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Can You Really Get A Better Shaving Lather With Distilled Water?

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A new wet shaver is having trouble learning to make lather, and seeks out advice on one of the various online shaving communities. One of the first answers he’ll receive will be to try a distilled water shave. “Your tap water is the culprit, kid!” And it will be explained that minerals dissolved in tap water–more or less depending on your geographic location–can make lathering more difficult. At least to test whether that’s the problem, but more often as a solution to it, the advice is to use distilled water to make lather rather than tap water. It’s advice that’s been given here on Sharpologist, on more than one occasion, once just last year, and once in a classic article by Michael “LeisureGuy” Ham.

But it’s wrong.
We wet shavers rely on a lot of conventional wisdom: your mileage may vary; tallow soaps make the best lather; distilled water is the best water for making lather. In a lot of cases, conventional wisdom holds a lot of truth, but sometimes it can really get you off the track. Case in point: distilled water, it turns out, is not better than moderately hard tap water for making lather.
Now, I didn’t do a scientific study on this, but I have become pretty convinced it’s true. I came to that conclusion, oddly enough, when a water main broke in my neighborhood recently. They restored water pressure in just a few hours, but we were on a boil order for most of a week. Instead of boiling tons of water for five minutes and adding bleach to it, as our municipality recommended, we just went to the store and bought several gallons of distilled water. Why distilled? Because we got to the store late, and the drinking water was all sold out.
(By the way: you may have heard that distilled water tastes terrible, because those minerals and impurities that are removed are what makes water taste good. I am here to tell you that distilled water tastes just fine.)
We had all these gallons of distilled around, so I figured I would shave with it. They said we could use the tap water for showers, washing dishes, etc., but rubbing potentially contaminated water all over my face… I decided that, no thanks, I’ll use the distilled. Plus, I’d get to see what effect it had on my lather. Our tap water is from Lake Michigan, and water hardness statements are in the range of 8-12 grains (137-205 ppm), which is fairly hard. When I started wet shaving, before I got the hang of lathering, I’d tried distilled a few times without consistent results. And I’ve had success amending my lathering water with citric acid, though ultimately not enough to justify doing so on a regular basis. So I have gotten used to just loading a little longer and can make fine lather with my tap water. But I figured using distilled would be a pleasant change of pace.

How I Tested

I warmed up some distilled water in a tea kettle, mixed it with room temperature distilled water to the temperature I wanted, and went to town. And just like they say, pow, lather exploded as soon as I started loading. But not good lather. Big bubbles, fluffy, dry. So I loaded a little longer. Now I had tons of fluffy, dry, bad lather all over the place. Lots of volume, but no density. So I added water, went to my face with it. Worked it around, added water, swirled, swept back and forth, added more water, kept working. What a pain this is, I thought. I ended up with a decent lather but it was a whole lot more work than with my regular old Lake Michigan tap water, and the results were not as good.
Over the next few days, I tried a couple different brands of soap, tried starting with a really wet brush and with an almost dry brush, but ultimately it was always the same experience with minor variations.
What was going on? We’ve all heard that mineral content in hard water inhibits lather making, right? So distilled water, with no mineral content, should be ideal for lathering, shouldn’t it?

A Soapmaker Chimes In

I learned a bit more about the science of how water hardness affects lather from a soapmaker named Justin, the man behind Bufflehead Soap Co. It turns out that yes, mineral content makes it more difficult to lather soap, but no, that doesn’t necessarily mean that distilled water is ideal for making lather. “When the fatty acids in a soap bind to [mineral ions in hard water], they create soap scum,” Justin wrote. “Once those ions have been bound, lather is then created.” So far this is what we expect: harder water means you need to essentially waste some soap making soap scum before you start making lather. With extremely hard water, you end up with nothing but scum and lather making is very difficult.
But, Justin pointed out, “Soap scum is a big contributor to a lather’s slimey/slick feel. Not enough and you have an experience similar to the one you’ve lined out.” So with distilled water, you make lather really fast, but without any soap scum at all as part of the lather, it’s going to lack some of the slickness and cushion of really great lather. Justin summed it up this way: “outside of very specific instances, I think shaving with distilled water yields a lesser result.”
When a new wet shaver is having lather problems, he’s often told to try using distilled water instead of his tap water, but I think this advice is counterproductive. He may well end up shaving with fluffy piles of dry, airy lather and have a bad time.The bottom line is that if you’re having lather troubles, the first thing to try is just loading more soap. This will get most people a usable lather more quickly and easily than fighting through the bubble bath distilled water creates to get to a viable lather.

Conclusions and Options

Now, there are many folks out there with water a lot harder than mine, and I have no doubt it causes them real trouble with making good lather. But I’ve come to the conclusion that switching completely to distilled water is not the best answer even for those with the hardest water. What will probably work better is a half-and-half mix of tap water and distilled. This is pretty easily accomplished by filling your sink half the way you normally would from your tap, and adding distilled water that you’ve warmed in the microwave or a kettle.
Another option for those with extremely hard water would be to add a very small amount of citric acid to the water you use for lathering. The exact amount is fairly important: use trial and error to dial it in but we’re talking about half a gram to a gram per liter of water: a very small amount. Citric acid softens water by binding with some of the mineral content. (I.e. it’s not the acidity that makes a difference, it’s another chemical property of citric acid that makes the difference.) Citric acid is cheap and pretty easy to find if you make a point to look for it. I have seen it at Wal-Mart, for example, in with the canning supplies. This is another good solution because you can use an amount of citric acid that partially softens your water without completely eliminating the mineral content. But because the amount you use is very small it’s a bit much to fuss with. Add just a little too much and you won’t be able to make lather at all.
But again, the upshot here is that for most people in most places, regular tap water, even if it’s on the hard side, is going to work just fine for making lather.
What has your experience been in dealing with hard water? I know some swear by using only distilled water, but I’d encourage you to give your tap water, or at least a mix of tap and distilled, another try.

Chuck Falzone

Chuck Falzone

11 thoughts on “Can You Really Get A Better Shaving Lather With Distilled Water?”

  1. Been comparing distilled vs soft water shaving and Chuck is correct. Small amount of soap scum is lubrication and leaves you with less irritation than distilled water.

  2. I suggest distiller water from time to time when I’m in a chat with a wet shaver online. The reasoning is simple, if they can not make a lather with distiller water, it is a loading / brush pressure / technique issue. It’s an easy way to eliminate some of the variables from the process.
    Great article!

  3. It is probably a bit more complicated since water is just one factor in the lather equation.
    Also, the definition of “hard water” varies a lot. I checked it. Basically, “soft” and “moderately hard” water in the US would be called “soft” here in Germany. Water labeled as “hard” or “very hard” in US term would be just “medium” here. Water we call “hard” is well above the threshold for “very hard” US water. I believe it is similar in other European countries.
    Depending on where you’re from the description of your tap water as “hard” might mean something very different to someone else. My tap water is “medium” by german standards but very very hard by US standards. That’s why distilled water does make a huge difference here but some experiments with mixing in some tap water might be a good idea.

    1. Excellent point, and it relates to my post. There are more variables involved than simply “hardness” and even that comes with far more variance than one person, using the local water, can measure.
      I have no problem with someone reporting what works for them. But concluding those who think using distilled water helps make better lather are WRONG, is simply over the top, and without proper documentation.
      As I said, it worked, a bit for me. On some lathers. But really, it didn’t make that big of a difference for most. But that’s MY experience.
      This isn’t simply directed at the author of this article, so I hope he doesn’t take it personally. It is an issue prevalent among many these days. “You’re doing X wrong” is a very hot way to sell your article. Unless you come with a crapload of data, gathered from a number of carefully controlled studies, STOP IT! What’s wrong with saying: “This is what works for me. You may want to give it a try”?
      YMMV rules, unless you come very heavy with carefully gather data, and are willing to share the results. Even then, research rarely reveals results that are consistent 100% of the time. So even in the face of contradictory evidence, someone’s experience might just be true, just unusual.

  4. I’m also a newbie and I have also had a terrible time getting good lather. I don’t think it’s the water because recently I made one small change and it made a HUGE difference. I went from weak, barely-worth-calling-it-lather into a bowlful of thick, soft lather by swapping out my VDH boar-hair brush for a Parker Safety Razor badger brush (spent about $36 on Amazon). It does help to use good soap to start – but by changing to the badger brush I went from stirring and stirring for 2 or 3 minutes and having terrible lather to taking about 20 second to have great lather. I believe this was with D H. Harris’ Arlington soap, so like I said, quality soap helps. But for me at least, it wasn’t the water, it was the brush!
    TL;dr = good soap helps, but a badger brush makes the big difference.

  5. Agree, and theres no arguing that distilled water is not a requirement. Chemically, citric acid is not a chelating agent. It lowers the pH of the water, allowing more Ca, and Mg to be dissolved in the water. Still available to displace Na and K and form scum. That’s my point earlier. EDTA which is found in Godrej or Proraso however is a chelator of Mg and Ca. They both work well even in very hard water.

  6. I also did a bit of experimenting with distilled water, as I have very hard water. For me, distilled worked better for some soaps and made little difference with others. But since I didn’t conduct a series of controlled experiments (varying the degree of water hardness, the altitude, humidity, composition of the lather, etc), I would never think to draw any conclusions from those tests. I certainly wouldn’t label anything as “wrong” based on that experience. But, hey, that’s me. I believe in careful research before dismissing the experiences of others.
    One thing really did strike me, in this article: If Chuck thinks distilled water tastes “just fine”, I won’t be looking to him for advice on wine. :#)

  7. You will need (somewhat) more product to get a proper lather, the harder the water gets. NY City water is super soft and it takes little product for a good lather. The same cream on a trip to L.A. with hard water meant I had to load longer (more product on the brush)to get a proper lather. Adding citric acid to hard water may dissolve scale minerals, but the calcium and magnesium ions are available in solution to make soap scum. Notice, nobody ever blames soft water for lather problems, or wants to shave with soap scum?

    1. I think we largely agree: soft water, with a small amount of mineral content, is pretty much ideal for making lather. And citric acid chelates some, but not all, of the calcium and magnesium ions in the water, again leaving great water for making lather. But in my experience, going the next step to distilled water, with no mineral content at all, was a step backward rather than another step forward.

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