Sharpologist’s “best shaving soap” article from 2014 has been consistently one of the most-read on the site. Here is the update for 2020.
The Best Shaving Soap Landscape
Not too many years ago the shaving soap landscape, particularly in the U.S., was arid: there were a few high-quality, old-school, tallow-based (more on that below) shave soaps from the established high-end names (Trumper, Taylor, Truefitt, Harris, etc.); and some low-end, every-man soaps like Williams Mug Soap, Burma-Shave Soap, and (a little later) Van Der Hagen.
And virtually nothing in between.
Oh sure, you could find a hardy artisan toiling away in their kitchen if you knew where to find them. But they were few and far between (one notable “old-timer,” Emsplace, is still around, having stayed in business largely by word of mouth).
Now that arid landscape has become a sea, with products covering an entire range of price, performance, and scent. And the sea has a surprisingly stable depth, without much of a deep end or a shallows. A lot of shave soaps perform solidly, if not exceptionally!
Let’s look at this “embarrassment of riches” to try to determine which shave soaps are merely really good and which are truly great.
The Anatomy Of Shaving 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 a general overview.
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 soap-making process (“saponification”). 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.
Animal Tallow vs. Vegetable
Another common debate rages on, about “tallow-based” vs. “vegetable-based” (or perhaps “animal” vs. “vegetable”) soap 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. Despite the “conventional wisdom, it is technically 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*
Best Shaving Soap Criteria
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. but artisans come-and-go, they often have limited availability, and their formulations tend to change more often. So let me propose a set of criteria for determining what rises to the top:
- Superior performance (based on what I have researched on review sites, blogs, forums, and my own experience) 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 (whether a soap is usually in stock and available from several sources).
- Artisan’s time in 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. And an omission from this list does not mean it’s a bad product–there is a lot of great stuff out there! This article will be updated regularly. Be sure to come back every few months.
So What Is The Best Shaving Soap?
First the TL;DR list (in alphabetical order), then the details and honorable mentions:
A top 10 (in alphabetical order):
1. Ariana And Evans
2. Barrister and Mann (“Reserve” and “Excelsior” bases)
3. Captain’s Choice
4. Catie’s Bubbles
5. Declaration Grooming (“Milksteak” and “Icarus” bases)
6. Murphy And McNeil (“Kodiak” base)
7. Phoenix Artisan Accoutrements
8. Southern Witchcrafts
9. Tallow & Steel
10. Wholly Kaw (“Donkey Milk” base)
Now for the details and honorable mentions. Links may go a product choice page where you can select where to find the product: the brand’s website and alternate sources (Amazon [localized to the reader’s country when possible], West Coast Shaving, and Phoenix Artisan Accoutrements links are affiliate).
Ariana & Evans (A&E) Like Barrister & Mann, Catie’s Bubbles, and some others, A&E is very “fragrance-oriented.” But beyond fragrance they also have an excellent tallow, lanolin, and goat milk shaving soap base. A&E shave soaps are often praised for not only their voluminous and “slick” lather but also the post-shave moisturization as well.
Barrister And Mann is an artisan with a reputation for product scents: their “Reserve” and “Excelsior” lines of shave soaps perform very well, even in “hard” water. They have even experimented with unusual ingredients like synthetic menthol.
Captain’s Choice shave soaps may be a bit weakly scented to some but no one complains about the performance! 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.
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). Catie’s Bubbles collaborated with West Coast Shaving to produce some excellent new shave soaps.
Declaration Grooming, formerly L&L Grooming, continues to make significant strides with finding “the cutting edge” of shaving soap technology (if you’ll pardon the pun). I was L&L’s first “official” customer in 2016, and they had a good, solid product. Soon after, their introduction of a bison tallow shave soap base created a buzz in the shave enthusiast community. But their recent “Milksteak” and “Icarus” shave soap bases are widely considered to be some of the best in the business. Reviews often end up using words like “amazing” and “astonishing.”
Murphy & McNeil may not be a well-known name even in the enthusiast community but they are cranking out some great shave soaps. Their regular tallow-based soaps are very good but it’s their “Kodiak” base that’s been raising eyebrows among reviewers.
Phoenix Artisan Accoutrements (PAA) has a constantly changing soap inventory with a wide variety of scents that tend to be a mix of reproductions of classics and whimsical takes on culture. All of Phoenix Artisan Accoutrements’ shave soaps now use their excellent “Crown King” formulation. I think the highlight of PAA shave soaps is a really outstanding post-shave feel on the skin.
Southern Witchcrafts is making a name for itself with their bold, strong scents and an excellent vegan-based shave soap formulation that’s been turning heads.
Tallow And Steel has been around for a few years but the latest version of their tallow soap base brings it into the “best” range. Their scents evoke exotic destinations with names like “Himalaya,” “Madagascar,” and “West Indies” but the real focus should be the performance: most everyone comments on the lubrication ability of these soaps. Post-shave feel is also noteworthy. Availability is not as widespread as other names on this list though so it may be more difficult to obtain.
Wholly Kaw is another wet shaving artisan that has made an impact in the shaving soap world. Their “claim to fame” is 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 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 above to ten to keep things manageable. There are a number of products that barely missed the cut for one reason or another, but are still excellent and well worth discussing. Others are mentioned for special reasons. Again, in alphabetical order:
Chiseled Face shave soaps enjoy an excellent reputation, particularly within the enthusiast community. 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.
Cold River Soap Works (“CRSW”) has enjoys a solid reputation with the enthusiasts and both their “Select” and their “Glide” lines but the performance of these soaps seems to have not kept up with the competition over the past year or so. Another downside is somewhat limited availability.
Dr. Jon’s “version 3” soap base is markedly improved in both performance and scent range.
Fine Accoutrements There is no denying the quality–and popularity–of their shave soaps. Initially confined to a single scent Fine Accoutrements has expanded the range to include additional scents. 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.
Mike’s Natural shave soaps is another artisan who sort of “flies under the radar,” even in the enthusiast community, though it’s been around for some time. 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 in which Mike’s soaps lather up.
Noble Otter is relatively new on the scene (2017) but quickly established itself as an artisan to watch. They’ve steadily improved their shave soap base and reviews have been very enthusiastic–so much so that supply has not kept up with demand.
Soap Commander is an established shave soap artisan who seems to have successfully navigated through a rough patch in their business. Soap Commander “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). Their shaving soaps are becoming more widely available from places like West Coast Shaving, Maggards, and Amazon.
Stirling Soaps is a well-established, well-respected artisan whose products are widely available. 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 price:performance ratio is excellent.
Talbot has garnered quite a reputation with the wet shaving aficionados, and justifiably so with some shave soaps that perform spectacularly. The problem is this artisan is very part-time and examples can be difficult to obtain. Their main method of communication is Facebook and they do not have a dedicated website (though they do sell a limited offering through West Coast Shaving).
Some Special Cases
There are a few shave soaps that are not on the above lists but are still worth mentioning for specific reasons :
The DR Harris line of shave soaps may be the last of the good “old school” shaving soaps from the long-established British wet shaving brands: other brands with storied histories have largely outsourced their soap-making to others, who have in-turn modified the original soap formulation to the point where they no longer perform at the highest level. DR Harris did have a minor reformulation in 2017 but their shave soaps still perform really well. However I admit I may be keeping DR Harris on this list partly out of nostalgia: the artisan soap makers are rapidly over-taking them.
Henri et Victoria Their “version 2.0” reformulation was a huge improvement over their previous soap base. Even though this is “just” a vegetable/glycerin soap (and some shave nerds will poo-poo the idea that a vegetable shave soap base can perform well), both cushion and lubrication are much better compared to the previous formula base. Their tallow-based line is also really solid.
Martin de Candre is insanely expensive, difficult to get, and often out of stock. But admittedly this shaving soap is at the top of many shaver’s “best” list. Originally available in only a single scent they have now branched out with some additional scents.
Mitchell’s Wool Fat Shaving Soap (MWF). Available in a single (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.
Proraso is an established brand with a loyal following: previous versions of this article often have comments along the lines of “what about Proraso?!?” Other “best” shave soap lists from men’s grooming sites that often concentrate on what is available on Amazon have Proraso. But personally, although I think it’s a good shave soap (particularly the “Sensitive” version with the white label) it does not hold up to the other soaps on Sharpologist’s list.
Zingari Man burst upon the wet shaving artisan scene in 2019 and after a bit of a shaky start have been surprising shave enthusiasts and reviewers with some really outstanding shave soaps formulated with their “Sego” base. If they can endure a very crowded market I have no doubt they will be on the main list soon.
Keeping An Eye On….
There are a number of other shave soaps that I’m keeping an eye on for possible inclusion in a future update. Some are new to the market. Others have had a recent change in their business circumstances. Some have recently changed their soap formulation. And some are here simply because I don’t have enough information for a full evaluation yet.
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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