Shaving, for many men today, is a chore. It’s something like brushing your teeth. It’s a thing that you do every day and are happy just to get it over with. Except for the discomfort, the bad results, and the ever growing expense of buying razors and throwing them away. Then there’s there promise of a return to a better, golden past where men were men and shaving was done with razor sharp, naked steel. Shave like your great-granddad! I don’t know about your great-grandpa, but mine wore a long beard. Probably because shaving was a pain even back then.
If you spend much time on sites like this one or watch videos about shaving on youtube.com you might be a little put off at how much some of us get into shaving. It has become a ritual, a hobby. We proudly share photos of our bathroom counters covered with razors, blade packs, brushes, mugs, and endless lotions, balms, and skin treats. I love it, but even I admit it’s a bit nuts.
But what if you only want a really great shave? I’m here to tell you that you can get that superb “Baby Bottom Smooth” shave, actually save money and time, and feel great without making shaving your new pastime. If you want a hobby, go for it—I’m right there with you. But if you really want to shave like your grandfather did, you can cut corners, save money, and look sharp. That’s what grandpa did and shaving definitely wasn’t his hobby.
Shaving can be divided into three categories in their order of importance: technique, tools, and skin care. The most important of these is your technique. Get your technique right and you can overcome the shortcoming of your tools (razors and blades) to some degree. And the skin preps, shaving creams, balms and assorted goodies are mainly there for the pleasure of using them. It boils down to this: learn to shave first, then worry about everything else later.
Improve Your Shaving Technique
Technique is the way that you shave. It doesn’t matter that much what you’re using to shave with, but how you shave will make the biggest difference in your results. The problem for most is us is that we were never taught how to shave properly, because our own fathers weren’t doing it well. The advent of the disposable razor helped to shape the shaving experience of the last couple of generations, trying to make shaving quick and easy. Just scrape off those whiskers, douse yourself in alcohol, and get on with the day. That approach does not give you a good shave.
Want the best shave possible? Go to a barber. The best possible shave is achieved by using a finely honed straight razor in expert hands. But do you want to be this expert? It will take training and lots of practice. And that means practicing on your own face using a frightening sharp edged instrument. I’m not saying not to do it. Just don’t expect it to be easy at first. And if you do it, please get some help and advice.
I recently had a barber shave and I believe she (yes, it was a female barber) used a Gillette Fusion cartridge razor, not a great razor by any means. But she knew how to shave a face. It was a relaxing, luxurious experience and my skin felt great afterwards. It was like I didn’t have a beard at all. Find a barber who knows how to properly use a straight razor and you’re in for a treat.
Before you go out and buy lots of expensive razors and other goodies you really should learn how to shave correctly. Most guys that I know use disposable razors and do one pass, against the grain, and are done. That’s a lousy way to shave. They don’t seem to realize that the hair on their face and neck grows in different directions. If you have the patience and the right mentors (including videos online) you can learn to give yourself a great shave using a straight razor. But with very little effort you can get a great shave from a safety razor or even a disposable, if you use them the right way.
Here’s a tip: if you are currently shaving with a disposable razor, keep using it until you master the three-pass shaving technique. Only then move to a double edged or straight razor.
Step 1: Get to know your face and beard. Let your beard grow for two or three days, then run your fingertips over your face and neck. When you move your fingers in one direction you will slide over the hairs smoothly, but when you move them in the opposite direction you’ll feel the hairs resist and prickle your fingers. That’s the “against the grain” or ATG direction. Note how the direction changes with the planes of your face. For me, the hair on my cheeks grow down towards the floor, but from the point of my chin along my jaw line the hair grows back towards my shoulders. To shave well you need to intimately know your own face. Park yourself in front of a mirror and explore your face with your eyes and fingers.
Here’s a tip: when you think that you’ve had a great shave, wait for 24 hours, then run your fingertips over your face. Feel and note where the hair is more prickly. That’s where you’ll need to concentrate when you shave the next time.
Step 2: Stop scraping your face. One of the biggest mistakes that men make while shaving is to press the razor into their skin and pull hard. They use their other hand to pull and stretch the skin and bear down with the razor. Stop that. You are literally scraping the skin off with your beard, slicing into your face. This is what leads to razor burns and rashes as well as ingrown hairs. Shaving takes a light touch. That’s what you’ll learn if you get a barber shave. They let the razor do the work.
Unfortunately, a plastic disposable razor doesn’t weigh much, especially the head of the razor. That’s why we press them down hard. That pressing is causing your pain and trouble. Even with a plastic razor using a light touch will give you a better shave. If you progress to a safety razor (also called a double edged razor), you’ll find that the increased weight of the razor’s head will make shaving with a light touch much easier and effective.
There’s much to learn, including the proper angle that the blade should touch the skin, how to make short, smooth strokes, and how to hold your razor as you change directions with the planes of your face. Don’t expect to master it all in your first shave. It will probably take you two or three weeks to learn to shave this way.
Here’s a tip: If your face is ravaged from your shaving technique, try a light touch for a couple of weeks shaving only with the grain and let your face recover. That’s what dermatologists recommend for shaving, but dermatologists aren’t particularly interested in close shaves. Let your skin recover before trying for a closer, baby bottom smooth shave.
Step 3: Learn the three-pass shave technique. Don’t worry about getting the “best” razor or shaving cream yet. Stick with what you’ve been using and learn to improve your shaving technique. This simple process will dramatically improve your shaving results and it won’t add much time or effort to your daily shave. Do everything the same, except when it’s time to put the razor to your face remember which way your beard grows and do three separate passes over you skin. Re-apply your shaving cream between each pass.
And remember: use a very light touch!
• WTG: With The Grain. That means shave first in the direction that your hair grows. Shift the razor as your beard direction changes.
• XTG: Across The Grain. Lightly pass the razor across the direction that your hair grows.
• ATG: Against The Grain. This last pass will get you the results that you’re looking for without the pain.
As you make these passes avoid pressing the razor into your skin. You can use your other hand to gently move the skin in places, for example, pull up to move the skin that sits along your jaw line up so that it’s flat along your cheek and easier to shave, but don’t pull it taut! Gentle, easy, and soft, please.
These light passes will gently cut the hairs of your beard, making them shorter with each pass AND will protect your skin. Learn to shave this way and you’ll be amazed at how much better your face looks and feels.
Choose Your Shaving Tools
If you’re looking to save money by changing the way you shave you’ll need to exercise caution. At first glance switching from disposables to double edge or safety razors seems much less expensive, except, of course, for the “startup costs.” And it’s greener, right? If you really want to make a green impact, stop shaving altogether. But yes, reducing what you throw away is a great step forward towards a greener personal life. And yes, perhaps a bit less expensive.
The Safety (Double Edged) Razor
Double edge razor blades are much, much cheaper than disposable razors. If I track only my spending on blades I spend only about a third of what I was spending on disposable razors. If I buy in bulk I can reduce my costs to less than ten percent of disposables. That’s a big savings and it can make a real and effective “green” impact.
And, of course, you have to responsibly dispose of those used blades. The farmhouse where I grew up had a slot in the back of the medicine cabinet where you could “bank” your used blades. I imagine that the space between the wall studs was stacked with blades. You yourself can collect them in a container for safe disposal or recycling. Check with your local trash and recycling for their requirements. You might also find a local healthcare provider who will allow you to occasionally dispose of your blades with their “sharps” and medical waste.
But that’s just the blades. You’ll need to select a razor (some call them “shavers”). Safety razors have been made for over a hundred years and with a few exceptions, you can use most of them with modern blades. In many ways, razors manufactured up through the 1960’s are superior to today’s razors. They’re also becoming highly collectible—another danger of the “hobby” of shaving.
There are many excellent safety razors available today and many different price points. You’ll find terrific razors available for under fifty US dollars, but there’s no limit to what you can spend.
Here’s a tip: don’t shave every day. I get a great shave after two days beard growth. The second day I still look presentable and most people won’t notice, at least until late in the second day. Let your face rest between close shaves, but still moisturize!
If you want to save money, first check with your family and see if anyone has an “heirloom” safety razor sitting in a drawer somewhere. If there’s none to be had, check with antique stores and flea markets. There are many “finds” in these places and since many of these razors are made of brass and stainless steel or plated in chrome they’ll clean up like new with a soak and a little tender loving care.
The Straight Razor
A really great straight razor will last for generations. I know men who are shaving with their grandfathers’ and great-grandfathers’ blades. I purchased a really fine straight razor, a C. V. Heljestrand MK #4, in the early 1980’s for next to nothing and expect to pass it along to a favored grandchild sometime in the far future. Even if you spend a couple of hundred dollars to purchase a straight razor today, that cost can be spread out over your entire lifetime, making it even cheaper than double-edged razor blades. That is, if you don’t count the costs of maintaining the blade.
To maintain your blade you’ll need a strop and sharpening stones to hone it. Or you’ll need to send your razor out to a professional for occasional sharpening. You’ll also need to oil and clean it. It takes skill and practice to maintain a straight razor. I think that it’s worth knowing how to do and for many it’s a relaxing practice. And on the plus side, when the zombie apocalypse rolls around, you’ll be among the clean-shaven.
Straight razors are another area where you can do well shopping in antique shops and flea markets, but it’s a good idea to get an education about razors, manufacturers, and blade conditions before you set out. I’d advise buying a new blade, one that’s “shave ready” and leave shopping for antique blade for later in your progression to shaving obsession. But don’t skimp on buying a straight razor. I’d advise to not focus too much on fancy scales (the handles of the blade) or beautifully etched blades. Shop for a blade that can maintain an edge.
Caring for Your Skin—What You Really Need and What’s Just For Fun
For those of us who have gone a little nuts about shaving our bathroom counters are beginning to look like a 1930’s barber shop. But is it all necessary? Do you need to whip up a lather with a badger hair brush in a ceramic mug? How many balms, lotions, and creams do you really need?
Here’s my answer: two. All that you really need is a passible shaving cream or gel and a good skin moisturizer.
I don’t see much benefit from a pre-shave skin routine and a multi-step after-shave process. It can be highly pleasurable, but it’s not really necessary. While the skill of whipping up shaving soap can be fun and rewarding, it’s not a requirement to get a close shave.
Here’s a tip: throw out that alcohol-based aftershave. It will dry out your skin. Use a moisturizer instead. You don’t need the sting.
I use an aloe-based shaving gel to shave. It’s inexpensive and gives me a super-slick surface as well as conditions my skin. You can purchase 100% aloe gel cheaply and it works great. After my shave I use a facial moisturizer, a cheap but good one. And I use it every day, even when I don’t shave, including application first thing in the morning and before bed at night. I use a “store brand” lotion with a 15 SPF rating, giving my face a little protection from the sun and UV rays.
I’m not saying don’t go out and buy expensive lotions and nice smelling creams. They’re wonderful to use. But they won’t do much more for you than the cheap lotion that you can pick up at your local store. If you do buy fancy and expensive creams be sure that you understand that they’re a luxury, not a necessity.
Enjoy The Close Shave, But Know What’s Important
It is deeply satisfying to learn a new skill. Shaving is one of those neglected areas of life where a few changes can make a big difference in how you look and feel. You can save money without going completely nuts and making it into a hobby. Just remember these three things: first learn how to shave, then find the right shaving tools for you, and finally learn how to properly care for your skin.
Everything else is above and beyond your basic needs. Collecting razors, stocking up on interesting soaps and lotions, even perfecting your shaving cabinet can be fun and rewarding, but at that point it’s no longer about the shave.