A while back I asked users on several shaving forums what their their biggest shaving trouble was. Problems with shaving the neck was the biggest response by far, so I’ve assembled some strategies you can try for a better shave on the neck.
- Careful Prep
- A Great Lather
- Choose The Right Razor and Blade
- Shave With The Grain; Use Great Shaving Technique
- Flatten The Neck As Well As Possible
- Rinse Thoroughly
- Consider An Unconventional Approach (Cold Water)
There are several things you can try even before you shave. The first thing to do, if you haven’t done so already, is to understand how the hair grows on the neck. If you use a multi-blade cartridge you need to initially shave in the direction the hair grows out to. If you use a single blade razor you might be able to cheat a little but it’s still important. Anyway, let your beard grow out for a day or so then gently stroke your hand over your beard in different directions to determine the grain of the beard. Some directions will feel rough, other directions will feel smoother. The direction that is the smoothest is the direction of your beard grain. If you want a confirmation, try using a plastic card or a thick piece of paper to stroke your beard with. The grain should be the direction with the quietest sound. Don’t be surprised if the grain changes direction on different parts of the beard.
It may also be helpful to map all those directions on a sketch of the face and keep it with you during the shave. There are several face sketches here on Sharpologist:
- Sketch 1 (Courtesy of Charles Roberts)
- Sketch 2
- Sketch 3 (Courtesy of Mark Of A Gentleman)
- Interactive Sketch (Courtesy of pbjsite)
Waiting a day or so before mapping your grain reminds me of something. It may actually be better for your neck if you shave relatively often, even every day. If you’re going several days between shaves your hair may get so long or thick that you will run into more trouble shaving it than shaving more often.
Something else to be mindful of is how you prepare your neck for shaving. A lot of people splash some water on their face before shaving but neglect the neck. Don’t do that. At least rinse your neck thoroughly with lots of warm water. Even better, gently scrub it with a warm, wet wash cloth. Shaving after showering should improve results. Better still, wash the area with a gentle facial soap–no body bars or deodorant soaps here! They’ll strip off too much of the natural skin oils from your sensitive neck. I have some recommendations for good face washes in the article linked to in this video’s description. Personally I find face soaps and washes from Musgo Real, RazoRock, Lucky Tiger, Grooming Lounge, Pacific Shaving, and Kiehl’s work very well.
What about pre-shave oils? Well, I think they might be helpful but I think careful hydration and cleaning is more important. Pre-shave oils work for some though, so don’t be afraid to give one a try. Personally I like using a “regular” shaving oil as a pre-shave oil. Two very good ones I know of are Pacific Shaving Oil and Village Barber Shave Oil.
OK, let’s move on to the razor. Cartridge razors also have their blades set to angle angle specified by their manufacturer so it is worthwhile considering alternatives. Sharpologist did a survey of Fusion alternatives a while back and found that razors from 800razors.com were noticeably milder than others so they might worth a try if you have trouble on the neck. The neck is a notoriously sensitive area and every additional blade is another chance for irritation and/or ingrown hairs so consider going AWOL from the razor blade wars by trying a razor with fewer blades in the cartridge, or an old-school safety razor with a single blade. It may take some experimentation to see which razor design works for you, but it will probably be worth the effort. There is a learning curve to transition to old-school kit but after you get the hang of it you can get really good shaves. And double edge razor blades are a fraction of the cost of modern blade cartridges.
Even if you’re already using a single blade razor you may want to think about trying another razor or blade. Some old school shavers with neck trouble report improvement by using the combination of a razor with a relatively narrow (“gentle” or “mild”) blade exposure like Weishi (Micro Touch One), Bevel, Feather, or Goodfella; along with a high performance blade like a Polsilver or a Feather. Others have had good results by changing to a slant bar razor because slant’s don’t cut hair straight on but at an angle. Getting the hang of a slant bar razor can be a little intimidating for some though. Personally, I like the idea of an adjustable razor like the Merkur Progress or the Merkur Futur: shave shave can be “dialed up” or “dialed down” as necessary depending on where you are shaving.
Which brings us to shaving lather. If you’re using a shaving product that comes out of a pressurized can you should seriously consider another product. All things being equal, anything out of a pressurized can tends to dry out the skin because of the can’s propellant. Then they have to try to make up for the drying effect with chemical lubricants. Besides, have you read the ingredient list? Every additional ingredient is just one more thing that your skin might react to. So at least use a product out of a squeeze tube.
For the best experience I think you should use a lathering shave soap or cream applied with a shaving brush (combining cream and soap–sometimes called “superlather”–can be exceptionally effective with providing an incredibly slick, cushioning layer for shaving the neck!). It’s a great way to keep water next to the skin, gently remove tiny bits of debris and surround every little hair with lathery goodness. It may take a little more time but your efforts will be rewarded.
Neck Shaving Techniques
Once you have prepared your neck, there are some specific techniques you can use to get a close, comfortable shave there.
If you lather your neck first and shave it last you will give the stubble there the longest possible time to hydrate and soften, which should improve your chances of a good shave. Your initial shave strokes need to be with the grain, with no pressure on the razor and without repeating strokes. Don’t worry about getting every bit of hair at first. Just concentrate on light strokes that overlap very slightly. Really resist the urge to shave the same spot over and over again!
If the grain is in a circular pattern on a section, you may find that a single predominant direction will work adequately for part of the pattern. The only way to know for sure it to try it.
Modern cartridge razors have are engineered to help compensate for too much pressure on the skin but it can only go so far. And if you’re using an old school razor you’re going to have to remember to use little to no pressure on the razor yourself. No matter what kind of razor you use, holding the razor at the very bottom of the handle will usually help reduce the pressure of the blade on the skin. Alternately you can try holding the razor by its center-of-gravity (balance point) but this may not work well with every razor.
Modern blade cartridges set the blades at a specific angle determined by the designers, who engineer it to an angle they think is best for most people. So there’s not much you can do about it short of trying a different model of razor. But shavers who use old school safety razors have the ability to change the angle of blade as it meets the skin. And in the case of the neck you will want to try to keep a shallower angle on the razor. Try holding the top of the razor to your neck then slowly rock the razor down until the blade just makes contact with the skin. Try to maintain that shallow angle as you’re shaving the neck. Admittedly that can be a problem, since the neck is a pretty curvy place. But there are a couple things you can do to help flatten the skin of the neck, depending on where you’re trying to shave.
Most people think they need to stretch the skin to get a smooth shave. But in reality what you really need to do is flatten the skin. It may sound like the same thing but it’s really easy to over-stretch the skin and that’s a prescription for ingrown hairs and razor burn.
One way to flatten the skin on most of the neck without over-stretching is to lean forward at the waist and tilt your head up slightly. You may need to steady yourself with your other hand while you’re doing this but it works really well for me.
Another way to flatten the areas just under the jaw is to tilt your head down and flatten your jowl area. You’ll look like a bullfrog but some people find it useful to catch those areas.
What about the Adam’s Apple? There are a couple things you can do to shave that area too. One is to swallow and try to hold the swallow. You won’t be able to hold it for more than a second or so but that should be long enough to make a shaving stroke on the area. Another alternative is to carefully slide the skin over the Adam’s Apple to one side. Be careful not to over-stretch it though.
OK, you’ve finished that first shave with the grain. Does it look good enough to you but you’ve missed a few spots? That’s OK, re-lather and shave with the grain one more time.
On the other hand, if you want a closer shave go ahead and re-lather but this time shave across the grain–the direction 90 degrees away from the direction of growth. Again, you want to be very aware of blade pressure and take very efficient strokes that overlap only very slightly.
When you’re finished examine yourself again. Still not good enough? Try re-lathering and shaving across the grain again, but from the opposite direction. You might try an against-the-grain pass but if you’re reading this article that “baby’s butt smooth” feel just might not be possible….
However if there are small areas of stubble left that you need to get after your grain shaving you can try a couple advanced techniques. First is the “J-Hook” which, as the name implies, involves a curving or hooking motion with the razor. J-Hooking is particularly effective on the sides of the neck just below the jaw line. There is also “blade buffing” which is a very short stroke in a small area. This is good for the area under the chin. Both J-Hooking and Blade Buffing should be done very carefully and lightly, with lather (though some rub a thick layer of unlathered shaving soap onto the area), and just done once. If you still have stubble or roughness after trying it, just let it go man… (at least for that shave).
A thorough post-shave rinsing is a good idea, and essential if you are experiencing those little pimple-looking white-head things: it may be caused by lather residue clogging pores. Rinse with lots of warm water, followed by cool water. For extra insurance consider soaking a cotton make-up pad with a good skin toner, hydrosol, or Witch Hazel and wiping down the area between the warm water and cool water rinses. Some suggest using an alum block as well, followed by another cool water rinse. In any case be sure to finish with a small amount of a good aftershave balm (something without alcohol as a major ingredient).
An Unconventional Technique
Cold water. A fair number of people have reported noticeable improvement of neck shaving problems by using cold water instead of hot. It may be because warm water brings corpuscles closer to the surface of the skin, making redness and nicks more likely. First try a warm water prep followed by a cold water shave. Then try a complete cold water routine (prep and shave) to see if there is a difference. Your shave may not be as luxurious-feeling as you would like but if it reduces problems the technique may be worth a try.
Settle For Less?
The other end of the spectrum is…you might be expecting too much from your shave. Does your neck really have to be smooth as glass if it looks presentable to others?
Be sure to leave a message here with your experiences and strategies for getting a better shave on the neck!