The Art of the Stubble: How to Maintain the Perfect 5 O'Clock Shadow

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It might have started out with a bad rep (only convicts, drunks and pirates dared sport a five o’clock shadow back in the day), but thanks to a rebranding in the ‘80s, when it suddenly became "designer," and endorsements by everyone from George Michael to Chris Daughtry to Queer Eye’s Karamo Brown, stubble has become one of the most popular—and versatile—forms of facial hair. 

Easier to grow and maintain than a beard, stubble is the perfect solution for men who don’t suit fuller facial hair, or for those whose beards tend to be patchy. It’s great for hiding annoying skin imperfections and can make you look tougher (think Jason Statham); older, if you’re baby faced and tired of being asked for ID; and, if carefully trimmed, it can help give chins and cheekbones extra definition. It’s great, too, for men who suffer irritation from shaving. 

What’s more, unlike beards, which take weeks to look their best, stubble can change your look (quite literally) overnight. “It doesn’t require as much product as a full beard either,” points out Esteffany Durán of Birds Barbershop in Austin, TX. 

What’s more, while beards can be polarizing, studies have shown stubble to be the most desirable type of facial hair, with research conducted by Northumbria University in the UK showing that men with light stubble were considered more attractive than those who were clean shaven or sported beards. Fancy giving the look a go yourself? We thought so. Read on for our masterclass in growing, styling, and conditioning your face’s very best friend.

Meet the Expert

  • Esteffany Durán is director of recruitment and education for Birds Barbershop in Austin, TX, a barbershop which puts diversity and community at the heart of its services. An Austin native, she’s been styling men’s hair for over a decade.


  • Mark Sproston, aka The Shave Doctor, is a world-leading wet shave expert and educator who's spent 20 years teaching the art of the "barber shop shave" to barbers across the globe. He also runs workshops offering grooming advice for men undergoing cancer treatment.
01 of 09

Manage Your Expectations

Your facial hair—it’s thickness, color, and spread—is unique to you, and how much you can grow is often determined by genetics, so don’t be disheartened if the famous "shadow" is still a no-show come 5 o’clock. For some, a visible amount of growth takes days, while others can strike a match on their stubble by lunchtime. Remember, too, that even a light sprinkling of stubble can look effective, even if it’s only confined to the "Homer Simpson zone" of chin and upper lip. 

02 of 09

Head Off Ingrowns

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Clarins ClarinsMen Exfoliating Cleanser $29
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Like frenemies, ingrown hairs tend to pop up when you least expect, and they usually end up being as much of a pain in the neck—only this time, quite literally. If you keep your stubble short, you might be able to avoid them, but if you’re looking for a longer growth or have naturally curly hair, you need to be vigilant.

Black guys, in particular, are more prone to ingrown hairs because the hair is naturally curlier so it has more opportunity to grow back into the skin. “To prevent them, use a facial scrub daily,” says Mark Sproston, an internationally renowned expert in wet shaving. “This will help remove a buildup of dead skin cells, allowing the hair to grow freely without anything blocking its path to the surface and minimizes the risk of hair growing back on itself.” (He recommends paying particular attention to the neck area, where hairs grow parallel to the skin and have more chance to become ingrown.) 

If you’re looking for a scrub mild enough to use daily, try Dermalogica’s Daily Microfoliant or opt for an exfoliating face wash like ClarinsMen Exfoliating Cleanser.

Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant
Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant $59
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03 of 09

Tool Up

Philips Norelco Beard & Stubble Trimmer Series 3000, BT320/4, Black
Philips Norelco Beard & Stubble Trimmer Series 3000 $29.99
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Stubble might be low-maintenance, but it ain’t no maintenance. The most important tool in your grooming armory should be a beard or stubble trimmer that will enable you to keep your growth in check in a matter of minutes. Go for one like Philips Norelco Beard & Stubble Trimmer Series 3000, which allows hair to be cut in tiny, 1 mm increments, as this will give you more control over the length of your stubble. “Try different lengths until you see what suits you best,” says Durán. You can then take the guard off to remove any strays on the neck and use the blade to define edges. As a rule of thumb, 3 mm is considered the perfect stubble length, though lighter-colored facial hair may need to be left to grow a little longer to be noticed.

04 of 09

Throw Some Shapes

ULTRA GLIDING SHAVE OIL
American Crew Ultra Gliding Shave Oil $14
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For a rough ‘n’ ready look, simply leave stubble to grow where it sprouts, but if looking well-groomed is important to you, shaping it is simple. You can use the edging blade of a beard trimmer to create defined lines, or use a wet razor to create contrast between smooth skin and stubble. 

“To get the desired shape when using a razor, apply a transparent shaving gel or shaving oil, as you will be able to see where to shape and will be able to create sharper lines,” advises Sproston. American Crew’s Ultra Gliding Shave Oil is perfect for this. 

If you’re not sure where best to shave, place one end of a comb where the top of your ear meets your cheekbone and align the other end to the corner of your mouth and leave the stubble below the line it creates. This will help emphasize your cheekbones. (To elongate the face slightly, do as Drake does and trim below this imaginary line, toward the jawline.) When it comes to under the chin, shave everything below the top of the Adam’s apple.

05 of 09

Deal With Patch Problems

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VOID Beard Filler Pencil $10
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Years ago, there wasn’t much you could do if your stubble was patchy in places, but thanks to a raft of new cosmetic beard fillers, you can finally make patches a thing of the past. Brush-on products like Void Homme’s Beard Filler Pencil are easy to apply and are available in a range of colors to suit your stubble. They won’t work so well on very short hair, but are perfect if you’re sporting several days’ growth.

06 of 09

Dodge Disconnects

Stubble has long been a foil for a lack of hair on the head, instantly drawing attention away from the head and to the face (just ask Jason Statham, Corey Stoll, or Stanley Tucci).

Problem is, that growth stops abruptly at the ears, and the thicker it gets, the more jarring the dividing line becomes, actually accentuating any baldness in the process. To combat this—and to ensure stubble blends seamlessly with fades too—Durán suggests asking your barber or hairstylist to "taper" the top half of the sideburns. “This will allow for a seamless transition into whatever style they are working with,” she says. You can do this at home, too, by going down a grade or two with your beard trimmer.

07 of 09

Show It Some Love

Premium Blends Beard Oil
Suavecito Premium Blends Beard Oil $13
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While stubble might look great, it doesn’t always feel great—especially to others—and nobody wants an impromptu dermabrasion session thanks to your face furniture. 

To minimize the risk of "pash rash," Durán suggests softening stubble with a beard oil. “This will help keep stubble conditioned and also prevent your skin from being overly dry,” she says. “A favorite oil of mine is Whiskey Bar Premium Blend Beard Oil by Suavecito Premium Blends.” 

As a bonus, it’ll also help prevent stubble dandruff, an actual thing given that hair wicks moisture away from the surface of the skin, leaving it dry and flaky.

08 of 09

Trim Before You Shave

HYDRO SKIN COMFORT™ STUBBLE ERASER™ RAZOR
Schick Hydro Skin Comfort™ Stubble Eraser™ Razor $8.99
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Thinking of going clean-shaven between bouts of stubble? Then make things easier by trimming hair back with a beard trimmer before tackling it with a wet razor. Alternatively, arm yourself with Schick’s Hydro Skin Comfort Stubble Eraser. Featuring a clever "stubble comb" to align hairs for cutting, it’s been specially designed to plough through up to a week’s worth of stubble growth with a minimum of tugging and nicking. 

09 of 09

Think About Going Pro

Finally, in the same way it’s a good idea to have a barber professionally shape a beard, occasionally you might want to get your stubble tended to when you get your haircut. “For one thing, we can see the bottom of your neck better than you can!” points out Durán. “And if we trim and shape it for you, you’ll have a useful guide to follow yourself at home until your next visit. Plus, you don’t have to clean up after yourself. We got you!”

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