By Corey Greenberg
Updated: 12:34 p.m. CT Jan 30, 2005
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. Today’s Tech Editor Corey Greenberg is here with the latest trend in male grooming that promises a better shave by going back to the old school.
Q: What is the perfect shave and why do most guys get it so wrong?
A: The perfect shave is what all men strive for every morning when they bring their razor up 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 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.
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Q: What is “wetshaving” and how is it different from the way most men – and women – shave today?
A: Wetshaving 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”.
Wetshaving 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 wetshaving 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.
Q: What are the basic tools you need for wetshaving?
A: The perfect shave has three ingredients: a good razor, a good brush, and glycerin-based shaving cream. But the biggest difference between wetshaving 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 just 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 and 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 with your fingers alone. 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.
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. I recommend the English-made Vulfix brushes, which are much more reasonably priced than a lot of high-end British shaving brushes which don’t begin to approach the quality of the Vulfix models. They’re easily the best shaving brushes I’ve come across, despite being the most reasonably priced.
The next tool you need for wetshaving 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 wetshavers 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, and 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 get 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 mutli-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 and platinum-coated blades, from a reissue of the 1904 Gillette DE to the super deluxe $120 Vision, the coolest, most futuristic-looking razor on the planet. The biggest bang for the buck is Merkur’s $27 HD “Hefty Classic” safety razor – it’s an excellent razor to start with if you’ve decided to take the DE plunge.
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 as it fills the sink. Splash some more hot water on your face to keep it maximally wet. The key to wetshaving is keeping your face as hydrated 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 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.
Once you’re done shaving, rinse your face with cold water to close the pores, thoroughly rinse your shaving brush of lather and shake it dry, and store it in your medicine cabinet on it’s handle, not lying down. This will let the bristles air-dry without damaging them, so your brush will last 20 years or more.
Pat, not rub, your face dry with a clean towel, and finish up with a good non-alcohol-based after-shave or moisturizer – I use and recommend Trumper’s “skin food”, but any good moisturizer will be better than that stinging alcohol-based stuff that we’ve all suffered with.
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 a catridge razor. They’re not that much more expensive per shave, and they’re much better for your face.
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, 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.
I use and highly recommend Geo F. Trumper’s and Taylor of Old Bond Street’s shaving creams in both tubs for the bathroom and small tubes for travel. My personal favorites are Trumper’s violet and Taylor’s avocado, as well as their excellent lavender – these shaving creams will spoil you for anything else, and when lathered onto your face with hot water and a badger shaving brush, deliver the best skin protection and the finest shaves you’ve ever experienced. And the scents of these top-shelf creams will make you actually look forward to shaving, probably for the first time in your life.
I also use and recommend two inexpensive European creams which are also very popular with serious wetshavers. Portugal’s Musgo Real costs $8 a tube and has lanolin for an extremely moisturizing and comfortable shave. My favorite inexpensive shaving cream, though, is the legendary eucalytpus shaving cream from Italy called Proraso. This $7 wonder comes in a large, bright green toothpaste tube, and has been the best-selling shaving product in Italy since the 1940’s. Despite its budget price, Proraso actually shaves on a par with the fancy English creams, and it has the added benefit of eucalyptus oil, which gives your face an incredible cooling effect when you splash with cold water at the end of the shave. Like the Trumper and Taylor shaving creams, you can buy Proraso online, but if you have a local Italian deli or market, check there first, as many of them carry Proraso for their longtime customers. It doesn’t smell quite as intoxicating as Trumper’s violet, but it’s an outstanding shaving cream at an unbeatable price.
Q: What about the good old-fashioned barber shop shave – do they still exist?
A: Yes! In fact, many 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 most serious at-home shavers gravitate toward the straight for its unequalled shave as well as its history and cool factor, 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.
Michael Vozzelli is a fifth-generation barber who owns the Looks Good Barbershop in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and this morning he’s demonstrating what a real barbershop shave is all about:
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?
Q: And where can guys go if they’re interested in more information about wetshaving?
A: There are several wetshaving forums on the Net, but the most useful and informative for the first-timer is called Wetshavers. Some of the guys who post regularly have been wetshaving 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.
Two excellent online sources for razors, brushes and high-end shaving cream are Classic Shaving and QED. Both are smaller, Mom and Pop operations whose friendly service, expert advice, and unbeatable prices keep me coming back to order far more stuff than I’ll ever be able to use in one lifetime.
Props: one large tabletop for the razors, brushes, creams, and accessories.
Personal mirror on a stand for the tabletop so I can see myself as I apply shaving cream and demo razors.
Two traditional leather old-timey barbershop chairs (barber will bring everything he needs except:
Lots of hot water
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