[Updated May, 2016]
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?
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*–now discontinued). 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.
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. Unfortunately artisans tend to “come and go” and their formulations tend to change more often. Let me propose a set of criteria for determining what rises to the top:
- 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.
- Ease of lathering using water with a variety of mineral content (in other words it works well in “soft” water and “hard” water).
- 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.
- Availability (from more than just a single artisan website).
- 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:
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.
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:
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 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 and other sites, as well as the Italian Barber website.
[New to the list as of May, 2016] Based in rural Arkansas, Stirling Soaps has risen to a well-respected artisan whose products are now more widely available. You can find their soaps at vendors like West Coast Shaving, Luxury Barber, and Badger Shaving Co. They have a variety of scents (two of which, Ben Franklin and Port au Prince, were reviewed here on Sharpologist) and an active “laboratory” cranking out updates on a fairly regular basis. The performance of Stirling Soaps is excellent.
[New to the list as of May, 2016] Although they are going through a family crisis at the time of this writing (GoFundMe link), Soap Commander has “commanded” a loyal following over the past few years with scents like “Confidence,” “Integrity,” and “Wisdom” (HERE is a listing of the scents and their fragrance notes. Some are fairly strongly scented, which is a good thing for guys like me who have a poor sense of smell). And now their shaving soaps are becoming more widely available from places like Luxury Barber, Maggards, West Coast Shaving, and even Amazon! All are top-notch performers. The Wet Shaving News podcast, hosted here on Sharpologist, interviewed Soap Commander last year.
Mama Bear is an artisan who has been around for a while and is now branching out her distribution! You can now find her soaps at places like Amazon and Shave Nation in addition to her own site. Mama Bear shaving soaps come in a WIDE variety of scents like Sandalwood Vanilla, “Ye Olde Barbershoppe,” and British Leather, among many others. Some shaving aficionados say that glycerin-based shaving soaps cannot perform as well as tallow-based shaving soaps. Mama Bear proves them wrong.
New on the Honorable Mentions list (as of May, 2016) is La Taja. Sold as a shaving stick it’s scent has been described as “freshly-cleaned laundry,” woody, powdery, and soapy. Performance is almost always described as excellent.
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.
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.