The hair shaft tapers at the end. "When you shave it, you're crossing the midshaft, so it seems like it's thicker and more coarse," explains Dr. Robin Ashinoff, director of cosmetic dermatology at Hackensack University Medical Center. "But it's not."
The stubble feels stiffer because it's cut straight across, exposing the thicker part of the shaft, and because it's short. "As it gets longer it feels softer," says Dr. D'Anne Kleinsmith, a dermatologist in West Bloomfield, Mich. Hair may also look darker after you shave, but that's not true either. "You just see these little dots against your normal skin color, and it just looks that way," says Kleinsmith.
To get the best shave, use a new, sharp razor—and take your time. Shave down the leg, in the direction the hair grows, particularly if you have sensitive skin. "The reason that we shave against the grain is we're trying to get a really close shave," says Kleinsmith. "Your legs feel silkier, but then the hair can become ingrown." If you have curly hair that's prone to becoming ingrown from shaving, you may want to consider laser hair removal. Lasers work best on people with light skin and dark hair.
Shave at the end of a bath or shower. The warm water "softens up the hair so it comes out easier," says Dr. Marjory Nigro, a Houston dermatologist. And use shaving cream to lubricate and soften the hair. Leave it on for a few minutes. Creams help the blade "slide easier," says Dr. Kenneth Bielinski, a dermatologist in Orland Park, Ill. They also reduce irritation.
After shaving, moisturize. In the shaving process "you're not just stripping off the hair, you're stripping off the top layer of the skin, and along with it the oil that's on the surface of the skin," says Kleinsmith. The day you shave you may also want to avoid moisturizers with fragrances and alcohol, since they may irritate your skin. In general, however, your skin should look better after shaving because you're removing that dull skin layer.
If you tend to get razor bumps, apply over-the-counter cortisone cream right after you shave. "It works like a charm," says Nigro. Why do some people get those bumps? "When you shave, you make little traumas on the skin. When the hair starts growing back, skin grows to heal the area you shaved. The hole is plugged up," says Nigro. "The little razor bump is a hair trying to come back in an area that is covered."
Products like Nair are fine too. "Nair is the same as shaving. The difference with Nair is it melts the hair," says Nigro. "It's a personal preference. The effect on the hair is the same."
Some women may prefer waxing, which can decrease hair growth over time because the pulling traumatizes the roots so much, says Nigro. And some women use another pulling method, called threading, which is popular in Indian salons.
Going for a pedicure? Or for a swim in your local lake? Shave the day before, not the day of, because shaving exposes your skin to bacteria. Immediately after shaving, bacteria from a pedicure tub or a lake can get under your skin more easily. "The day you shave, you should be more careful with what you put on your skin," says Nigro. "Every time you shave your leg, you make tiny little openings all over the place."