Zocdoc Answers

Medical questions & health advice by licensed doctors

"How do razor bumps and whiteheads differ?"


As an African-American man, I'm prone to getting razor bumps when I shave. Is there a difference between razor bumps and the whiteheads I used to get when I was young? They seem similar, but I don't know how to treat them.


This is a common question. First let me say a little about what causes razor bumps and then I'll explain what causes acne. The medical term for razor bumps is pseudofoliculitis barbae.

See a doctor who can help

Find a Dermatologists near you

This is a problem that is especially common in men of African descent, but it also occurs in men of Jewish and Mediterranean ancestry. Pseudofoliculitis barbae occurs when curly hair begins to grow into skin instead out of it and causes inflammation and irritation. Some of the hairs grow out of the skin and then curl back into it and others never grow out of the skin at all. The bumps can look like pimples and become inflamed, but they are not quite the same as acne. Acne is caused by four major factors: 1) increased production of a protein on the skin which leads plugging of follicles and the creation of "whiteheads;" 2) increased production of an oily substance called sebum that helps to plug the follicles; 3) breakage of the whiteheads which causes inflammation of the skin; 4) and finally a bacteria called p. acnes that lives on the skin and helps to worsen the inflammation. To prevent razor bumps avoid products that cause skin irritation such as products containing alcohol, fragrance or oil. You can also try depilatory agents, but these can also cause irritation if used frequently. Another good option is to simply let your beard grow out. However, If you don't want do do this there are several things you can try. First, you plenty of shaving cream or gel. It's best to shave when your pores are open and a warm shower can help with this. Also, shave gently, don't stretch your skin, use as few as strokes as possible and rinse with cool water. If you use an electric razor try a higher setting to let the hair grow out more. Finally, laser hair removal may also help, but this is not frequently a permanent option. You should speak with your primary care physician or a dermatologist to explore which options might be best for you.

Zocdoc Answers is for general informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor (in the United States) 911 immediately. Always seek the advice of your doctor before starting or changing treatment. Medical professionals who provide responses to health-related questions are intended third party beneficiaries with certain rights under Zocdoc’s Terms of Service.