When I started my head-shaving journey, I had an embarrassing problem with scalp breakouts and ingrown hairs. My head looked like I’d been attacked by a cloud of angry mosquitos.
To make the situation worse, I couldn’t wear any sort of hat to hide the field of red angry bumps because it would inevitably lead to even more breakouts.
As a man of science, I understood that I needed to identify every variable of my shaving process, then make one change at a time to monitor the result and find a solution.
This took me several months to figure out, so I’m going to walk you through my 10-step process. I’ll describe some of my mistakes, then share the “fix” that I learned along the way. It will be a long-form article, so get comfortable. If you’d like to skip to the end, go ahead and scroll to the bottom for the “TLDR” summary.
Here are ten easy-to-implement steps I’ve taken to prevent scalp breakouts after shaving my head. This process has become a pleasant and relaxing ritual. I don’t ever rush through this, or attempt to do it quickly if I’m running late. In some ways it’s an art form, so I set aside adequate time to enjoy the peaceful zen aspect of the shave.
Step 1: Take shorter showers with tepid or lukewarm water
The first change I made was with water temperature. I had always been guilty of long showers, specifically letting the stream beat down on my head and neck until all of the hot water ran out. I discovered that hot water irritates the delicate skin of your scalp, and can cause it to age or wrinkle prematurely.
I reduced the temperature to lukewarm, and shortened the length from 15-minutes to right around 5-minutes… but I could soon tell it was working.
I didn’t stop there, however. I learned that even lukewarm water can open up the pores of your skin, so it’s good practice to close them afterward. Now, once my shower is finished, I turn the cold water on 100% and let it get to maximum coldness (takes about 5-10 seconds). Then I let the icy cold water coat my scalp.
The shock is a bit unpleasant at first, but now I actually enjoy it, and can tell it makes a tangible difference to my scalp on the days I’m not shaving my head.
Step 2: Use the simplest and most gentle cleanser you can find
I’d been using a fresh minty and tingle-inducing “tea tree oil” shampoo, but when I examined the label, it had an alarming number of chemical ingredients. Figuring out which specific ones made my skin sensitive seemed tedious, so I switched to what I thought would be a simpler alternative – baby shampoo.
As luck would have it, baby shampoo isn’t nearly as gentle of a cleanser as I thought, so I replaced it with a better option called Basis Cleaner Clean Face Wash. It’s a gel with gentle botanicals that safely wash away dirt, and is 100% oil-free and soap-free.
It’s a safe cleanser that can be used on your head, face, armpits, and even your musty man-parts.
Step 3: Pre-Shave Hot Towel
I heard great things about hot towels in a number of face-shaving videos, and decided to give it a try. Heat from the towel softens the hairs of your scalp, making them easier to shave. Once you try it, you’ll recognize the difference in shave quality.
Alternatively, you can sit in a steam room (I do this when I’m on vacation) or just take a hot shower beforehand, but personally I prefer to take just one shower after my shave.
Here’s how it’s done… I roll up a clean hand towel and place it in a bowl filled with hot water from the faucet. For a pleasant fragrance, I add a few drops of pure rosemary oil or eucalyptus oil into the water. The 4-oz bottle I’m currently using cost about $12 on Amazon and has lasted over year.
Then I squeeze out the water and place the fragrant towel on a plate in the microwave for 90-seconds. Warning: Don’t place a sopping towel into the microwave — this will burn your skin and is very dangerous. The trick here is to have it slightly damp, not dripping.
Once it’s ready, I let it cool for a moment and then put the steamy towel onto my head for 2-minutes. Then I head to the mirror for my shave. (You can also do two towels in 1-minute increments if your first towel cools off too quickly)
Step 4: Pre-Shave Oil
There are a lot of pre-shave oils available. I’ve seen olive oil, castor oil, jojoba oil, grape seed oil, and a handful of others that I never knew existed.
I’m not going to plug or promote one over another because what works for one man’s skin could cause irritation or sensitivity for another. So it’s important to experiment with as pure of an oil as possible to make sure it doesn’t cause any additional breakouts.
I’m currently using Argan Oil. It’s actually not marketed as a pre-shave oil, but I’ve read how safe it is on skin/hair, and have been using it with much success. It’s unscented, and costs about $12. It currently has nearly 6,000 5-star reviews.
Many oil options have lovely scents like sandalwood, citrus, or mint. If you’re having trouble with scalp breakouts, I recommend using a product with as few additives as possible until you know for sure that you’re not sensitive to a particular fragrance.
So, after removing the hot towel, I squirt about 5-6 drops of oil into my palm, rub it between my hands, and apply it thoroughly onto my scalp. The razor blade that you’re shaving with will now glide across the surface of your skin much easier.
Step 5: A Good Soapy Lather
Should you use shaving cream, shaving soap, or shaving gel?
In general, this is entirely subjective. But from the standpoint of ingrown hairs and scalp breakouts, I believe it’s best to keep things simple with a minimalist shaving soap. Creams and gels typically have added chemicals (synthetic stuff that could be causing your skin sensitivity).
You’ll need a shaving mug/bowl and a badger hair brush to apply, but these aren’t expensive. I spent less than $25 for my first bowl and brush.
Soap wise, you have plenty of options. The most readily available brands are Williams Mug Shaving Soap and Proraso. These have been around for a long time and are found in the shaving section of most pharmacies or grocery stores.
Here’s what to do… Place the soap flat into the bottom of the shaving bowl. Fill the bowl with warm water to soften it for a few minutes. I do this while I’m prepping my pre-shave hot towel in step-3. When I’m ready to lather, I dump out the water.
Do the same with your shaving brush. Place it in warm water (the sink is fine), letting the bristles soak and expand.
Some shaving soaps come situated in their own containers. These are typically more expensive than basic shaving soaps. Whatever you’re most comfortable using is fine. Right now I’m using Van Der Hagen shave soap. It’s about $5.99 on Amazon, and made with shea, mango, and cocoa butters. It stays slick and creates a thick lather that spreads well onto the scalp. I prefer it over Williams, which tends to dry up like cupcake frosting on my head after a few minutes.
“Load” the soap onto the brush. Build up a rich lather. Paint the lathered soap all of your skull. Enjoy the process, don’t rush it.
If you’re having a hard time visualizing this process, here’s a quick 60-second video from a brand called Sir Hare.
Step 6: Use a Single Blade Safety Razor
It would be silly for me to tell you there’s only one type of blade or razor to use for head-shaving. There are so many different brands and delivery services for blades it’s almost comical. Use whatever you’re most comfortable with if you already have a favorite.
But if you’re frustrated with embarrassing ingrown hairs all over your scalp, I’m going to encourage you to start using a safety razor. Choose one that’s weighted with a “heavy” feel. Why is weight important? The weight of the razor does the work. You shouldn’t ever press this type of razor onto your skin, which is tempting to do if you learned to shave with a lightweight plastic disposable cartridge razor. Let the weighted handle do the work for you.
Merkur is a reputable German brand that has been around for a very long time, and is a good place to start if you’re looking for one to purchase. Here’s what a safety razor looks like:
The beauty of using one is that you can use fresh new blades every time you shave. The blades are unbelievably cheap (about $0.23 cents each, or less). Compare that to the price of Gillette ProGlide cartridge razors ($3.00 each), and you’ll quickly see that shaving with a safety razor is a great way to save money.
When I first researched the various blade types, some resources recommended starting with a “beginner blade” like Derby, and to avoid the “advanced” Feather blades because they were considered dangerously sharp. I followed that advice and bought a few of the rookie options.
And guess what happened… I nicked and cut myself. It wasn’t because I chose the wrong blade — it was operator error! I had no idea what I was doing. So here’s the takeaway: No matter which type of blade you use, the most important thing is proper technique.
I currently use Japanese Feather blades, and they make me feel like a samurai.
Step-7: The Shave
“Use proper technique.” Easy thing to say, right? Much harder to implement if you’re not sure what that means. Using a safety razor properly takes a bit of trial and error. I would estimate that it took me no less than 6-10 shaves before I became truly comfortable using my safety razor for a nick-free shave. Quick tip: Have a styptic pencil on hand while you’re learning the art of shaving with a safety razor. These help to quickly stop bleeding if you accidentally cut yourself.
Now, what exactly is the right technique to use? Well, I had to watch HOURS of random men who each spent 15-30 minutes shaving their faces on YouTube. Why faces? Sadly, most of the head-shaving videos I found consisted of men using multi-blade cartridge razors. These are perfectly fine if you’re blessed with a scalp that never breaks out.
Unfortunately for me, this type of blade causes unsightly ingrown hairs that linger for several days, so they weren’t practical.
Other guys would start their videos with a lathered up head (because they were already freshly shaven), then effortlessly “shave” (without an actual blade) in long back-to-front strokes. After one pass, their head was smooth as silk. I’m not sure why they’d make such a misleading video, but these weren’t helpful.
The face-shaving videos helped me realize that shaving can be a relaxing and pleasant experience. The guys I learned the most from really took their time. They never rushed through it. They also made multiple passes, sometimes as many as 3 or 4 — and that’s okay!
Here’s a straightforward face-shaving video that implements good technique that also applies when shaving your head:
It’s Time to Shave
Key point: Shave in sections. You can do this however you like… but for me, I begin at the front left temple area of my head shaving downward with the grain, progressing toward the back in two-inch sections. The pattern is down, down, over; down, down, over; etc. Rinse the blade after each swipe.
Once I’ve reached the back left corner of my head just beyond my ear, I repeat this process on the right side my head.
At this point, the top of my head and entire back of my head are waiting to be shaved.
My next step is shaving the top (what little hair I have up there). I picture an imaginary line separating the left and right half of my head. I shave everything to the left of the line first, with a similar shaving pattern. Instead of down, down, over, it’s more like “across, over, across, over” until I reach the rear or crown of my head. Then I repeat this on the right side of the “line.”
Now, only the back of the head remains. This part can seem daunting at first, but I just pick a spot and begin shaving in two-inch “down, down, over” patterns. Depending on which way your hair grows, you may have to change the direction of this movement.
Something to keep in mind… The back of the head is tricky because there are curves. It’s easy to cut yourself, so keep shaving in small sections. Don’t rush. Anytime I’ve been overconfident and attempted to shave with longer strokes, I’ll clumsily cut myself.
Once I’m finished, I rinse off and apply a second round of shaving soap, then move on to The Finisher.
Step 8: The Finisher
I use one side of the Defender Dual Head Blade to finish shaving my head. This typically involved 1-2 more passes. The shape of this handle is incredible. I started out using the “extra sensitive” option, but have since progressed to the “regular” blade. It’s safe to use going across and against the grain.
Step 9: Shower + TendSkin
Once I’m finished shaving, I take a lukewarm but slightly cool shower, washing my scalp with the organic gel based cleanser described in step-2. Follow that up with an ice cold rinse, then towel dry.
Here’s when I apply the special sauce: TendSkin.
This stuff is straight up razor burn-reducing, redness-eliminating, ingrown hair-preventing magic. It was recommended to me by a physician who said it’s commonly used in hospitals to prevent razor burn after certain procedures require a patient’s body hair to be shaved. At roughly $20/bottle, it may seem costly, but it’s worth every penny.
Full disclosure, the first time you apply it after a fresh shave, it will burn — but the discomfort is tolerable and only lasts a few seconds. Give it a few minutes to dry, then proceed to step-10.
Step 10: Moisturizer
Adding moisturizer to a head that produces excessive oil sounds counterintuitive, but a dermatologist explained it to me this way: “Your head produces oil when it’s dry. So if your head is constantly oily, your skin is actually too dry, and it will generate more and more oil attempting to fix it.”
The day I began applying moisturizer to my scalp after shaving was the day my oily head became 75% less oily. It was that direct of a correlation. Mind blown.
I’ve been using a hand cream from an Israeli cosmetics company called Ahava. I received the first bottle in a gift basket and was amazed at how superior of a moisturizer it was compared to anything I had been using.
It goes on easily, never clumps up, and dries very quickly. Plus it’s remarkably soothing after a shave.
If you’re experiencing harsh breakouts on your scalp after shaving, I encourage you to try this 10-step approach. I complete the process every 3 days. I’ve experimented with it after 2 days and as long as 4, but 3 is the sweet spot. Depending on the growth rate of your hair, your frequency may be slightly different.
Three Additional Tips
Keeping your head clean throughout the day is essential to preventing scalp breakouts.
First, use a pillow that doesn’t retain heat. Memory foam pillows get warm enough to bake cookies — replace them with something cooler like latex or buckwheat hulls.
Second, use a breathable pillow case, such as polyester. Microfiber pillow cases with stretch properties reduce heat retention within the pillow. Wash your pillow case at least twice per week to avoid adding unnecessary sweat and grime to your skin while sleeping.
Third, rinse your head periodically throughout the day. I use the Basis Cleaner mentioned above — once in the morning upon waking up, once after working out, and once before bed. It’s gentle enough that it won’t dry out your scalp, even with this frequency.
- Take short lukewarm/cool showers
- Use a simple botanical cleanser instead of chemical-filled shampoo
- Use a hot steam towel on your scalp prior to shaving
- Apply pre-shave oil to the scalp after the hot towel
- Shave with a heavy weighted safety razor
- Use a fresh blade each time you shave
- Shave with proper technique in small 2″ sections; first pass with the grain, second pass across the grain
- Shave with a third pass against the grain; consider the Defender
- Take a cool shower, wash your head, then apply TendSkin afterward
- Apply a healthy moisturizer; consider Ahava