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.