What Is The Best Shaving Soap?

shaving soap

[Updated February, 2015!]

It seems like the old-school shaving world has been buried in soaps lately. It used to be easy to tell which were the great ones and which ones left something to be desired.  But now that they are everywhere how can you tell good from bad?  Let’s take a look at what goes into a good shaving soap and see which ones come out ahead of the others.

Anatomy Of A Really Good Shaving Soap

Wikipedia says shave soaps…”differs slightly from normal bath soap in that both potassium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide are used as saponification agents rather than just sodium hydroxide alone. Traditionally, tallow has been a popular ingredient in shaving soaps and is still in use in some traditional products. Other oils such as coconut oil, palm oil, and olive oil are often used in shaving soap, but such oils are thought among shaving traditionalists to often produce an inferior product.” (emphasis mine)

Wow, citation please?

Ingredients

The fact is, shaving soaps are traditionally thought of as tallow-based or glycerin-based.  And the old school conventional wisdom says tallow-based shave soaps are superior.  But that’s just not the case anymore.  There are tallow-based shave soaps that are nowhere near “best” (*cough*WilliamsMugSoap*cough*).  And there are glycerin-based soaps that are excellent.  And vice-versa.  It all depends on the mix of ingredients, their ratios, and their quality.  The fact is that various oils such as shea butter, palm oil, olive oil, and coconut oil–in the correct proportions–can improve the performance of a shaving soap.  More recently, kokum butter and argan oil have been introduced successfully in shaving soaps.

Processes

Another variable in the making of shaving soap is the way it’s processed.  Supposedly “top shelf” shaving soaps are usually triple-milled, making it much more dense than a normal soap.  Triple-milling does make a soap last longer but the process itself does not make a soap “best” (or even “good”).  A hard soap can be either tallow-based or glycerin-based; it’s just part of the manufacturing process.  Similarly, soft soap (sometimes called “Italian style” soap) has a putty-like consistancy but is not necessarily indicative of the quality of the product.

Check some of the related posts listed at the end of this article for more information on ingredients and processes in soap-making.

Shaving Soap Recommendations

So what are the “best” shaving soaps?  To be sure, there are many excellent shave soaps, mostly from artisans making small batches with quality ingredients.  Let me propose a set of criteria for determining what rises to the top:

  1. Ease of lathering using water with a variety of mineral content (in other words it works well in “soft” water and “hard” water).
  2. Superior performance (based on my own experience and what I have read on review sites and forums)–with both “cushion” and “lubrication” better than most.
  3. Available in a variety of scents (you won’t use even the best soap if you don’t care for it’s smell) or no scent at all.
  4. Availability (from more than just a single artisan website).
  5. Time on the market, and price.

Remember, “Your Mileage May Vary” with these recommendations!  Although there is a large majority that like these soaps there will always be some for which a soap does not work as well.  In no particular order:

DR Harris

The original DR Harris line of shave soaps are triple milled, tallow-based, and available in bowl or stick.  This may be among the last of the “old school” tallow-based shaving soaps from one of the “major” wet shaving brands.  Avoid the “Naturals” line that is glycerin-based and not nearly as good as the original line.

Almond (available in Mahogany Bowl / Beech Bowl / Refill Puck/ Shaving Stick ) – The scent has been described as a somewhat weak almond fragrance with “warm” and “woody” notes.

Arlington (available in Mahogany Bowl / Beech Bowl / Refill Puck / Shaving Stick) – The scent is described as a somewhat strong mix of citrus and fern.  Arlington is a favorite of mine.

Lavender (available in Mahogany Bowl / Beech Bowl  / Refill Puck / Shaving Stick) – This is another somewhat weak scent that some (though not all by any stretch) have said has a bit of an “artificial” element to it. No one complains about the performance though. :)

Marlborough (available in Mahogany Bowl/ Beech Bowl / Refill Puck / Shaving Stick) – Many expect this to be a tobacco-like scent because of its name but it is really a mix of woods, particularly fern and cedar.

Windsor (available in Mahogany Bowl / Beech Bowl  / Refill Puck  / Shaving Stick) – We’ve talked about Windsor before, described as a “nice citrusy, leathery scent with a bit of pepper and vetyver, and patchouli.”

RazoRock (Italian Barber)

RazoRock, the “house product line” from Italian Barber, is a set of products made mostly by old-school Italian artisans.   Although there are a number of product varieties, I think the one of the best and most consistant performing (for the criteria outline earlier) is their “La Famiglia” (The Family) line, a soft (sometimes called “Italian style”) shave soap line:

Nonno Michelino Sandalwood: a “sandalwood” scent is always a bit of a gamble, as there are a number of different variations.  HERE is Wikipedia’s entry on sandalwood for more information.  This one is described as an “Italian sandalwood,” and “inspired by enveloping oriental woods.”

Cumba Cheech, described as Orange Blossom & Jasmine.

Green Tobacco, described as, well, young tobacco :) .  Not like pipe or cigar tobacco, more “spicy” or “musky.”

As with many artisan shaving soaps, other scents come and go.  My personal favorite–currently out of stock–is Don Marco.  With the scent of Bergamot Neroli…”think Orange Creamsicle” according to the official description.  But I think it is much more complex than that simple description.  Citrus, yes, but underlying notes of spiciness that somehow give it an Italian twist.  You can find RazoRock soaps on Amazon, West Coast Shaving, Chicago Shaving, Straight Razor Designs, as well as the Italian Barber website.

Honorable Mentions

Insanely expensive, very difficult to get, and often out of stock, Martin de Candre shaving soap is at the top of many shaver’s “best” list.  Originally in a single “Fougere” scent they have recently “branched out” with some variations.

No “best soap” list would be complete without mentioning Mitchell’s Wool Fat Shaving Soap.  Widely available but only in one (mild) scent, some consider it the only shave soap they will use.

Similarly, Tabac Shaving Soap is another shaving soap that is very popular and widely available but only in a single scent.  Although it has a reputation of a top-shelf performer, it’s tobacco flower scent usually gets a “love it or hate it” reaction.

Institut Karite is a shaving soap that has been around for a while, albeit “under the radar.”  Those that have tried it love its performance.  The single scent is generally regarded as “mild” and “powdery” and predominantly “soapy” though some have said there are notes of licorice or floral in the mix.

Arko is reasonably widely available and ridiculously cheap, though in a scent many describe in less-than-glowing terms.  Still, it performs almost as well as much more expensive products.  Available in a Soap Stick and a more traditional Bowl.

Cella (AKA “Cella Crema da Barba All’Olio Di Mandorla”) is a single-note scent (almond) soft shave soap that has gotten very high marks among those who have tried it, including Sharpoligist’s own Andy Tarnoff.

Strop Shoppe “Special Edition” shave soaps are “old school” tallow-based shaving soaps that have an excellent reputation.

 

Related Posts:

Anatomy Of A Shaving Cream

6 Tallow Myths

Amazon’s Best Selling Shaving Soaps

5 Shaving Soaps That Shaving Cream Guys Should Try

Artisans: The Heart of Traditional Wet Shaving

 

If you use a line of shaving soaps that match the criteria but aren’t listed be sure to leave a comment defending your favorite!  I plan to update this post as products arrive and leave the market.

 

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Comments

  1. says

    Mark have you tried any of the Stropp Shoppe shaving soaps recently? They don’t seem to be available in the UK yet but I have seen a lot of people say very good things about them.

  2. James says

    Mark…I’m a bit surprised that you left off shea butter as an important soap ingredient, which is the base for the Institute Karite soap in your honorable mention list. If it hasn’t made it on your list of soaps to try, I suggest another french soap with a shea butter base, L’Occitane’s Cade, which has a pleasant juniper/cedar scent.

      • says

        I bought last week an aftershave balm which contains sheabutter, and I find it very interesting.

        I just wouldnt know exactly what makes sheabutter so special, but hey its probably something like woolfat, it sounds nice ;)

        But I’m really a big fan of cheap locally avaible shaving soaps and creams and one of the best local shaving soaps is the Wilkinson Sword Shave Stick from Germany I think.

        But from France I really love the Monsavon shaving soap which got a Lavender scent :) But if you ask me an mass-produced shaving soap can be as good as an artisan shaving soap, it just doesn’t have that exclusive scent.

  3. Rick says

    I, too, hold HTGAM Synergy in the highest regards. But, I recently just bought a round puck of Imperial Shave Soap (not to be confused with the face/shave bar), and have found its protection and slickness to surpass Synergy. Of course, everyone’s mileage may (and will) vary. But for me, it is the best all-natural, vegetable-based glycerin soap I’ve used. It does not qualify for your list, simply because they only offer an unscented option. But for sheer lather-ability and performance, it is in my top 3. I think you would be well-served to try it out!

  4. Seamus M says

    I have recently tried 2 soaps from new upstart Artisan WetShaveObsesssion and mark my words it is only a matter of time before their soaps become a regular mention in conversations like this. Impressed is putting it lightly and I am not easily impressed.
    I have their Zaro and their Baywood soaps and they perform better than any soap I have ever used, including several mentioned here. They are relatively new but are quickly making a name and reputation for themselves on the forums.

  5. says

    I like green mountain soaps — triple milled, small production, tallow based, made with bentonite clay, online availability. Definitely should give them a try given the care they put in.

    • says

      Chris, as I said in the article there are a lot of artisan shave soaps that perform very well. But GM, like many other artisan products, are not widely available.

  6. says

    Hi!
    I too would like to add a few products to this list that I have found to be amazing products in my shave reviews (“nick shaves” on YouTube).

    First of all, from artisan soap makers – Mike’s Natural, Barrister and Mann, and Stirling. All 3 of these have been top performers in terms of ease of loading, ease of lathering, quality of the lather (slickness and density), and post-shave. Additionally they all have great ingredient lists and fall within a great price range.

    Finally, Arko. I know that it may not have the best post-shave – but in all other categories it excels! It has also been around for a long time and is super cheap.

    Just my thoughts! – Nick

    • says

      Nick those products are very good but I do not think they meet all the criteria I set (except perhaps Stirling. I may add them later). If Mike’s and B&M were more widely available they may have made the list.

      • Chuck says

        I agree with Nick: the quality of B&M, Mike’s and Stirling is really high. They blow away most of the soaps on your list for me. They are available only from the artisan, but I’m not sure why that’s a big issue. They are essentially as available to anyone who uses the internet as any of the others listed.

  7. Matthew says

    No soap list of bests could be complete without Martin de Candre. Have yet to find a better soap. StropShoppe, la shaving soap come very close perhaps equal but since we are using the superlative “best”.

    I suppose it isn’t available from many other distributors other than Jason, but the ease of clicking a mouse on their website as opposed to the days pre internet meets that criteria for me. And now they have a lovely fougere!

    • says

      Yes but it is available in only one scent and it did not work really well for me and my hard water, so that kept it off the list. It is also insanely expensive. Still, I know a lot of people really love MdC so perhaps it might go in the Honorable Mention list….

  8. Jeremy says

    I will echo the praise for HTGAM, I own both the Cavendish and Cedar/Lavender and am very impressed with performance and fragrance. I am surprised to see that Taylor of Old Bond Street didn’t make the list. Their Eaton College collection is great.

  9. OldManDon says

    I have only tried a few so far but my personal choice so far is Proraso -White Tub. It’s created for sensitive skin with limited fragrance (I also have allergies).

  10. says

    Great review Mark! Thanks.

    Nice to see that the TFS-products stand out again. We’re happy that we already have their latest soaps in stock. They released some of their best soaps with stronger scents and with base oils to better take care of sensitive skin.

    • says

      Sorry to ask, but where was TFS mentioned? Or is it also sold under a different brand name?

      As I don’t see TFS mentioned? Or is it only the name off one off the many TFS soaps?

      • says

        Hi Wesley,

        The La Famiglia line from Razorock is from TFS. There are not that many TFS soaps. There are just a few scents and these scents have not been changed, just the base oils and the amounts that were used, that’s why TFS calls their own soaps “forte” in their linea intenso.

  11. Stu says

    I love the Tonsorial Bond soap from NY Shaving Company. Still one of my favorites, and a great ASB that pairs with it.

  12. stephen says

    Thanks for the info. I’m giving DR Harris Arlington a try. You have a good track record for me based on your excellent suggestion of Castle Forbes Lavender cream. Love that stuff.

    I cannot help wondering whether your co-workers know you are a famous shaving expert. Do people constantly approach you at work for shaving advice?

    • says

      They know but they don’t care. I can’t really blame them though, my work is in a field totally unrelated to grooming or shaving (telecommunications).

  13. MatloffM says

    I am not sure what you mean by widely available. If the artisan has a web site (which they all do), then the soap is available world wide. As an example, I recently started using Catie’s Bubbles in the orange scent and find it a truly superior shaving soap.

    The other criterion, time on the market, is tricky as many old line products have reformulated for reasons both good and bad. The new formulation may not be around any longer than some artisan’s product.

    Finally, some shavers, myself included, will not use a soap that contains animal products. At one time this was a handicap, but today many soaps are free of animal products and many of these soaps are artisan products.

    I feel any soap that is available via the internet and has been around for about a year, should be recommended or included in the honorable mention list if the performance and scent warrant it. Exposure is how new products become old line products.

    • says

      Hi Matt– With respect to ‘widely available’ I am trying to mitigate the problem of an artisan having shipping trouble or not keeping enough inventory. For example if an artisan happens to go on vacation for a week (or a month) then nothing gets shipped. If there is inventory in more than one place there is less of a chance of something like that happening.

      I agree that time on the market can be tricky and that is why I lumped it in along with price as the last point. I give it less weight than other criteria.

      The animal products concern is something I didn’t think of. As you said today many soaps are free of animal products so it might be a non-issue but I will definitely ponder the problem when I next update this post.

      Great comments!

  14. @Kieran says

    Some soaps here I have never tried before. I shall have to expand my horizons, thanks for the suggestions.

  15. says

    Interesting review, my good man.
    My choice probably fails on at least one of your criteria points, however I couldn’t let a review like this pass without mentioning the absolutely wonderful Mama Bears range of soaps. I frequently use these soaps professionally on my customers as well as at home, and I have to say that, for all round performance, Mama Bears soaps are up there with the very best I’ve tried.
    ‘Dragon’s Blood’ and ‘Frankincense & Myrrh’ are my two favourite scents.
    Whilst the ‘labelling’ on Mama Bears products may not be the most professionally designed or printed, as you know Mark, the actual product is quite superb!
    Wonder if Village Barber could upscale these magnificent products for the European market??………….

  16. Miscer says

    Misc Wet Shaving Crew checking in!

    Great article. Will be checking out HTGAM and RR XXX in the near future.

  17. RaggedClaws says

    I have several friendly disagreements with this review. Among the criteria, #4 and #5 basically rule out the possibility of finding “the best” at #’s 1 and 2. Why does availability and price even enter into a discussion of what is best? It’s the best full stop, not best value or most convenient to purchase. The list of honorable mentions notably lacks Martin de Candre (available in three scents), Strop Shoppe (available at menessentials.ca), Barrister and Mann (available at maggardrazors.com), Los Angeles Shaving Soap Co. (available at razorbladesandmore.com), among others. Including RazoRock PLUS an honorable mention for a single RazoRock product while excluding other obvious notables smacks of bias. Razorock makes fine soaps, don’t get me wrong, but certainly not worth mentioning twice at the expense of B&M Roam and Strop Shoppe tallow editions. Then there is the questionable inclusion of HTGAM Synergy where Martin de Candre absent. MdC is, by their own admission, the soap that set the bar for the other artisans. Dividing soaps into “best at” categories or rethinking the criteria for the list is, I think, in “the best” interest.

  18. Jason says

    Great review Mark. My personal favorites from Razorock are the Argan oil soaps such as the King of the Castle soaps, XX and San Valentino. I also love Don Marco and in case you didn’t know there are still places you can find it in stock. I found it at http://www.menessentials.com.

    • PatrickA51 says

      Mark
      You did an excellent review, but why didn’t you review the Stirling Soap Company line of Shaving Soaps. They run circles around some of the soaps that you reviewed. JMHO

  19. Jane says

    Well, I have come to choose squirrelsoaps for my body (also shaving that is), my toddler and for clothes also. These have only natural ingredients and I feel they are of good quality. Got them online for just 3$ a piece.

  20. Matt Hilton says

    I was surprised you didn’t mention Proraso. I am off to purchase some DR Harris Arlington, though.

    • says

      You will not be dismayed. Arlington is also one of my favorites. Almost impossible to describe “fern” but once you smell it, you’ll be like “Oh yeah, fern”. Nice crisp green scent.

  21. Richard says

    I have tried many of the listed soaps mentioned both in the article and in the comments and your recommendations are spot on. I enjoy trying new soaps and one that has made it’s way into my den is from Cold River Soap Works. I believe they are a new player in the market but one you should be aware of. I have used their Classic shaving soap, it’s fantastic and rivals any of the other soaps I’ve used.

  22. says

    I want to mention something I’ve discovered about HTGAM soaps. Originally I had tried mug lathering with a badger brush (a very nice Duke II in best badger). I had mixed results, sometimes ending up with a somewhat clumpy meringue-like lather. At times I wasn’t able to get a solid 3-pass shave, as the lather would start breaking down by the time I got to passd #3.

    I have since gotten a Semogue boar brush, and use it to face lather exclusively. This is where HTGAM shines. Every single time I lather up with this combination, I get a super-rich, super-thing, and long lasting lather. The brush easily gets engorged while loading on the puck, and when you spend the time to lather it up on your face… forget it. You’ll have a hard time reaching for any other soaps/creams. It’s *really* good stuff. And the scents are all phenominal. Douglas Smyth really knows what he is doing. No doubt HTGAM belongs on this list.

  23. gary says

    Mark,
    great work as always. Wondered what you may think of African Black Soap Shave Butter Crème. I finally gave it a try this morning and seriously, I wasn’t that disappointed! I’m not a big fan of the scent, it’s ok, and wasn’t sure what to expect. First thing I noticed was it DOESN’T lather. That’s ok with me if I can still use my brush, or if I just use it like Cremo, a small amount to the face before applying my regular lather. I only used the product this morning, I’d say 2 almonds not just one. The slickness wasn’t 100% but it wasn’t bad either. My Edwin Jagger 89 glided effortlessly. Used a Shark blade this time. So there you have it, wondered if you’ve ever tried the stuff. Read mixed reactions on Badger & Blade. I got this at Target for $8.

  24. gary says

    p.s.
    the one thing I really like about the African Black Soap Shave Butter Crème are the ingredients; all natural and organic.

  25. markw says

    I recently purchased a 3 pack of the Taconic Shave Soaps on Amazon.(Bay Rum, Eucalyptus Mint and Lime). I have only used the Lime soap so far, but I can tell you this is a high quality soap. The lather is really rich and the razor glide is the best I have experienced with any soap. The scent is pleasant, and my skin feels nice and moist after shaving. I think there is a contender here that you did not put on your list of top soaps!

  26. Andrei says

    Is there any danger of men turning into women and vice-versa? Realy wierd looking at men talking about soap…

  27. says

    Does the tobacco one really smell nice? Haha, can’t imagine it being a desirable smell but you’ve described it quite nicely.

  28. Graham says

    Much respect to you Mark, but the prime function of a shaving soap is to allow a great shave. And nothing does that better than Arko. And the fact that it is incredibly cheap shouldn’t allow it to be forgotten.

    By the way, the little green Palmolive sticks are nearly as good.

    Keep up the good work.

  29. Roland says

    I would like to share this list. Copy paste this and safe it!

    SOAP
    ———-
    Dr Dittmar
    Klar Klasik
    L’Ocitane
    Institut Karité
    Pre De Provence
    Savon du Barbier
    Martin De Candre
    Calani (lanonlin & sheep’s milk)
    Valobra
    Tcheon Fung Sing
    RazoRock
    The Strop Shoppe
    La Saponeria Artigiana
    Mitchell’s Wool Fat
    Mike’s
    Jabonman
    Queen Charlotte
    Stirling
    Dr Harris
    Petal Pusher Fancies
    Mystic Water

    CREAM
    ————-

    I Coloniali Rhubarb
    Simpsons Luxury
    Truefitt and Hill Ultimate Comfort
    Fitjar
    Musgo Real
    Castle Forbes
    Acca Kappa
    ———————-
    Honerable mentions: Taylor of Old Bond Street, Speick, Tabac, Cella, La Toja

  30. Amy Keyes says

    Thank you so much for this review! I want to put together a shaving soap set for my husband for his birthday and this is a lovely primer on good soaps that aren’t hard to find. :)

  31. Mary Cahill says

    The best shaving soap I have ever tried is Chelsea’s Green Tweed Shaving Soap or actually any of their shaving soaps. My husband uses is and I tried it one day and have used it since. Great Soap!! I buy it on Amazon but I think they have a site as well.

  32. Jon says

    Sorry to see that Stirling Soap Co shave soaps didn’t make the list. I guess it’s because their products aren’t widely available, yet. IMO, Stirling Soaps blows every single aforementioned product away. No contest. The thickness of the lather, the slickness of the lather, the ease of generating lather with either a boar or badger brush (boar a little easier with this soap, but badger still not difficult) and the quality of the multi pass shave you get from this shave soap is superior in every way and second to none.

  33. says

    Your description of shaving soaps being either “tallow-based” or “glycerine-based” is a bit misleading. All fats are triglycerides – meaning they have three fatty acids attached to a glycerine. When fats are mixed with sodium hydroxide and/or potasium hydroxide, the fatty acids separate from the glycerine and combine with the NaOH/KOH and become soap. The liberated glycerine is a by-product of the soap-making process. Therefore – all soaps, whethor made from tallow, olive oil, argan oil etc. all contain glycerine. Often, commercial soapmakers will remove the glycerine to sell as a by-product, but all good (ie moisturizing) soaps will still contain gylcerine.

  34. JosephB says

    Just visiting the new website and wanted to suggest a soap-related topic for consideration: I’m an Arko man, but what little soap experimentation I do is in the form of farmers’ markets and locally made soaps. However, the quality is too often poor. When I was a cartridge and gel prisoner, this wasn’t as big a problem because it was soooo hard to cut myself. Now that I’m a safety razor shaver, poor soap quality is something I won’t tolerate.

    So what about the locally produced/artisanal soap niche? Are there questions to ask? Signs to look for? Is it even worth trying?

  35. james says

    I personally think that cold river soap works select is the best shaving soap on the market. I have tried over 30 top notch soaps and creams including razorock, cella, trumpers, phoenix artisan accoutrements, d.r harris, taylor of old bond street the list goes on and they are all superb performers but the glide and protection from cold river soapworks select line is amazing, but the best part about this soap is how good your face feels after shaving.

  36. Deuce Rogers says

    I agree with many of your choices my top of the list and must try which is not mentioned is Catie’s Bubbles many choices of scents my personal favorite is LPV or Le Piment de la Vie. $20 for 8oz tub isnt too bad. out of all my soaps this loads, lathers, preforms better than the rest. this can be found on many sites including italianbarber.com and catiesbubbles.com

  37. DavidC says

    I don’t remember if it was on the soap label, the website (the link is broken) or an email reply, the last soap I bought was from Colonel Conk (www.shaveshop.com) fit too loosely in my mug, so I did what the label/website/email told me to do and ran it thru the microwave for 10-12 seconds to melt it. Seemed to work perfectly fine.

    I’m wondering if this is an acceptable practice or something advised against.

    ?

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