Dec 16, 2013

How to Shave and Not Bleed Yourself Dry, Literally or Financially

Tyler Mahan Coe holding a safety razor

I've been granted the opportunity of reviewing more wet shaving products here on Baby Black Widows. As those articles are forthcoming it appears necessary that we cover exactly what and why wet shaving is. As I said in a previous article on seasonally scented shave soaps, it's a Thing. Perhaps in your idle clickings through the Internet you've stumbled upon wicked_edge or the Shave Nook and thought, "Shave in the manner of my great-grandparents? What new Hell is this? No old safety razor can outperform my 5-blade, vibrating cartridge!" Well, I'm here to tell you, sometimes innovation is not your friend! We are now living in one of those times, cousins! Why, just the other day I was nearly run down in the thoroughfare by one of these horseless carriages and I says to my gal, I says...

But, seriously, the old timers had this one right.

The online communities built around traditional wet shaving are a living encyclopaedia of information, techniques and advice for the fledgling razor wielder. To the noob, though, encyclopaedias can be overwhelming in scale, even more so when they're extremely interested in showing everyone how many silvertip brushes and bottles of aftershave they have. A concise overview is desirable, else how is one to know if one is even interested?

First, the only two reasons why you might not care about this article at all:
  1. You're a hippie and don't shave anything, at all, ever.
  2. You're a Duck Dynasty fan and don't shave anything, at all, ever.

Now, four reasons why you do care about this article.
  1. You hate shaving. The 50 ingredients in your shaving gel and the "lotion strips" on your cartridges make your skin feel slimy while you shave and leave it dried out later. Every time you shave you get razor burn. When your stubble grows back you get ingrown hairs... Well you're dragging five razor blades across your skin what do you think is going to happen?! Sorry... Okay. In the commercials for cartridges, they demonstrate how the first blade tugs the hair from the follicle as it cuts, allowing the next razor to cut into the hair closer to the skin. Multiply by four and that last razor blade cuts through the hair, allowing it to retract down into the follicle, deep under the surface of the skin with a nice, new, sharp, pointy edge. That's how you get an ingrown hair.
  2. You don't like wasting your money. As of the writing this article, an 8-pack of Gillette Fusion Proglide cartridges costs $31 on Amazon. That's about $3.85 each, plus shipping if you aren't an Amazon Prime member or spending another $4 on products shipped by Amazon. Sure, these cartridges might last you a while, particularly if you hate shaving for the above reasons and avoid it when you're able, but the longer you try to keep that cartridge working, the worse your shaving results will be. Every hair cut by a blade will blunt the blade a bit more, leading you to press the razor head into your skin real hard so the blasted thing'll cut better... and you get razor burn or cut yourself. 
  3. You care about this planet. Cartridges are made of plastic and metal. As far as I know, they can not be recycled here in America. That's trash. That's shaving with garbage and throwing it on a bigger pile of garbage when we're done with it. This is impossible to reconcile with a reduce/reuse/recycle mentality, which I really hope you've adopted by now. I guess you could make the worst/most dangerous Christmas tree ornaments ever out of your used cartridges?
  4. You crave a life of authenticity. This is a difficult concept to put across without sounding like an aspiring cult leader... A special thing happens when you act from a place of intent, making traditional wet shaving a meditative practice. Not the transcendental kind of meditation. The kind where you control your thoughts. If you space out mid-process, there are consequences. There are psychological benefits to intentional action that cannot be denied, which can affect other aspects of your life. I realize this may sound grandiose but I find it to be true. On a slightly more mundane level, consider the craftsmanship that goes into the products discussed later in this article. A great razor or a fine brush can become a family heirloom. These are products that can take on a meaningful place in your life. Nobody's leaving you a Mach 3 in their will.

Traditional wet shaving makes life easier on your skin, wallet, and conscience.

example of shaving soap lathered on a brush
Strop Shoppe Lather

Using a double-edged safety razor (DE, from here on.) or a cut-throat/straight razor (SR, from here on) means there is only one cutting edge in contact with your skin at any given time. This reduces irritation, for obvious reasons. You're shaving more slowly/carefully, because an SR is called a CUT-THROAT for a reason and you respect that, so you're less likely to harm your skin through lack of attention or poor form. The single razor blade is glided across the skin, with light to zero pressure, at an angle nearly parallel to the skin's surface, further reducing the likelihood of razor burn, ingrown hairs or nicks. The blade makes contact with the skin only after a worthy lubricating agent (typically a lather made from a competent shave soap/cream but sometimes nothing more than a suitable oil, though many prefer both at once) has been applied to the skin. The lubricating agent is reapplied before the razor blade revisits a skin surface for a second, third, or fourth pass. Thus, shaving becomes a nurturing treatment for the skin rather than a torture.

various brands of safety razor blades
 Blade Samples: Super Max, Feather, Wilkinson, Derby, Shark, etc.

DE blades cost cents, literally. One must determine which brands are compatible with one's skin and beard type, preferably through purchase and experimentation with a blade sample pack. Once a brand is deemed worthy, one may buy in bulk. Consulting Amazon again, Astra blades are $10.50 for 100 blades and Sharks are $11 for 100 blades. My brand, Personna, are $13 for 100 blades. Feather blades are widely regarded as the sharpest of all (the holy grail for some, overkill for others) will cost you $26 for 100 blades, which is less than the cost of 8 multi-blade cartridges. This is inarguably more economical. Thus is removed the incentive to prolong blade life out of a desire to "get your money's worth." Even if you choose the most expensive DE blades and throw them away after only one shave you are spending an immensely smaller amount of money. Even better, most DE shavers get at least 2 shaves out of a blade and many can use one blade for a week's worth of shaves. That means that a 100 pack of any of these blades could last you for two years! You can afford to go out on dates and look nice doing so!

[The cost of SR shaving isn't so easily defined. It isn't extremely likely that the wet shaving novice will begin with a straight but there are a few things to note. You do not want to go cheap when SR shopping. Don't assume that an SR you find in a flea market is usable just because it doesn't have any obvious flaws. Invest in a quality SR from a reputable vendor. Research vendors before making a purchase and get a feel for how they are ranked in the community. The SR requires a strop, which may need to be replaced if not given proper care or mistakenly damaged. The SR will periodically need to have its edge honed, which costs a small amount of additional money or requires purchase of the necessary implements. All things considered, SR shaving should still considerably reduce your expenses as compared to cartridge shaving and is probably the most environmentally responsible way to groom yourself.]

example of safe razor blade disposal
Blade Bank

DE blades are made of metal. You can recycle metal. Super glue a tin container shut, make a slit in it and you have a blade bank, ideal for used blade disposal. Label the bank as holding "SHARP RAZOR BLADES" and tape it securely shut when full. Recycle as you would any other metal. [Note that some cities and states have restrictions against recycling razor blades at all.] Feel good about yourself. If you feel like putting a bit more work into it, here's a great video from How to Grow a Moustache that will teach you to make a perfectly safe and recyclable blade bank. [CAUTION: Leisureguy raised a very good point when I asked him to read this article, being, do not use a coin bank as a blade bank, especially one that rattles, as they are attractive to small children and easy to open.] Got doubts about how much good recycling actually does for the ecosystem? SR shaving is the way to go. The only waste produced through SR shaving is soapy, hairy water because you're using the same blade over and over again. That's how to reduce and reuse.


Here's what you need to buy to get started: a razor, some blades, a lubricating agent, and, probably, a brush. Those three items are the foundation of a "shave kit." Over at w_e, they have kit suggestions in the sidebar based on various budget levels. Let's assume you'd like to start out as cheap as possible, so click under $50. The cheapest of all options presented will cost you approx. $17 for everything. There are cheaper individual options, too, such as the horse-hair brush at for $2.45. Even cheaper than that is How to Grow a Moustache's one-stop, everything you need shaving kit, for $12. Now, I'm sure these options would work for many, if not most people but I can't personally vouch for them because I haven't used all of them.

[NOTE: The following section is based exclusively on my own experiences in wet shaving. My skin type, geographical location and personal preferences could all be wildly in opposition to those of your own; shaving is such a subjective thing. There is absolutely no reason for you to lend my personal suggestions any more weight than you would lend any other person or website proposing to advise you in this endeavor. I've done my best to accurately represent one person's conversion to traditional wet shaving, my thought processes and complete lack of involvement with certain types of product. These are my preferences, not the absolute and final truth. Also, I only shave my face but much of what I recommend here will still be helpful to men and women who shave other parts of their bodies.]

Here are my recommendations, based on what has worked for me:

photo of cheapest safety razor and funny engrish packaging
The Silvertone DE

RAZOR: This is the cheapest razor you are likely to find. The Silvertone. $3 w/ free shipping. The razor pictured above is my own. I purchased it and used it solely for the purpose of writing this article. [Apparently purchasing this razor is somewhat of a gamble. It ships from China and some units arrive damaged or don't arrive at all. My review is of the unit I received.] Despite a couple of amusing misfires of English grammar on the packaging, this razor is surprisingly well put together. It has a nice weight and the handle is pleasingly textured for grip. The head exposes a lot of blade edge, so you need to be attentive to the angle of the blade and how little pressure you're using when touching the skin. (Despite DEs being called "safety" razors, you can definitely cut yourself with one.) There is nothing wrong with blade exposure or this razor. Many other, more expensive, razors expose a lot of blade. It's all a matter of taste. If you're looking to try a DE then you can absolutely start with this one. My other razor, pictured at the top of this article, is a Merkur 34c, which costs about $35 at Amazon. It's great and offers more room for error. If the price is steep, Maggard Razors' products are by all accounts comparable. Several design options are available for only $16.

BLADES: As recommended above, whether you go through Maggard or elsewhere, get a blade sampler, find the brand that works for you, purchase in bulk, save. Once you've used that brand of blade for a few months and developed your shaving technique, you may be inclined to experiment with other brands. Go for it. Revisit the unused blades from your sampler or get a new sampler pack. Go one week with your old brand and one week with the new brand for an accurate comparison.

examples of sample packs of shaving creams and soaps
Cream/Soap Samples: Strop Shoppe, Knockout, Queen Charlotte, Al's

LUBRICATING AGENT: Whether you choose soap or cream or some formulation of oils, this is called wet shaving and things need to be slick. The widely available foams and gels that come in pressurized cans not only contain all manner of mystery ingredients but are categorically inferior to an artfully crafted shaving product. That being said I've shaved my face using only coconut oil with extremely satisfying results. Other people find that raw coconut oil on their face dries it out like a flaky desert. You don't have to dive in head first here. [The economic benefits of wet shaving are quickly nullified if the initiate enters into a buying frenzy of products, a common pitfall. Mind you, having one or two backups for essential items is a wise move. If you drop your razor on the ground and it breaks halfway through a shave, you're going to look pretty silly for the rest of the day unless you've got a backup.] The wise convert will purchase a sampler of soaps or creams or both. Whether you choose a soap or a cream is largely a matter of preference and will also be affected by how hard or soft the water in your home is. [If you have trouble building a lather, the hardness of your water should be the first thing you suspect. Get a jug of distilled lather and try using that to make your lather.] There are various suppliers of both. Maggard and Garry's Sample Shop are great first stops. Strop Shoppe will send you free samples of their soaps. [I don't live in the UK and haven't ordered from here but Man Machine provides samples across the pond.] Pay attention to the ingredients. Some people have skin reactions to products scented with essential oils, some prefer synthetic fragrances. Some people find products with certain other ingredients dry their skin out. Once you are ready to purchase a whole unit of soap or cream, I have used and loved products from the following artisans:

AL'S SHAVING: The best shave creams made to brush lather. Natural scents. $$

BARRISTER & MANN: My favorite soap. Intriguing updates of classic scents, mostly. $

HOW TO GROW A MOUSTACHE: Vegan. Lather champion. The new paradigm. $

KNOCKOUT SHAVE: Al's cream in upgraded scents. Best of the best. $$$

QUEEN CHARLOTTE: Exquisite shave soaps, creams & more. Highly recommended. $$

*I've written articles about B&M, HTGaM & KO products.

example of synthetic bristle shaving brush
HJM Synthetic Brush

BRUSH: You need something to turn your soap or cream into a lather. That something is a brush. I've only owned and used one brush, the Mühle HJM synthetic, which costs about $26. Since I've only ever used that one brush, I have no idea what I'm talking about when it comes to other brushes. Here is why I made the decision to go with this synthetic: Basically, they don't shave badgers to make brushes out of their hair but badger hair brushes seem to be considered top-of-the-line. Boar- and horse-hair brushes, possibly more humane options, are often regarded as inferior, probably for no other reason than that they are less expensive. There is sometimes, I guess, somewhat of an "odor" factor for the first week of use with a new brush made from any animal hair. I can't stand the smell of a wet dog, so I figured an effing badger must smell repulsive. I looked at the Reddit-recommended kabuki brush in a store and walked away without purchasing it. It's clearly not designed for lathering purposes and I doubt it would stand up to much of my abuse, though many other users do have much success with it. [I have a tendency to break everything I own. Guitars, amplifiers, belts, belt buckles, boots... Ask any of my friends.] The HJM synthetic brush is frequently praised as being on par with silvertip badger brushes, the best of the best. Again, I wouldn't know. What I do know is that this synthetic brush is great and I haven't broken it.

Going with the cheapest of all my recommendations, that should still keep you under $50 invested in the essentials. Of course, there are a couple more non-essentials that you're going to want to have. Post-shave, you will probably want to apply an astringent and you will definitely want to apply a moisturizer. Alum blocks and witch hazel (or both) are nourishing astringents/skin treatments. I use both. [Either or both could be problematic for your skin type. Never use a new product on your face for the first time on a day you have something public planned, even if you have never had a skin reaction to a product before. There's a first time for everything. Spot test new products on the inside of the elbow or behind the ear.] Thayer's offers many varieties of witch hazel, with and without alcohol. I can personally recommend the alcohol-free Aloe Vera variety. Styptic products are good to have on hand for when you do nick yourself. There will be some stinging when styptics (and alum) are applied to nicks gained through poor angle or lack of attention. Let that be a lesson to you. Pacific Shaving Co.'s Nick Stick is less messy than traditional styptic pencils and works just as well. If you haven't already found a moisturizer that you like, well, you definitely aren't still reading this but give Three Butters a try. (It's got a serious but pleasant scent.)

Next, you're headed to mantic59's YouTube channel or blog, Sharpologist, to learn how to prep for a shave, build lather, consider the grain of your hair growth [Hint: you probably don't want to shave against the grain when you're first learning.], decide how many passes to use and many other tips and tricks, including what kind of funny faces you can make while you shave in order to get those stubborn parts as smooth as a baby's butt. There is also Leisureguy's Guide to Gourmet Shaving, which I have not read but many others follow as gospel. There is a new podcast, Moustache & Blade, by the How to Grow a Moustache crew, featuring many people mentioned in this article as guests, covering all-things-man, a veritable audio extension of the website. For any troubles, those newly converted would do well to seek advice at /r/wicked_edge. Reddit has some dark corners but I assure you the folks at w_e answer the same old questions multiple times a day with courtesy and understanding. /u/leisureguy, the author of Leisureguy's Guide to Gourmet Shaving, is quite participatory at wicked_edge.

A sage bit of wisdom from my own experience: if you find you are consistently getting poor results, try doing everything you've been doing except using cold water: You may soak your brush in warm water, as usual, to facilitate loading. But build lather in a room temperature or cooled mug. Splash your beard with cold water before applying the lather. Shave as you normally would, using cold water for everything you normally use warm. Your shave will be more forgiving. If you cut yourself, blood vessels are constricted by the cold temperature, so less blood. The skin is nice and tight. The bracing cold seems to help with attentive angle supervision.

Thank you for your time. Are there any questions?


P.S. I'd like to thank all of the people and companies whom I recommend in this article for doing the good work that they do. Douglas Smythe, of How to Grow a Moustache, and Leisureguy were especially helpful when asked to read this article in advance of it being published. Barrister & Mann's offer of a 10% discount code was a pleasant and unexpected surprise. Gentlemen, thank you.

[DISCLAIMER: This article has willfully ignored electric razors because they are an expensive pain in the ass, requiring a ridiculous amount of maintenance to keep in optimal operating condition, and impossible to use for certain skin types for whom they provide a painful and bloody shaving experience.]


  1. Great article. Brushes of animal origin (badger, boar, badger+boar, horse, horse+badger, horse+boar: brushes are available in each category) do sometimes have an odor on first use---in my experience, about 10-15% of time. Generally, there's no odor, and even when there is, the odor ebbs quickly with daily use and will be gone in a week.

    I mention this only for those who might be reluctant to try an animal-sourced brush. Omega boar brushes are a great bargain (wet brush knot well before you shower and let brush sit; when the shower's over, the brush is ready) and really excellent, particularly as they break in and become softer on the face over time. The "wet before the shower" approach should also be used with horsehair brushes, but is totally optional with badger and does not apply to synthetics.

    I used my Ecotools Kabuki brush this morning: it really does a fine job, but of course the No. 6 horsehair brush is the bargain: $2.45 for a quite good little brush.

  2. Tyler... I love you. I've been planning on getting Paul a nice old fashioned shave kit for Christmas and have spent MONTHS going through website after website trying to find the best option. This single handedly solved all of my problems and answered all of my questions. EXCELLENT read.

  3. Tyler,
    I recently started wet shaving (yesterday, in fact!), and while I did tons of research prior to selecting my tools, I still wish I would have seen this article prior just because of the wealth of information. Excellent post, good info, very informative. Thanks!