The Perfect Shave
by Corey Greenberg
NBC Today Show
Ever since prehistoric man
first scraped a seashell across his cheek so prehistoric woman would let him
dance cheek-to-cheek, shaving has been a part of the male experience. But
even with today’s high-tech razors, lots of men still get nicks, cuts, and
razor burn. That’s why the latest trend in male grooming, “wet shaving”,
promises a better shave by going back to the old school.
The perfect shave is what
all men strive for every morning when they bring their razor up to their
chin – an effortless shave that’s baby smooth, and without any of the usual
skin irritation, redness, and that burning sensation most guys seem to feel
is par for the course when it comes to shaving.
Why do so many guys find
this so hard to achieve? Because proper shaving has become a lost art.
Shaving is one of those glorious male traditions that used to be passed down
from father to son, but somewhere along the line, when shaving became more
about cheap, disposable razors than a nice, precision-made metal tool in
your hand, it became a brainless routine to rush through in the morning
without even thinking about it. A dull disposable razor dragged across a
layer of foam or gel on your dry cheeks is a step backward from the past,
not an improvement. Now that men of all ages are paying more attention to
their appearance, it’s no wonder that the hottest trend right now in male
grooming is a return to the traditional wet shave – and millions of men have
been shocked to discover that the “old fashioned” method of shaving they
thought went out with the Hula Hoop is actually the best quality shave you
Wet shaving is just what
the term implies – keeping your face (or for women, their legs) wet with
plenty of hot water before, and during, the entire shave. In fact, you
should always shave after a hot shower, not before (if you need to shave
without taking a shower, washing your face with hot water for a few minutes
will suffice). With a layer of hot water between your skin and the lather,
the blade skims the surface instead of dragging on it, which is the main
cause of irritation, redness, and “shave bumps”.
Wet shaving gives you more
effective shaves and better looking skin. The hot water opens the pores of
your skin and relaxes your facial muscles, and it softens your whiskers for
more effective cutting. Believe it or not, but your whiskers are tougher
than the edge of a razor blade, and shaving “dry”, or mostly dry as with the
vast majority of shaving creams, foams, and gels on the market, means you’re
literally tugging on each and every hair on your face instead of neatly
slicing it at the skin’s surface and moving on without irritating your skin.
The key to proper wet
shaving is keeping your face as wet as possible at all times during the
shave. Even if you keep your current tools and routine, you’ll marvel at how
much closer and more comfortable shaving can be when you keep your face
hydrated at all times with lots of hot (not scalding) water.
The perfect shave has three
ingredients: a good razor, a good brush, and glycerin-based shaving cream.
But the biggest difference between wet shaving and the way most guys shave
today is the use of a shaving brush. A good badger-hair shaving brush is the
single most important ingredient in getting the perfect shave -- if you
change no part of your shaving routine except to add a good shaving brush to
the mix, you’ll be astounded at how much better and more enjoyable your
Take it from a guy who used
to use his fingers to smear cheap shaving gel on his face that smelled just
like his deodorant – using a fine badger hair brush to brush high-end
English shaving cream that smells like fresh-cut violets onto your face and
neck isn’t just about treating yourself nicely after years of the ol’
slice’n’dice. It’s also the best possible way to prepare your skin and
whiskers for the closest, most comfortable shave.
A shaving brush isn’t a
paint brush for your face. A good brush – and the best brushes are made of
badger hair and start at $25 – absorbs hot water and then, after you dip the
tip of the brush into your tub (yes, not a can, but a tub – I’ll explain
later) the brush releases and mixes the hot water with the shaving cream as
you skim the brush back and forth across your face and neck in an up-down
motion. The combination of hot water mixing with the cream and getting
beaten by the brush all over your face delivers a thicker, richer, more
emollient lather that’s impossible to get from a can, no matter what the
brash young He-Men in the commercials with no hair on their chests wearing a
bath towel being playfully tugged at by a gyrating tigress may tell you.
A shaving brush also gently
exfoliates, or removes the dead skin, from your face before shaving, which
gets rid of anything coming between the blade and your whiskers. Finally,
the up-down brushing lifts your whiskers and suspends them standing upright
in the thick lather, which exposes the maximum whisker length to your blade
as it skims along your face. Forget that using a shaving brush feels really,
really good on your face right after a nice hot shower -- it happens to be
the very best way to prepare your face for the shave of your life.
Genuine badger hair shaving
brushes come in all sizes and hair types, costing anywhere from $25 for a
basic pure-grade badger model to $550 for a monster-sized, high-end English
hand-made job containing only the hair from the badger’s neck, which is said
by some (though not by me) to be the finest and most rarefied expression of
water-holding bristle known to man or badger.
Do you need a $550 shaving
brush? Unless you’re Mr. Burns, the answer is no. I’ve gone through a lot of
shaving brushes over the years, and as long as you stick with a genuine
badger hair brush (cheaper brushes often use boar’s hair, which is much
stiffer and pricklier than badger, and not nearly as comfortable on your
face), the only things that matter are size and price. Bigger brushes hold
more water and tend to make better lather faster and more easily, but
really, the difference in lathering between a small $25 badger brush and
that crazy $550 giant is negligible as long as you know what you’re doing,
which means that if you can soak a brush in a sink full of hot water for a
second or two, dab some shaving cream on the tips, and then swipe it up and
down on your face and neck till you work up a thick, opaque layer of lather,
you know what you’re doing.
The next tool you need for
wet shaving is a razor. And by razor, I mean whatever high-quality,
NON-DISPOSABLE razor you feel most comfortable with. I know, I know,
disposables are cool because that’s what they hand out in jail, but they’re
extremely hard on your skin because the quality of the blades isn’t as good
as a cartridge razor, or better yet, the kind of razor that serious wet
shavers use: the classic double-edge safety razor!
A DE razor is the kind that
takes a single, disposable razor blade, and it’s the same type of razor that
your father, your grandfather, Cary Grant, Lee Marvin, JFK, and John Wayne
used. In the opinion of many shave-o-philes, the classic DE wipes the floor
with any modern razor. I entirely concur – ever since I switched to using a
DE razor instead of a multi-blade cartridge razor, I’ve gotten much closer
and more comfortable shaves, my face doesn’t burn at all anymore, and all
the red irritation on my neck I thought was there for good went away
DE razors are also the best
choice for African-American men, many of whom suffer from “shave bumps”,
which occur when their tougher whiskers are cut too aggressively by modern
multi-blade razors, causing them to grow back underneath the skin and turn
into ingrown hairs. Switching to a DE and using a shaving brush to exfoliate
the skin and prep the whiskers is good for men of all races, but
African-American men in particular find that shaving with a safety razor
clears up their skin and makes shaving a pleasure again.
The men’s grooming boom has
created a huge resurgence of interest in DE razors, and guys are snapping up
vintage models on eBay for ten and twenty times what these razors sold for
back in the 50s and 60s! But if you don’t want to shave with a razor that’s
got a half-century under its belt, new safety razors are available that
bring back the spirit of the classic Gillette adjustable DE razors, which
many shaving connoisseurs consider the finest double-edge razor ever made.
The German company Merkur offers a whole range of extremely high-quality,
precision-made safety razors, from a reissue of the 1904 Gillette DE to the
super deluxe $120 Vision, the most futuristic-looking razor on the planet.
The biggest bang for the buck is Merkur’s HD “Hefty Classic” safety razor –
it’s an excellent razor to start with if you’ve decided to take the DE
glycerin-based shaving cream is the final ingredient in the perfect shave.
If your shaving cream/gel comes in a can and costs less than a coffee at
Starbucks, or even Dunkin’ Donuts for that matter (and their joe’s better
besides), prepare to be astonished at what old-school European shaving cream
lathers, shaves, and above all, smells like. Yes, I said smells like! If
you’ve never lathered up in the morning with a fine English shaving cream
that smells like fresh-cut violets, limes, or lavender, then you are truly
missing out on one the great manly pleasures of all time.
The Europeans have been
making this stuff for centuries, and they really do make the best shaving
creams on the planet. At around $20 for a tub and $12 for a travel tube,
they’re more expensive than the foams and gels at the drugstore, but since a
little goes a long way when lathered with a shaving brush, these high-end
creams last for many months of daily shaving.
HOW TO SHAVE LIKE A MAN
Once you’ve got a shaving
brush, a razor, and some quality shaving cream, you’ll need a sink full of
hot (not scalding) water. After you emerge from a nice, hot shower, fill the
sink with hot water and let your shaving brush soak in the water. Splash
some more hot water on your face to keep it maximally wet. The key to
wetshaving is keeping your face as wet with hot water at all times as
Remove your brush from the
water, hold it upside down until water stops pouring out of it, and then
you’re ready to apply the cream. If you’ve got a tub of shaving cream, swirl
the wet tips of your brush around in a circular motion on the surface of the
cream until you get a small amount of visible white lather. You don’t need a
lot of cream, but you don’t want too little either. After your first few
shaves, you’ll begin to get a feel for how much is just right.
Now you want to paint your
face up and down, up and down all over the areas of your face and neck
you’ll be shaving. Keep at it for a minute or so until you’ve got a thick,
opaque layer of rich lather covering the shaving area. Then set your brush
handle-down on the counter and pick up your razor.
You want to shave downward
on your face and neck, WITH the direction your whiskers grow. At least for
the first pass, a North-to-South stroke will get rid of most of your stubble
without irritating your skin. If you want a closer shave, wet your face
again, lather up again, and shave very lightly upward against the grain, in
a South-to-North direction. Most men’s skin is too sensitive to stand up to
an against-the-grain shave without redness, razor burn, and even ingrown
hairs, but if you can deal with it, go gently. If you can’t go S-N without
irritation, try a second N-S downward shave -- in most cases, you’ll
approach that baby’s-butt smoothness without any of the razor burn that an
against-the-grain pass gives most guys. But I’m not going to lie to you --
if you want baby butt, shave upward, young man. Just do it as lightly as
possible and only do it for one pass, after you shave downward first to
clear most of the bramble.
Once you’re done shaving,
rinse your face with cold water to close the pores, thoroughly rinse your
razor and shaving brush of lather and shake them dry, and store your brush
in your medicine cabinet standing up on its handle, not lying down. This
will let the bristles air-dry without damaging them, so your brush will last
20 years or more.
Pat, don’t rub, your face
dry with a clean towel, and finish up with a good non-alcohol-based
after-shave or moisturizer. Lots of guys also swear by witch hazel, which is
cheap, excellent, and perfect for closing your pores and soothing your face.
CAUTION: if you’ve been
shaving with a disposable razor or one of the modern multi-blade cartridge
systems like the Mach3, be aware that switching to a single-blade DE will
require that you un-learn all the bad habits that modern razors are designed
to let sleepy, lazy guys get away with. Mainly, that means slower, more
careful strokes, and guiding the razor’s head over your skin WITHOUT
Let me say that again.
WITHOUT PRESSING DOWN. AT ALL.
It’s really not a big deal
– men were shaving this way for hundreds of years before plastic disposables
and 2/3/4/?-blade razors were invented. Once you slow down and stop pressing
the blade against your face so hard, you’ll find that not only do you get a
closer, smoother shave, but all of that burning sensation and red marks all
over your neck will start to go away immediately, and then disappear for
good. Paradoxically, using a lighter touch doesn’t work nearly as well with
modern multi-blade razors because they were designed to allow for the
typical knucklehead who thinks the harder he rakes the razor across his
cheeks the closer his shave will be. But with a DE, a lighter touch actually
does result in a closer shave, and a much more comfortable and skin-friendly
If you end up with a few
nicks your first few shaves with a DE, don’t worry, it happens to all of us.
It’s your face’s way of telling you to stop being a knucklehead. After a few
shaves, you’ll figure it all out, and then you’ll wonder why you haven’t
been shaving like this your whole life. This is one of those guy grooming
secrets that separate the men from the boys.
Does the whole idea of
using an old-school safety razor give you pause? Don’t worry – if you want
to stick with your Mach3 or other cartridge razor, that’s okay. Just adding
a shaving brush and quality cream to the mix will still give you a better
shave, even if you use the same razor you were using before. But if you
shave with disposables, you really should ditch them and at least start
using one of the better cartridge razors like the Mach3 and Sensor Excel.
They’re really not that much more expensive per shave, and they’re much
better for your face.
Real barbers (and I’m not
talking about a kid who works in a salon that has a “Z” at the end of its
name and plays loud dance music – I’m talking about a well-fed gentleman
wearing a white smock, with a striped barber pole out in front of his shop)
still offer their customers a shave with the most revered and yes, feared,
of all shaving tools: the almighty straight razor, also known as a “cut
throat”. The classic straight razor is the king of shaves and the shave of
kings -- but if you don’t feel like spending $100 for a cut throat and
another $50 for a leather strop to keep it sharp, a barbershop shave is a
great way to pamper yourself and get the shave of your life at the same
A barbershop shave starts
with you lying back in a big leather barber chair while the barber wraps
your face in hot towels for a few minutes to open up your pores and soften
your whiskers. Then he lathers you up with a brush and cream, and
masterfully guides the bare straight razor blade over your cheeks and chin
so closely you can hear each whisker pop from across the room. After he’s
done shaving you, he’ll wrap your face in more hot towels and then finish
you off with some after-shave treatment and maybe even a wake-up nudge –
contrary to what you might think, getting a really good barbershop shave is
so relaxing for many men that they often fall asleep even as the straight
razor is gliding over their Adam’s apple.
Women looking for the
perfect Valentine’s Day gift for the men in their life should look no
further than a gift certificate for a barbershop shave – really upscale
barbershops even offer the gentleman’s trifecta of a shave, haircut, and
shoeshine all in one visit. Hmm, who’s that a gift for, again?
There are several wet
shaving forums on the Net, but the most useful and informative for the
first-timer is MSN’s Wetshavers board. Some of the guys who post regularly
have been wet shaving for over forty years, and they’re always happy to help
a newbie and answer any questions he might have about products and
technique. Shaving isn’t rocket science, but if you really want to shorten
your learning curve with a safety razor or even a cut throat, Wetshavers’
archive is a great place to learn everything you need to know about getting
the perfect shave.
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