Starting traditional wet shaving with double-edge and single-edge razors can be intimidating when there are so many options available. The challenge is compounded because it’s a two-part decision: You want both the right razor and the right blade—i.e., the “hardware”—or you won’t get the desired results.
You can separate the razor and blades decisions, but a more efficient and less expensive approach is to think about the hardware combination from the beginning of your search. That means evaluating your skin’s sensitivity, your beard, your shaving habits and your budget, and then basing your search on the results.
I asked representatives from several well-known shaving supplies retailers to share their thoughts on these factors to help you find the right equipment. While the sources stress that this is a subjective topic, their extensive experience servicing customers provides valuable insights.
The first step is to recognize your skin’s sensitivity on both the face and neck. Shaving stresses the skin, even with good prep, technique and post-shave treatment. Some guys’ faces handle that stress well but for others it causes irritation, especially on the neck.
Brad Maggard, owner of Maggard Razors in Adrian, Michigan, has seen a wide range of skin sensitivity, which he defines as “how much abuse one’s skin can take before it exhibits some kind of reaction.” Evidence of sensitivity can include redness, soreness, bumps, burning, nicks and cuts, or other discomfort.
“We’ve had customers come to us with skin so sensitive that even the scrub of a lower-grade badger-hair brush causes discomfort during the shave and redness after the shave,” Maggard notes in an email response. “On the opposite end of the spectrum, we’ve seen people that can do five passes with a fresh Feather blade in a hyperaggressive razor, without shaving soap or cream—just water—and have no adverse reactions.”
Abraham Villela, content manager with West Coast Shaving in Chino, California, says signs of sensitivity include skin that is generally reactive to a change of weather or where there is always redness in certain areas, regardless of shaving frequency. Generally speaking, most men don’t have unusually sensitive skin, he explains, but if they have been shaving with a cartridge razor frequently they could be confusing skin sensitivity for their skin just feeling raw from shaving that way.
“Some things that can add to skin sensitivity are whether you work inside or outside, your climate, whether you are hydrated enough–most people are not–and if you have clothing that rubs up against the areas you shave, like a tee shirt with a collar,” Villela adds by email.
Brian Mulreany, sales director and co-owner of The Executive Shaving Company in Glasgow, Scotland, believes that sensitive skin reactions are often misdiagnosed. In his experience, men who claim to have sensitive skin only report sensitivity where they shave, but areas where you would expect symptoms to show such as the scalp, shoulders and groin, are in all but the most extreme cases unaffected.
“This tells me that the sensitive-skin problem is caused by poor shaving technique and/or poor-quality shaving tools, especially multiblade cartridge razors,” says Mulreany. “Over the years we have helped thousands of men to eliminate post-shave sensitivity by recommending according to their personal needs and budget.”
It is true however that as men age the skin gets thinner and men may have to change their regime and razor accordingly, but there are exceptions, Mulreany notes: “Having said that, I’m 62 and I have no issue with using single edge and double edge razors.”
The Sweet Spot
[Ed. Note: Amazon, West Coast Shaving, and OneBlade links are Sharpologist affiliate.]
Your skin’s sensitivity will point you to the general class of razors to consider. It sounds obvious but using an aggressive razor on sensitive skin is more likely to cause problems than using a milder razor. Even shavers with normal skin sensitivity often can benefit from starting out with a mild to medium-rated razor to reduce the risk of cuts and irritation while gaining experience. (Read this Sharpologist article if you want more detail on the factors influencing razor aggressiveness: How Much Razor Aggressiveness Do You Really Need?).
“What we tell men is in most cases, the ideal scenario is a mild shaving razor, such as the Muhle R89 or Merkur 34c, paired with a sharp blade such as Tiger and Feather,” says Mulreany. “We recommend our Braveheart safety razor more often than not as it’s close-shaving but not excessively so–it’ll do in two passes what the Muhle R89 will do in three. This is good – fewer passes leads to less post-shave irritation and less time spent at the sink.”
Matt Pisarcik, founder of RazorEmporium.com in Phoenix, Arizona, shares Mulreany’s opinion on the best starter razors for most new shavers. He always recommends these shavers start with the classics.
“Let’s set you up with a Goldilocks: not too mild, not too aggressive–right in the middle,” he advises. “Let’s go with an Edwin Jagger DE89 or a Merkur 34 or a Gillette SuperSpeed–a classic razor that’s somewhere in the sweet spot of not too aggressive and not too mild.”
I’ve had good results with the mild-plus-sharp combination. I believe my face and neck skin are slightly more sensitive than normal but my beard is coarse. Currently my smoothest and least irritating shaves result from pairing Feather blades with a Feather AS-D2 razor (very mild) or a Merkur 34c (mild).
Another potential benefit and a potential drawback to milder razors are worth mentioning. Shavers can develop temporary or permanent elevated spots in the shaving area: previous cuts and nicks, pimples, surface bumps at the base of whiskers, rough skin patches and so on. My experience has been that milder razors like the Merkur 34c are better than more aggressive razors at gliding over those spots without nicking the skin. A potential drawback to mild razors is something that Mulreany mentioned previously. If you use a milder razor like the 34c or a Muhle R89 on coarse stubble you’re probably going to need three passes for a really clean shave.
So, who might benefit from a more aggressive razor? The answer is influenced by your beard’s characteristics and shaving frequency in addition to skin sensitivity. Facial hair differs based on beard density, texture and shaving frequency.
At one end of the spectrum are men with sparse, soft beards who shave most days. At the other end are guys with dense, wiry beards who shave less frequently. As a general rule, greater beard density, increased whisker coarseness and longer times between shaves require more aggressive razors that can handle the increased shaving load.
Mulreany shares an example: “We have a fairly high Indian/Pakistani population in Scotland and the UK and men from this community often have very dense and tough beard growth. For these men I would recommend a closer-shaving razor such as the Braveheart, the Muhle R41 or an adjustable razor such as the Parker Variant paired with a Tiger or Feather blade. This advice also applies to all men who have an obvious dense beard growth,” he adds.
Maggard supplied the following chart to help match shavers’ beard and skin type with suitable razors to consider:
Source: Brad Maggard, Maggard Razors
- Closed comb refers to the razor guard’s design; closed comb razors are typically less aggressive than open combs.
- Slant razors cut the whiskers on an angle.
- EJ: Edwin Jagger razors.
- V3, V2Oc, etc. refer to the names of Maggard’s proprietary razor heads, which you can buy separately from the handles. Details are available on the Maggard Razors site.
Shaving frequency is another factor to consider in using the chart, says Maggard: “For people who don’t shave as often—say, once every three days—I’d suggest shifting their selection one box to the right of where they think they fall.”
Consider looking beyond DE razors, too. Mulreany describes himself as a “huge fan of the OneBlade range” and says that he shaved with the OneBlade Genesis since the summer of 2018 with excellent results. Mark (@mantic59), Sharpologist’s publisher, also is a OneBlade user and has published several reviews of the products, including My Long Term Evaluation Of OneBlade Razors. A web search for single-edge razors will highlight other companies’ single-edge products, and Executive Shaving and Maggard Razors sell SE brands on their sites.
Maybe an Adjustable?
Several razors listed in the table are adjustable models and it’s natural for new shavers to wonder if they wouldn’t be better off starting with an adjustable. Mulreany is a fan of the Merkur Progress, especially the long handle version, and he rates the Parker Variant as another good option. “These adjustable razors give the user control over how close or mild the shave will be, (and) choice is good,” he says.
Maggard agrees that adjustable razors are very versatile and says he and his staff recommend them very often if a person is unsure about where they might fall in the spectrum. “One of our favorite adjustable razors is the Rockwell 6C/6S,” he says. “Nearly the entire market can find a base plate setting that works well for them.”
Villela is more cautious, however. He agrees that adjustable razors can be a good choice for experienced traditional wet shavers but maintains that “an adjustable razor can just add too many variables to the shave for newbies.” My personal experience supports a cautious approach. I regularly use a Merkur Progress now, but when I first attempted a return to DE shaving years ago, I bought a Merkur Futur, which was (and is) highly rated. My thinking was that I would start on the mildest setting and increase as needed with experience. Good logic, but I didn’t realize that the Futur is skewed toward more aggressive shaves and even on the mildest setting it chewed up my face. The moral: research other users’ experiences with an adjustable’s aggressiveness range and ask the retailer if they think it’s suitable for your profile.
Getting Started with Blades
Compared to selecting a razor, finding suitable blades can be relatively easier: Mild blades usually suffice for a light beard while coarser whiskers typically require a sharper blade. You’ll want to fine tune it from there, of course, but those are reasonable starting points. Mulreany suggests buying four highly rated blades: Personna, Feather, Tiger and Gillette Silver Blue. “Test these over a period of time, work out which blade works best for you, and don’t pay too much attention to noise on the shaving forums about various options,” he advises. “These are the best DE blades in my opinion and sales on our website seem to confirm this.”
Villela says that West Coast Shaving staff normally tell shavers to start with a blade like an Astra. If they feel it tugs after the second shave, then they may need a sharper blade, he explains, and the company has a video explaining the progression of blades they recommend trying. But along with a blade’s sharpness, the technique also plays a major role.
“After Astra, we will suggest they try a Polsilver or Silver Blue,” Villela says. “If that still isn’t sharp enough, a Feather blade is in order. However, the razor you are using can also make the same blade sharper or duller. A Feather in a 34c will make it feel milder. An Astra in a R41 can make it feel super sharp.”
Another very sensible option is to buy a blade sampler pack. These include an assortment of blades that you can try without committing to buying a larger quantity of a single brand. Pisarcik says that he never recommends that new shavers try just one brand; instead, he always sells them a sampler pack.
He emphasizes that Razor Emporium’s packs are curated around a theme, not just randomly thrown in a bag, and their packs include blade sharpness ratings. He advises that users start in the middle of the pack’s sharpness rankings and then move up or down to a sharper or less sharp blade based on the shave results from that first blade. “We have specifically tailored sample packs and we have one called the beginner sample pack,” he explains. “That has a very wide range of blade sharpness. We also have a mild pack and a sensitive skin pack. Once you’ve used (the initial gear) for a couple of weeks, contact us and we can further tailor your shave based on your feedback from using the products.”
Maggard has a detailed checklist for experimenting with blades. “We highly recommend people try numerous brands – possibly as many as 10 – over the course of the first year of shaving,” he suggests. His tips:
- Pick a single brand (doesn’t matter which one) for your first 15 shaves or so with a DE. As a newbie to DE shaving, your technique will vastly improve over the course of the first 15 shaves. You don’t want to attribute an improvement to a blade brand change when really it was just you getting better. Establish a baseline skillset before introducing a new brand. Then see if it improves your shave further, he adds.
- Try to select brands that vary in countries of production – such as some from USA (Personna); some from Russia (Gillette, Voskhod, etc.); something from Egypt (Lord, Shark, etc.), something from Japan (Feather, Kai).
- Try to select a few different platings or coatings, such as platinum coated or chrome coated.
If you decide to geek out on razor blades and dive into their details, Maggard’s suggestions on country of origin and coatings are a good place to start. With coatings, for instance, platinum and chrome (chromium) coating are widely used, while other razors my use PTFE or ceramic coats. Platinum helps keep the blade sharp; chrome helps to prevent edge corrosion that can cause nicks and cuts; and PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene) reduces the blade’s friction on your skin.
As mentioned previously, blades’ sharpness varies widely. In addition to Razor Emporium, several other sites rank blade sharpness. Refined Shave evaluates over 30 blades for smoothness/feel, sharpness over two shaves and durability (edge sharpness retention). I’m not sure if the site is still being updated but it’s a good source of data.
Hair Free Life has a double edge razor blade sharpness chart of various popular blades ranked from super sharp to very smooth. While relative sharpness ratings can and do vary between reviewers, they’re still a useful starting point. But if you really want to drill down into blade sharpness, check out Charles Smith’s Sharpologist article, The Science of Blade Sharpness. It’s a technical discussion but Smith makes it understandable.
Another tip: Keep notes of your impressions and results with each new blade (or blade and razor combination). That might sound obsessive but it’s too easy to forget how a blade performed a month or two ago as you’re working through a sampler pack. Post-shave notes also can help you hone in more quickly on the blade characteristics that produce your best shaves. This is one of my shaving goals for 2020: Create a log with the test-shave results from pairing the (too many) blades and razors I have on hand.
Fitting Your Budget
You don’t have to drain your savings to get started with an initial set of shaving hardware. For less than $75, you can buy a good quality, mild aggressiveness razor and a sampler pack of blades. Adjustables tend to cost more and you can spend lots more on high-end razors, of course, but it’s probably best to stick with modestly priced models until you have a better sense of what works for you. In time you might decide that having one razor is sufficient or you might want more variety in your daily shave.
Pisarcik points out that attitudes differ: “Are you someone who likes to have five different sipping whiskeys in your bar? Are you someone who wears a new watch every day? Those kinds of customers may want variety with five or 10 different razors and have it be a hobby, but that’s not everyone. A lot of guys just want to have a razor that works and they don’t want to think about it every day.”
Nothing wrong with that!
Ed McCarthy is a semi-retired freelance writer living in rural northwestern Rhode Island with his wife and too many razors. Despite numerous shaving experiments over the past 50 years he has somehow managed to avoid completely destroying his face.