rinsing and patting dry, make sure to apply a moisturizer or body lotion to repair the skin barrier and keep it hydrated. "Remember that shaving is an interaction between the blade, the hair, and skin itself," notes Zeichner. Meaning, it's crucial to soothe and nourish the skin after dragging a razor over it (and who doesn't love the feeling of lotion on freshly shaved skin?). Plus, a calming lotion can help prevent flakes, inflammation, and irritation, all of which can lead to clogged pores and ingrowns.
To minimize the chances of ingrowns and irritation, derms recommend you exfoliate before shaving. As long as you use the correct techniques and remember your aftercare, buffing that excess dead skin will lead to your silkiest shave yet.
Jamie Schneider is the Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and more. In her role at mbg, she reports on everything from the top beauty industry trends, to the gut-skin connection and the microbiome, to the latest expert makeup hacks. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.