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 can get.
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 shaves become.
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 completely.
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 plunge.
A high-quality, 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 possible.
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 PRESSING DOWN.
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 shave besides.
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 time.
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.
Copyright © Corey Greenberg 2005, All rights reserved
Electrics to Wet Shaving
by R. Smithee, Texas
I started with one of the old flat-head Remingtons. Could also be used to trim hedges. When you turned it on, it had a high-pitched whine that would make the dogs bark. It was truly amazing how much damage that thing could do to your face, particularly on the neck. I eventually moved to one of the Norelco rotary shavers, which have not improved that much in 40 years. It took so long to shave with it, the heads would get hot enough to leave burns. I went back to one of the Remingtons after the guy bought the company and claimed they "shaved as close as a blade, or your money back." Not true on both counts. It was about then I figured out that electric shaver blades get dull just like any other blade, and there was no option except to replace the cutter blocks and screens which cost more than the razor itself. They learned well from Gillette.
Like many, I used pre-shaves, powders, and anything else I could find to try to improve the shave; it either didn't work or gummed up the razor. The last electric I used was a Braun, which was probably the best of the lot, and still not very good. In between all these, I would go back to wet shaving, but had no idea that I was using junk products, i.e., aerosols and throwaway razors, and then try a different electric. I finally discovered a good brush and decent mug soaps gave the best shaves if I just spent some time learning how to use the tools, and went through about a three-month transition period leaving the electrics until I really figured out how to shave with a blade. I hate it when you finally have to discover something that has been around for 200 years.
Copyright © Robert Smithee 2005, All rights reserved
Three Minute Shave
(or wet shaving can be just as fast) by Don Bambrough
I started wet shaving because my wife gave me a shaving brush and glycerin soap. She was tired of seeing me with my plastic handle disposable razor and cheap can of aerosol foam.
I don't have sensitive skin or shave for the great pleasure of the experience and can wet shave with the brush just as fast as I did before. I generally shave after a shower and at the sink. In three minutes I turn on the water, get the brush wet, flick off the excess water and stir over the soap. If I don't have enough water I just go in for a quick dip and stir over the soap a little more. I lather on my face, shave the whiskers, rinse and I'm done. While I admit it won't pass the baby butt smooth test, I can't see the whiskers and that's close enough for me. I shave because my face looks dirty if I don't.
What I like about wet shaving with a brush is that it gives a better shave than before, it is just as fast for me, I can whip up nicer lather than from a can, and the big plus... the soap lather isn't cold!
Today I have graduated to a higher end badger brush from the starting boar brush my wife gave me, and I now use a Trac II fixed head razor instead of a plastic disposable. But I still don't dawdle - unless I wait for the hot water to really heat up first - then it might take me four minutes to shave.
Copyright © Don Bambrough 2006, All rights reserved