Young man stroking his beard and wondering about razor burns vs. herpes

Razor burns or herpes: how to tell the difference

Written on November 23, 2022 by Sendra Yang, PharmD, MBA. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

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Razor burns can sometimes mimic and be incorrectly identified as herpes, a sexually transmitted disease. Herpes can also go unnoticed or be mistaken for other skin disorders because the infection can sometimes have very mild or no symptoms [1,2]. Therefore, it’s imperative to distinguish between razor burns and a herpes infection or outbreak. You must also understand what causes each condition and know some signs and symptoms to look for in both. Knowing the differences between the disorders will aid you in finding the appropriate treatment options.

What are razor burns?

A razor burn is a red rash that appears on the area of the skin after shaving unwanted hair, likely due to irritation and inflammation [3]. Razor burns can affect any area of the body that you shave, such as your face, neck, legs, armpits, or pubic area. Essentially anyone who shaves off unwanted hair with a razor can be affected by razor burns.

Razor burns are not an infectious condition. There are various reasons why razor burns develop. Razor burns are likely to be caused by [3,4]:

  • Shaving without water or a lubricant (such as soap and water or shaving cream or gel)
  • Shaving against the direction of the hair growth
  • Using an old or dull razor blade to shave
  • Using an unclean razor that is clogged with hair, soap, or shaving cream
  • Shaving too many times in the same area on the skin
  • Shaving fast or too quickly
  • Using products that can irritate the skin
  • Having sensitive skin or skin that is prone to acne

How to identify razor burns

Razor burns can be tender or itchy, manifesting with a burning, hot, or painful sensation [3]. Often, razor burns can be complicated by ingrown hair resulting in bumps, referred to as razor bumps [4]. Razor burns appear like a red patchy or blotchy skin rash, while razor bumps look like small red pimples. Usually, these symptoms occur within minutes after shaving. They are temporary and typically go away with time, ranging from a few hours to a few days [3,4].

Treatment of razor burns

You can do several things to help address razor burns. You can soothe and restore the skin by applying a cool washcloth or moisturizer, or aloe vera to the area [3]. To help with the inflammation, you can use an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream. Call your healthcare provider if these treatment options do not clear up the razor burn within a few days.

What is herpes?

Herpes is also known as oral or mouth herpes, genital herpes, and herpes simplex [1]. Herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus, type 1 (HSV-1) and type 2 (HSV-2) [1,2]. HSV-1 is the more common type and is associated with causing oral herpes [2]. Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and is primarily attributed to HSV-2. There are an estimated 572,000 new genital herpes infections in the United States per year [1].

The herpes simplex virus is infectious. HSV-1 is typically transmitted through oral-to-oral contact with the virus in sores, saliva, or surfaces in or around the mouth [2,3]. HSV-2 is transmitted during sex through contact with infected genital or anal surfaces, skin, sores, or fluids. Even though there may be no symptoms and the skin may look normal, HSV-2 can still be transmitted. Once infected, herpes is a chronic viral infection that is lifelong [1].

How to identify herpes

Most of the time, herpes infections are asymptomatic or symptoms are mild. However, herpes symptoms can comprise painful blisters or ulcers that can recur over time [1,2,5]. Symptoms often include fever, body aches, and swollen lymph nodes. Experiencing these types of symptoms is referred to as a herpes outbreak. The first herpes outbreak usually has longer lesion durations and takes about 2 to 4 weeks for painful ulcers to heal [1]. Though recurrent symptoms are common with HSV-2 infection for genital herpes, the severity of the recurrences decreases over time [1,2].

Treatment of herpes

Currently, there is no cure for herpes [1,5]. However, your healthcare provider can prescribe antiviral medications to help manage the infection. Antiviral agents can help prevent, shorten the time during outbreaks, or reduce the severity and frequency of symptoms. Daily antiviral therapies are also available and can reduce the chance of transmitting the herpes simplex virus to others.

Signs and symptom differences between razor burns and herpes

There are significant differences in the way the symptoms appear between razor burns and herpes. Razor burns will appear as a patchy skin rash; if ingrown hairs are present, they will also present with small red pimple-like bumps [3,4]. On the other hand, herpes will have bumps that form in clusters and look like fluid-filled sores or blisters [1,2]. Even though herpes bumps go away, they will eventually return. Herpes will often have other symptoms, such as fever and headache.

Since razor burns and herpes outbreaks may have similar features, contact your healthcare provider or schedule a telehealth visit to speak with them about your signs and symptoms if you are ever in doubt. It’s essential to correctly identify each condition and treat them accordingly.

You can also opt for sexual health testing year-round through the Everlywell+ STI testing membership, giving you easy access to a wide of variety of STI test options.

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Ingrown hair vs. herpes: what are the differences?

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  1. Detailed STD Facts - Genital herpes. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published July 22, 2021. Accessed November 17, 2022. URL
  2. Herpes simplex: Overview. American Academy of Dermatology. Accessed November 17, 2022. URL
  3. Razor Burn: Causes & treatment. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed November 17, 2022. URL
  4. Patel TS, Dalia Y. Pseudofolliculitis Barbae. JAMA Dermatol. 2022;158(6):708.
  5. Herpes - STI treatment guidelines. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published September 21, 2022. Accessed November 17, 2022. URL
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