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Curse and Confusion from the Cartridge Razor

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The multi-bladed shaving instrument, from the original Trac-II all the way up to the most recent seven-bladed designs — some with their sprung, pivoting suspension systems like Italian sports cars — allow wet shavers to do three things that hinder their technique when switching back to razors of earlier eras.

I list these three hindrances below in their order of importance:

  1. Shavers can firmly press the multi-blade razor against the face with virtual impunity.
  2. Shavers can shave with the multi-blade razor using very rapid strokes. In fact, the multi-blade design encourages rapid strokes because that’s when the hysteresis of the multi-blade design is most effective.
  3. Shavers generally learn only to shave with the grain of the beard when using the multi-blade disposables.

The Problem with Pressure

Of these, the biggest problem is that of razor pressure, which can quickly degrade the quality of a shave with a classic double-edge, single-edge or straight razor. Excessive pressure of blade on skin leads to irritation and weepers.

I also know from my personal experience that, for some of us, it can be very difficult to learn the optimal feather-light touch that is maximally friendly to skin but at the same time is effective in removing stubble.

Yet at some point I finally got the message; the light bulb went on over my head. I had read about using light pressure a hundred times, but for the longest time didn’t get it. But then one day, the message penetrated the concrete of my skull. No pressure, dummy! And when I did that, not only did my shave quality improve, I also became able to use more aggressive razor designs and settings.

Historically with my double-edge razors, I would begin shaves with light pressure, but as the shave progressed, as I became more confident in the day’s shave, and as I progressed in making the day’s shave closer to the baby-smooth ideal, I would tend to unconsciously increase the razor pressure.

And, truth be told, my intuition wasn’t wrong, it just wasn’t smart.

Yep, if you press that double-edge razor firmly against the face, it’s going to shave closer. The problem is that it will likely shave some skin along with it. Even if it doesn’t actually cut the skin, it will most certainly irritate it – and the likelihood of irritation (and blood) increases as the number of strokes and passes increases.

So the biggest cartridge-razor-induced hurdle to get over is developing a constant, feather-light touch while shaving. When that happens other options become available.

Specifically, with a light touch, more aggressive razor designs (or more aggressive razor settings on adjustable razors) become viable options. With that feather-light touch (and a sensitivity to razor angle – a smaller angle between blade and skin being less likely to scrape and irritate), razors that I had previously rejected as too irritating were now giving me good, close shaves. These designs included the a Merkur slant and my dad’s classic 1963 Gillette Slim Adjustable (set on a middle setting of 5 out of 9).

But my decades-long cartridge razor habits made this evolution surprising slow.

Speed Kills

Multi-bladed cartridge razors have the blades slightly recessed from the shave plane, which is determined by the housing of the cartridge. In a single with-grain pass, this may make multi-blade cartridge designs less likely than single-edge razors (including the classic double-edge razor) to irritate or cut in a shave of equivalent closeness.

The multi-blade instruments can shave closely, despite their slightly recessed blades, because as a preceding blade in the cartridge cuts a hair, it also pulls it out away from the skin slightly. Then during the stroke, the following blade can attack the hair before it fully retracts. This is one form of hysteresis, in which a preceding action influences a subsequent one.

So with these multi-blade razors, if one strokes very slowly, the hair retracts before the next blade can reach it. This eliminates the intended hysteresis, and the benefit of the multiple blades is lost. But quick strokes are just the opposite: rapid stroke speed means good hysteresis and, thereby, a closer shave.

But with a single shaving edge against the skin, there is little to no recession of blade within the razor. (Exceptions, of course, are those razors that are mild shavers – having a negative blade exposure and a rather small blade-bar span. Examples of these mild razors would include many if not most of the Weishi razors – certainly the Weishi 9306 razors – and the Merkur 33C Classic.)

So with a throw-back single-cutting-edge design, the blade is generally in contact with the skin. A quick stroke with this type of razor does little or nothing to improve the effectiveness of the stroke, but imperils skin by making it more difficult for the shaver to modulate pressure and cutting angle. The net result is a likely increase in insult to skin.

The multi-blade cartridge razor never led me to learn the lesson of the tortise: slow and steady wins the race.

The Gravity of Grain

When shaving against the grain of the beard, the mechanics of the action are such that the folicle, when pushed upright by blade contact, often causes the skin to rise slightly with it. This drawing closer of the skin to the blade, as though attracted by their own mutual gravity, is one of the factors that makes against-grain shaving more risky and less comfortable.

Most users of multi-blade cartridge razors don’t shave against the grain because they recognize that against-grain shaving (due to the combination of the hysteresis of the design along with the gravity effect of drawing skin and blade slightly closer) can lead to increased shaving wounds and ingrown hairs. In fact, the multi-blade designs were created and evolved with the concept of a close shave without the need to shave against beard grain.

But in terms of closeness of shave, a single edge against the beard offers a mediocre one-pass, with-grain shave. So users of the non-cartridge, non-disposable razor designs make multiple passes (or the equivalent) to get a close shave.

The most widely recognized multi-pass shave is three passes: with, across, then against grain. But why three? Why not just two: with, then against, grain?

An answer may be that with a hair trimmed only in the with-grain direction, enough still remains to cause surrounding skin to stand up, when shaved forcefully in the against-grain direction. Thus it seems that the against-grain second pass is too risky.

Yet many do, in fact, shave with only two passes: with grain, then against grain (or the equivalent). This includes those with sensitive, delicate skin – and this writer is one. The key is relying primarily on the two preceding points in this article: light touch and slow strokes.
One without the other is often not enough. For example, on the sensitive, fragile skin of my lower neck, I can shave against the grain with the lightest touch possible, but if I stroke rapidly, there will be blood shed, guaranteed. Likewise, if I stroke this area very slowly and deliberately, but with more than the lightest pressure – you guess it: styptic, anyone?

However, when I combine these two techniques, which have been largely lost due to the multi-blade cartridge disposable razor, magic!, a close, comfortable shave becomes possible even on the most sensitive of skin.

Using an ultra-light touch and a slow, deliberate stroke speed doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be shaving against the grain on your first pass, but it does guarantee that your against-grain passes will be more comfortable, and perhaps accomplished with a more aggressive razor than you previously thought possible.

So there you have the curse and confusion from the multi-bladed cartridge razor. It allows us to be heavy handed. It encourages a quick shaving stroke. It discourages shaving against the grain. All three of which make successful single-blade shaving more difficult, less likely.
But now that you’ve been reminded of this, the remedy is three steps closer to a great shave: light pressure and slow strokes – especially in combination when shaving against the grain.

Happy shaving!

About the Author

Douglas N. Hansford is a registered dietitian nutritionist in private practice in Southeastern Michigan, specializing in finding and addressing food sensitivities that underlie many chronic physical conditions. He is also a freelance writer and tennis coach.

Doug Hansford

Doug Hansford


1 thought on “Curse and Confusion from the Cartridge Razor”

  1. What a highly informative post about cartridge razors. Seeing how I’ve been using them for a long time, I took great interest in your insight … cheers to you sir!

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