A Guide To A Good Life

Answers to your shaving questions

Almost three years after publishing my original wet shaving video, the views and comments keep accumulating: over 280,000 views and 700 comments at the time of this post. I thought it a good idea to gather the top ten questions — the stuff that gets asked over and over, and the things that I should have made clearer in the original video — and make a follow-up video. That’s just what I’ve done here, but wait, there’s more… 🙂

In addition to answering the top ten questions, I also made another wet shaving video, this time making sure to include all of the pertinent advice that came to mind.

Thank you for the views and the likes, thank you for the comments, and I’m truly glad that I could help you learn how to shave! That’s a big responsibility, because it’s something us men have to do pretty much every day for the rest of our lives once we reach adulthood, so if I’ve contributed in any way, as many of you have told me I’ve done, I consider that a wonderful achievement.

These videos are part of my new series, The Elegant Gentleman: a man’s guide to clothing, manners and the finer things in life. If you have any other shaving questions, please let me know in the comments below (or right on the video page at YouTube) and I’ll see if I can answer them.

The Elegant Gentleman

A Guide To A Good Life

Shaving: art versus design versus profit

Where’s the art?

When I think of shaving razors currently on the market, I think of cartoon fights where everyone pulls out a bigger gun. Razor companies are constantly trying to outdo each other with more blades. If it’s not the blades, then it’s a “microcomb”, or a vibrating handle… which brings all sorts of other imagery to mind, the kind that has nothing to do with shaving, unless you’re into weird fetishes.

It’s the same kind of approach that software companies use these days. Their code gets so bloated, because they never take the time to clean it up, that all they can hope for is that hardware manufacturers can throw more RAM and MHz at the problem so they don’t have to optimize their code. Apple took a different approach with the Snow Leopard operating system: they took almost a year to clean it up, throwing out the junk. That’s why I admire Apple.

Made better through improved design? Not really.

On the other hand, companies like Gillette and their competitors lost sight of the art of shaving and figured everyone was a nitwit who couldn’t learn to shave properly and couldn’t take care of their razor, so they overdesigned their razors for the lowest common denominator. In the process, the razor became a plastic toy, not a tool, a crappy little thing you throw away instead of something you respect and maintain, because it keeps you looking civilized.

Designed for profit? Thank you sir, may I have another?

Because it became a throw-away toy, their profit margins increased. Because the razors no longer lasted a lifetime, they could sell more of them. You just look down the line of razor models from the Gillette over the years, and you’ll see they get more and more plasticky, with less metal parts. If they have metal in them, it’s not in the head (certainly not where the cartridges attach to the handle); that part needs to be plastic so it breaks after a while.

Don't let its flashy looks fool you. It just can't compare to a good safety razor.

The cartridges have started to cost more as well. A pack of eight cartridges for the Gillette Fusion ProGlide razor (the latest flashy gimmick from Gillette) runs about $30 at Amazon. That’s $3.75 per cartridge, and from my experience, they last about 3-4 shaves. By contrast, a pack of 60 assorted safety razor blades costs $18. That’s 30 cents per blade, and they last about 6-7 shaves. (By the way, I’d recommend that pack for those learning to shave with a safety razor, because it’ll let you try different brands to see which blades work best for your face.)

The real deal.

Wait, it gets worse

They also polluted the environment with all that disposable plastic crap. Now you throw away the razor, not just the blades. And the blades aren’t just steel, which is perfectly recyclable, but they’re plastic and metal, which is annoyingly difficult to recycle, because you need to separate the two materials from each other, and it’s just not worth the trouble.

It’s such a shame. I used to admire Gillette about 10 years ago, before I got disappointed with all the stuff they’re doing these days. I still shave with a classic Gillette Safety Razor, pictured below. I still keep my grandfather’s Gillette Heavy Duty Safety Razor, and plan to use that when my own breaks down. Things used to be simple and beautiful. Where did they go wrong?

The classic Gillette safety razor.

If you’d like to learn how to shave properly, check out my wet shaving guide. And there’s also a video, embedded below.

Image of ProGlide Razor courtesy of Gillette. Image of Merkur Heavy Duty Safety Razor courtesy of Wikipedia.

A Guide To A Good Life, How To

How to shave with a safety razor – the video

In December of 2005, I wrote an article on wet shaving. Back then, there wasn’t a lot of shaving advice on the internet — at least none I could find. So I wrote the article with the sincere desire to help others like me, who were having a tough time with disposable razors and electric razors, and with constantly irritated faces and necks. For me, it got so bad at times that my whole face and neck would just bleed from every pore, every time I took a razor to my face. It was crazy.

What worked for me then was using a Gillette Mach 3 Razor, because I didn’t know better. I would use a safety razor from time to time, just to troubleshoot where my shaving techniques needed improving. Since then, I graduated to using the safety razor all the time. What helped me improve my shaving technique was watching mantic59‘s videos on YouTube about three years ago. I was really glad to find him again today so I could link to his videos. I haven’t seen them since, and I wasn’t sure if he was still around.

Now that it’s been more than a few years since I wrote the original article, I thought I’d update it with a how-to video on wet shaving with a safety razor, where I show how a typical shave goes for me. I shot the video in 720p HD, with the wonderful Olympus PEN E-P2. My wife acted as my trusty camera-woman.

Shaving is an art, and it has to be learned. It doesn’t come naturally to us. One’s shaving form must by necessity differ, depending on the type of shaving utensil used: straight blade, safety razor, disposable razor, electric razor, etc. For me, a safety razor is the perfect balance between sustainability and shave quality, and that’s what I’m going to talk about here and in the video.

A straight blade is too scary for me. There’s that potential of slitting one’s throat. A safety razor still gives you the benefit of shaving with a sharp blade, but this time it’s contained within an apparatus that won’t let it cut your throat. A disposable razor, whether it has one, two, three, four or five (who cares!) blades, doesn’t offer as good a shave, because it’s less maneuverable, it’s made to be even safer — or in this case, useless — and creates non-recyclable waste, thus polluting the environment.

Just think how many blades and handles you use every year — all of those end up in a landfill. They can’t be recycled, because the plastic can’t be separated from the steel. It’s waste that can be easily avoided. On the other hand, all you throw away from a safety razor is a thin steel blade, which is perfectly recyclable. The razor itself lasts practically forever, which is why the companies that make shaving products would rather you get the disposable stuff. I say consequences have to trump profits sometimes, even in a capitalist society.

And, as Cary Grant says in “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House”, I like a safety razor because “I prefer the clean sweep of tempered steel as it glides across my face.” Yes indeed, Cary, yes indeed.

I hope you enjoy the video and come away from it with a better appreciation for the art of shaving, and with a few tips that will help you get a better shave!

A Guide To A Good Life, How To

A practical approach to shaving

Updated 9/21/12: Since I wrote this article, I also made a video where I go through a typical wet shave with a DE safety razor.

You may also enjoy this post, where I talk about how my shaving habits have evolved over time, or this post, where I talk about the current range of shaving products.

Now back to the original article…

For First-Time Shavers or Those With Sensitive Skin

I’ve wanted to write an article about shaving for some time, but didn’t get around to it until now. In a society where shaving products can be found virtually everywhere, there is a surprising paucity of resources about just how one should shave. I recognize shaving is a very personal and thus, a subjective experience, but someone ought to iterate some useful advice gathered from their experience. For me, I know the advice I give in this article would have been a real gold mine, and would have saved me from needless and countless pain and irritation. I think shaving ought to be an enjoyable experience. After all, most men have to do it about every day, and when you do something that often, it shouldn’t be a source of pain. With these thoughts in mind, let’s proceed.

Shaving Utensils

I prefer to use the old-time shaving soap and a shaving mug, but you don’t have to. I enjoy whipping up the lather every morning. It’s my little shaving ritual, and it helps me get ready to shave. If you’re interested, get a good brush, preferably one made of badger hair.

Shaving mug and brush

I use Williams Mug Shaving Soap. I tried the Colgate brand a while ago and it’s alright, too. Warm up the mug by running it under hot water, then moisten the soap and the brush with hot water as well. Rub the brush over the soap in a circular motion until you build up a good amount of foam. It should be solid foam that can stand on its own, not the soft bubbly type you get from regular soap when you wash your hands.

Shaving soap and mug

If you’re going to use shaving lotions or gels, then I recommend picking one that’s gentle to the skin and has moisturizers. Avoid the lotions that make your skin tingle, they’ll irritate your face if it’s sensitive, and the shave may hurt more. I don’t have any specific recommendations, since I seldom use them.

To shave, I use a Gillette Mach 3 razor. I realize Gillette will come out with newer models as time goes on, so don’t think you have to stick with this model. Find what works for you. Personally, I find the Mach 3 razor strikes a good balance between a close shave and a concern for those with sensitive skin. The only problem I’ve found is that if I don’t gently angle up the blades as I shave my moustache, it’ll leave some hairs at the base of my nose, so you may want to watch that if you use this product.

Multi-blade razor

I also find the single-blade razor useful for troubleshooting purposes. What I mean is that I use that once in a while to see where my shaving technique needs improvement. The areas where I cut myself or irritate my skin needlessly is where I’m probably not using correct technique. I’ll discuss shaving technique in just a bit.

Single-blade razor

If you are experiencing a high level of irritation during your shaves, you might want to start working on your technique by using one of the BumpGuard razors. They’re marketed toward African-Americans, who are more prone to develop bumps from ingrown hairs, but they work great for those with general irritation as well. I actually keep a couple in my bathroom cabinet all the time, and use them once in a while to give my face a break from the Gillette razor.

I don’t recommend the use of electric razors, although I’ve used them for years. They irritated my face, in particular the Norelco razors, which pull on the hair as they shave it. I suppose that works for some men, but for me, it was sheer pain. I used a waterproof single-foil Panasonic razor for some time, with okay results, and then I purchased a dual-foil Braun razor (fairly expensive). It gave me poorer shaving results than the Panasonic, which was half the price of the Braun. At any rate, I experienced varying levels of irritation no matter which electric razor I used, and my neck would tingle and feel painful to the touch all day long.

Now, what about aftershave? I use something very simple: Witch Hazel. It works great for me, and I can get a large bottle for the same price as an after-shave lotion. It works great year-round, but I also use a moisturizer during the winter months, because my face gets dry. You may be in the same boat.

Witch hazel

I also use the new (or fairly new, anyway) Nivea Men After Shave Balm. It’s pretty good. If you really want to moisturize your face though, I recommend the plain Nivea Creme (not pictured). It’s thick and harder to apply, but boy, does it moisturize! It virtually winter-proofs your face.


Shaving Technique

Here’s where things get dicey, if not done right. They talk about proof in the pudding… well, the proof is going to be on your face. It will show you if you’ve done things right or not. I really believe that! Let me give you a little background so you can see why.

I thought I was incurably sensitive to shaving, and that I would always have to deal with serious irritation and even bleeding every single time I shaved. This wasn’t bleeding from cuts, although I had those once in a while, too. This was generalized bleeding at the site of irritation. Little drops of blood would start appearing on large areas of my neck or on the sides of my jaws, areas which were particularly sensitive. I struggled with this for years. I saw family doctors and dermatologists, and about the only advice I could get out of them was to shave less often (not much of an option when you’re trying to maintain a neat appearance) or to try the BumpGuard razors.

The last bit was definitely good advice, and it started me down the right path. I went out and purchased some, and couldn’t believe the difference it made the first time I used them. I had no generalized bleeding, although I did have some little cuts, and significantly less irritation! The shave wasn’t as smooth, but the lack of bleeding more than made up for that. I realized I was onto something, and maybe there was hope for me. If you’re in the same boat, read on to see what I did.

I started looking all over the Internet, and found numerous sources that talked about some of the following useful things, but to my knowledge, none had a complete set. I’ve compiled a list of what I found here:

Moisten your facial hair with warm to hot water before shaving. Don’t just wet your face with warm water, take handfuls of water and splatter them on your face. Your stubble should be soft to the touch when it’s properly moistened. If it helps you do it right, use a facial towel that you’ve held under hot water. Keep that on your face and neck for about 30 seconds. Even better, take a shower and shave afterwards.

Use a new blade, not an old, dull blade. If you’re using disposable razors, a cartridge will last you about a week for optimum cutting, give or take a few days, depending on your facial hair and technique. That’s not a lot of time, so have plenty of cartridges on hand.

Shave with the hair, not against it. This is key, especially on the neck or underneath the jaw, where hair doesn’t run straight down, but to the sides or even upwards (at least it does so on my face.)

Rinse with cold water. Don’t use ice-cold water, but use room-temperature water, and rinse off the soap thoroughly. If you leave some traces of soap on the face, it’ll itch and irritate your face. Ice-cold water will dry your face, and it’s also an un-needed shock.

Use a good after-shave. The key here is to use something. I used rubbing alcohol in the past, with good results. My grandfather uses that all the time, and his face looks great after shaving. I now use witch hazel, it’s a little gentler than the rubbing alcohol. In cold seasons, use a moisturizing lotion as well. See section entitled “Shaving Utensils” above for more details on this.

This is all good advice, and I encourage you to follow it. The thing is, I did most of these things, or at least I thought I did, and I still had serious problems shaving. So, what solved it for me? To the list above, I would add the following pieces, and this is what I’ve found to make the difference:

Apply the shaving lotion properly. Build a good amount of foam on your face. If you’re using soap, rub that brush in circular motions across your face until the foam is solid to the touch, like whipped cream. See the photo to the left for an example. Leave joking aside for a second and look at the way I’ve applied the soap. You want to make sure you’re properly covering your face. If you’re using a shaving lotion or gel, don’t assume that just because you’ve quickly applied it to your face you’re good to go. Really rub it on until the gel turns into solid foam. Even nowadays, I find that when I don’t build up the foam to a proper consistency, I’ll get irritated.

Shaving lotion properly applied to face

Let the blade do the cutting. Don’t apply extra pressure with your hand. Apply only enough pressure to move the blade across your face, not more. If the blade is new and sharp enough, it’ll do the job just fine. If you get into the habit of applying more pressure, you will – I repeat, you will – irritate your face, and induce bleeding. I was guilty of this myself.

Use small, fairly quick strokes, not large, long and slow ones. This is really important. It’s when you use the long strokes that you inadvertently cut your hair against the grain, or induce cuts in the skin, or shave off some skin beside the hair, causing irritation. If you use small, measured strokes, it works out just right. You don’t get irritated, and you can control the blade better. I know they always show these models on TV shaving the entire length of their neck with one stroke, but that’s only for show. It’s misleading. Don’t go by it! Trust me and use small, measured strokes. You’ll see the difference.

Rinse the blade often so it’s clear of foam and hair. This may seem like a minor detail, but it will pay off. If the blade is clean, you don’t have to guess to know how close it is to the skin. You know how much pressure you need to apply. If there are hairs trapped between the blades, you will drag those hairs across your skin as you move the blade, increasing your chances for irritation.

Replenish the foam by re-applying it in those areas where it’s dry or thinner. There’s no shame in re-applying foam to your face. You won’t fail Shaving 101 if you can’t finish shaving before the foam dries off, and it will dry off in just a few minutes. Don’t feel bad, it’s normal. Just wet the brush again, work up some foam, and re-apply. If you don’t, and you shave over thin or dry foam, you will certainly get irritation. It’s a given!

Alright! If you’re following these steps correctly, you should get a nice, clean shave, like the one pictured below. If you still have problems, you need to go back over the pieces of advice I’ve given you. If at any time you start experiencing irritation or bleeding while shaving, it’s very likely that your technique has deteriorated. You might want to give your face a break by using a BumpGuard razor for a few days, and it wouldn’t hurt to use a single-blade razor so you can pinpoint the zones where you’re not shaving properly. Wherever you get cuts and irritation, that’s where you’ve got to improve.

Clean-shaven face

Hope this helps!