The purpose of a shaving cream is to act as a buffer between a razor and your skin. "When we shave, we are forcefully evicting the hair from its home: the follicle," says Mona Gohara, MD, a board-certified dermatologist. So the frothy foam helps to cushion the blow, she explains, which makes the act of shaving more friendly to your skin. "It helps to gently extract the hair as opposed to having it come out in a more harsh capacity." (Looking at those of you whose underarms have withstood countless product-less shaves... myself included. It's a big risk, you guys.)
Also, shaving-specific products give you two key things necessary for a good shave: hydration and lubrication, says Elizabeth Compo, senior scientist at Venus. "Hydration softens the hair and skin, which helps reduce the amount of force it takes the razor to cut through the hair during a shave. Lubrication gives just the right amount of slipperiness between the blades and the skin," she says, which makes the grooming process much more comfortable and less of a potential slicing job. Shaving products also give you the perk of monitoring your hair removal. "Those who use shaving cream will tell you that it helps them to see or track where their razor has and hasn't been, others say it helps them to get every hair, and those with sensitive skin appreciate seeing where their razor has been so they can avoid re-stroking it over the same area, which can contribute to irritation," says Compo.
Without a shaving-specific product, you'll be more prone to irritation and ingrown hairs. Laura Schubert, co-founder of Fur (which just released its own Shave Cream) is a firm believer in using shaving cream because "putting a razor against your skin with no buffer" leads to irritation. "You need to use a product that's going to allow the razor to glide across the skin, rather than dragging," she says. What happens when you don't use shaving cream? Your skin is more likely to get ingrown hairs, aka when the hair in your follicle gets trapped, says Dr. Gohara.
Some of you may be reading this and thinking it doesn't apply to you because your body wash or your conditioner doubles as your shaving cream substitute. Well, according to Schubert, a body wash isn't going to do the job well enough. "It wouldn't provide enough glide, and may make your skin too slippery, causing you to accidentally cut yourself," she says. Campo, on the other hand, says that a shower product substitute "could be more drying to your skin or not stay in place," the latter of which can prevent it from stopping irritation. Dr. Gohara is also not the biggest fan of body wash substitutes: "It's better than nothing, but I prefer the real deal."
Alas: The product category exists for a reason. In order to verge on the safe side—rather than sorry and inflicted with the pain of ingrowns and irritation post-shave—your best bet is to invest in a shaving cream. As for which one to opt for? You can certainly go full-on foam like when you first learned how to shave, however, there are many elegant formulas such as EOS Shave Cream or Flamingo Foaming Shave Gel.
Watch to see the rest of a dermatologist's shower routine, shaving cream included:
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