[Updated July, 2018] Sharpologist’s “best shaving soaps” article from 2014 has been consistently one of the most-read on the site and has been periodically updated. But the shave soap landscape has changed so much since then I think it’s time for an update with a new article.
The Anatomy Of Shave Soap
When discussing soap, especially shave soap, a lot of terms get thrown around: hot process, glycerin, tallow, triple-milled, etc. But what do they really mean? And is one ingredient or process inherently superior to another? Let’s look at the “30,000 foot view.”
There are basically two ways of making artisan-style soap: hot process and cold process. They each have their advantages and disadvantages:
Hot process soaps are made by using an external heat source to (carefully) speed up the saponification effect. Hot process soaps generally take less time to make: a couple hours for saponification and about a week to cure. Extra ingredients are added near the end of the “cook time” and the texture of the soap is generally rough-looking.
Cold process soaps may also be made with a heat source but it’s used to liquefy solidified oils for mixing. The real saponification comes from an exothermic heat reaction between the fatty acids of the oils and and a lye (“base”) they’re mixed with. Cold process soaps take about a day to “cook” and take several weeks to cure. Extra ingredients are added early on and the soap’s texture has a smoother look.
You may also see the terms melt and pour or glycerin. The term “melt and pour” defines the soap base as a ready-to-use item as opposed to someone saponifying fats and oils themselves: in effect, the most difficult and time-consuming aspects of the process are already complete. Some artisans then add additional ingredients and/or fragrances. Most of the time the prepared bases are made in large production facilities using specialized equipment. You may also see it referred to as a glycerin soap. This is a misnomer however for all shave soaps contain glycerin–it’s a by-product of saponification.
Tallow vs. Vegetable
Another common debate concerns “tallow-based” soaps vs. “vegetable-based” soaps (or perhaps “animal” vs. “vegetable”) foundations. The process of making either type of soap is the same. The only difference is the fatty acid profile that results from the oils and fats used. It is not appropriate to call non-tallow based soaps “glycerin based.” Glycerin is a by product of saponification but it is not typically the main base ingredient in a non-tallow based shaving soap. The main ingredient in vegetable based soaps is most likely Stearic Acid which can be derived from various vegetable sources including Palm Oil, Kokum Butter, Mango Butter, and Cocoa Butter. Stearic acid, when combined with Potassium Hydroxide makes lather. This is why Tallow, and other high stearic fats are commonly used in shaving soap formulas. Most of the time there is a combination of ingredients used as there are many different kinds of triglycerides that provide various benefits in shaving soap. It’s important to make a soap that has great lather but it’s also important that the soap is moisturizing, creamy, bubbly, slick, and protective. Tallow was used back in the day as a source of stearic acid. It was a super cheap by-product of the meat industry.
You may have heard the term “tripled milled” (or perhaps “French milled”). These are soaps that have been passed between large steel rollers, squeezing more air and water out of the soap (and it also provides some additional mixing of the soap, making it more uniform). Because more air and water have been removed, triple milled soaps are denser and last longer than un-milled soap.
So What Is Better?
In my opinion, none of these processes or ingredients are inherently better for a shaving soap. I think a great shaving soap comes from using quality ingredients, mixed in the correct proportions. Despite “conventional wisdom” there are tallow-based shave soaps that are nowhere near “best” (*cough*WilliamsMugSoap*cough*
Shaving Soap Recommendations
So what are the “best” shaving soaps? To be sure, there are many excellent shave soaps, mostly from artisans making products in small batches with quality ingredients. Unfortunately artisans tend to come-and-go, they often have limited availability, and their formulations tend to change more often. Let me propose an (updated) set of criteria for determining what rises to the top:
- Superior performance (based on my own experience and what I have researched 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 both “soft” water and “hard” water).
- Good post-shave feel on the skin (not overly-drying).
- 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.
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.
First the TL;DR list (in alphabetical order), then the details and honorable mentions:
What Is The Best Shaving Soap?
- Barrister and Mann “Reserve” line
- Captain’s Choice
- Chiseled Face
- Crown King
- DR Harris
- Fine Accoutrements
- Mickey Lee Soapworks
- Soap Commander
- Stirling Soaps
- Wholly Kaw
Now for the details (Amazon, West Coast Shaving, and Phoenix Artisan Accoutrements links are affiliate)….
Barrister and Mann
Barrister and Mann (B&M) is an artisan with an excellent reputation for product scents but I had kept them off this list for some time because their soaps didn’t perform as well in hard water. With the introduction of “Reserve” line of shave soaps that concern has been eliminated. B&M soaps are more widely available now too (some even available on Amazon).
Captain’s Choice shave soaps (on Amazon) may be a bit weakly scented to some but no one complains about the performance! And I find Captain’s Choice lather is exceptionally stable: if you’re looking for a particularly long or leisurely shave (maybe you are a beginner and taking more time as you work through the learning curve?) you will have plenty of lather to use for the entire time. Here’s Sharpologist’s review of the Bay Rum version.
Chiseled Face shave soaps enjoy an excellent reputation, particularly within the enthusiast (“shave nerd”) community, although their availability may be somewhat more limited than some others on this list (though they are showing up on Amazon now). Ghost Town Barber, their take on the ubiquitous “barbershop scent,” is a particular stand-out. Cryogen is another highlight among “menthol heads” for it’s extreme cooling (OK, freezing) properties. Sharpologist interviewed Ron with Chiseled face HERE and HERE.
Crown King was the alternatively formulated line of Phoenix Artisan Accoutrements, with scents tending to be a mix of reproductions of “classics” (like Sun Down, Alt-11, and Sacre’ Bleu) and whimsical takes on culture or nostalgia. All of Phoenix Artisan Accoutrements’ (PAA) products now use the Crown King formulation. I think the highlight of PAA/CK shave soaps is a really outstanding post-shave feel on the skin (in fact, in my opinion possibly the best “moisturizing” properties of any soap on this list). West Coast Shaving recently launched their new line of shave soaps, which use the Crown King foundation.
I think the DR Harris line of shave soaps may be the last of the “old school” shaving soaps from one of the long-established wet shaving brands. They are triple-milled, tallow-based, and available in bowl, puck, or stick. There is enough scent variety to please almost everyone: Almond (with a scent that has been described as a somewhat weak almond fragrance with “warm” and “woody” notes), Arlington (a somewhat strong mix of citrus and fern. Arlington is a favorite of mine), Lavender (a somewhat weak scent that some have said has a bit of an “artificial” element to it. No one complains about the performance though), Marlborough (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), and Windsor (Sharpologist has talked about Windsor before, described as a “nice citrusy, leathery scent with a bit of pepper and vetyver, and patchouli”).
Fine Accoutrements is a newcomer compared to most of the other brands and artisans on this list. But there is no denying the quality–and popularity–of their shave soaps. Initially confined to a single scent (“American Blend“) Fine has expanded the range to include eight additional scents: Fresh Vetver, Green Vetiver, Italian Citrus, Orange Noir, Lavender Pour Home, Platinum, Santal Absolut, and Snakebite (menthol). All are fairly heavily-scented so if you have a poor sense of smell like me you can still enjoy it. All use a high-quality tallow base and are triple-milled for longevity. Sharpologist has covered Fine HERE and HERE.
Mickey Lee Soapworks
Mickey Lee Soapworks (on West Coast Shaving) have an unusual history, even for a shaving artisan. It was started by an active-duty US Navy family (read their About Page for the whole story and check out Sharpologist’s interview with them). I admire them for doing what they have done on a very “shoestring” budget and the workload (and stress) that comes from being active-duty military. They may have fewer scents than others on this list but their latest formulation have received excellent reviews, including Sharpologist’s finicky reviewer…. 🙂
Soap Commander is a well-established artisan that “commands” a loyal following 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 their shaving soaps are now pretty widely available (Maggards, West Coast Shaving, and even Amazon). All are top-notch performers. The Wet Shaving News podcast, hosted here on Sharpologist, interviewed Soap Commander a while back.
Stirling Soaps has become a well-established, well-respected artisan whose products are widely available. You can find their soaps at vendors like West Coast Shaving. They have a wide 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 reputation of Stirling Soap’s performance is excellent. Check out Sharpologist’s video interview with Rod from Stirling Soaps.
Wholly Kaw (on West Coast Shaving) is another relative newcomer to the wet shaving artisan soap world but they have made an impact is a short time. Their shave soaps have an excellent reputation. However their “claim to fame” is probably the use of donkey milk (some use a less charitable term for donkey) in some of their shave soaps. Donkey milk contains a number of proteins, vitamins, and other ingredients particularly friendly to the skin and often used as an alternative to Lanolin, which can be irritating to some people. Post-shave moisturization and skin feel are particularly good with these formulas.
I decided to limit the “best” list to ten to keep things manageable. There are a number of products that juuuust missed the cut for one reason or another, but still need to be shown some love, and a few others that should be mentioned for special reasons:
Arko is reasonably widely available and ridiculously cheap, though in a single 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.
Catie’s Bubbles is a favorite of mine for their scent profiles: some of them seem to evoke a strong emotional reaction in me (check out my review of their “Waterlyptus” shave soap). Performance is, perhaps, not quite up to the products listed on the main list but still really solid. They missed the main list by the skin of their teeth….
Cella (AKA “Cella Crema da Barba All’Olio Di Mandorla”) is an inexpensive, single-note scent (almond) soft shave soap that has gotten very high marks among those who have tried it, including Sharpoligist’s co-founder Andy Tarnoff.
Cold River Soap Works (“CRSW”) enjoys a solid reputation with the enthusiasts and their “Select” line in particular are stellar performers. Really the only thing keeping them off the main list is limited availability. Check out Sharpologist’s review of a Select soap and an Oliva soap.
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 predominantly “soapy,” and “powdery,” though some have said there are notes of licorice or a floral in the mix.
Dr. Jon’s: as I was writing this article I happened to try Dr. Jon’s new “Flowers In The Dark” shave soap. If this is how the rest of the line performs it may hit the main list above soon. Partial review here….
La Toja is sold as a shaving stick and it’s scent has been described as “freshly-cleaned laundry,” woody, powdery, and soapy. Performance is almost always described as excellent.
Mama Bear is an artisan who has been around for a while and has branched out her distribution. You can now find her soaps at places like Amazon 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 vegetable-based shaving soaps cannot perform as well as tallow-based shaving soaps. Mama Bear proves them wrong.
Martin de Candre shaving soap is at the top of many shaver’s “best” list. However it’s insanely expensive, difficult to get, and often out of stock. Originally available in only a single scent they have now branched out with some additional scents. The reason it’s not on the main list is it’s very limited availability.
Mike’s Natural shave soaps sort of “fly under the radar,” even in the enthusiast community. But the shave soaps are the real deal: quality ingredients with a minimum of chemical extras (most use essential oils for fragrance). Many reviews mention the ease with which Mike’s soaps lather up. They would probably be on the main list if it were not for the somewhat spotty availability (though you can find them at West Coast Shaving now).
No “best soap” list would be complete without mentioning Mitchell’s Wool Fat Shaving Soap. Available in one (mild) scent, some consider it the only shave soap they will use. However, since it contains lanolin, some with sensitive skin may have trouble with this soap.
Mystic Water is another artisan getting generally excellent reviews. Perhaps not quite as lubricating as other soaps, their formulations are going through a bit of an evolution and a small (but improving) distribution network keep them off the main list for the moment but they are well worth keeping an eye on….
Ogallala might be on the main list if it weren’t for the single-minded scent profile. All of their shave soaps are variants of a single scent, Bay Rum: Bay Rum by itself, with Sage and Cedar, with Sandalwood, with Limes and Peppercorns, with Lemongrass, and with Sweet Orange (on Amazon). Generous, luxurious lather even in my “hard” water; and lubrication and cushion better than almost everything out there at its price-point. If you like Bay Rum (it’s a fairly strong–and I think very accurate–rendition of the classic scent) you will probably love this shave soap as I do. However, I note that the most recent reviews I’ve read seem to indicate a change in their formulation….
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.
Tcheon Fung Sing is an Italian brand that has been around since 1945 but is relatively new to the US under their own name (they have blended for others though). It has been getting rave reviews by those who have tried it and it is becoming more widely available.
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.
(Find this article useful? Please share it!)