Many shaving traditionalists judge the quality of a shave soap by its ability to make thick, deep, rich lather. Hence the perceived eye candy hyped by some shaving hobbyists of so called “lather porn.” Others value fragrance, which can undoubtedly be a significant factor. But I think there’s more to this than meets the eye — or the nose.
I think the key quality is what meets the skin. What separates a really good shave soap from mediocrity or worse, is not lather but rather slickness.
The Slickness Test
Do you know why human palms tend to sweat when we get nervous, edgy?
It’s the same reason some spit in their hands when they want to get a good grip on a bat, sledge hammer, or other implement. A bit of moisture between skin and tool offers a better grip. Too little moisture and slipperiness can be greater. Too much moisture, and slipperiness can be greater. (This is why one can get an okay shave without soap or foam while flooding the beard with water under the shower.)
So nature has provided sweaty palms for better grip effectiveness under duress. But a damp face alone for shaving works against a smoothly gliding razor. And of course a dry face makes for a rough shave because of uber-tough whiskers.
So enter soap, which when combined with water, makes things more slick. But how to test the effectiveness of the soap? Read on….
Take any soap, whether shave soap or bath soap, wet your finger and thumb, rub your finger on the soap, and rub thumb and finger together. Slick, right? Then rinse your fingers under slowly running water and every few seconds, remove your digits from the water stream and again rub together. Sooner or later the slickness of the soap will diminish and you will feel a bit of dragging as you rub finger against thumb. The longer the slickness persists, the better the shave soap.
The following are just a few examples of high-quality (in my humble opinion) shave-soap experiences versus not-so-high-quality-soap experiences:
Arko Shave Soap
Let’s start by considering Arko, a very controversial soap. The controversy, the big stink so to speak, revolves around its bouquet. Some dislike it and reject it because of its (initially) strong fragrance, which some characterize as smelling like toilet-bowl cleaner.
I think this view is short sighted and somewhat unfair. This is because, yes, Arko’s fragrance is very strong when first opened or unwrapped. However if Arko is opened and left out in the air, over a few weeks the scent diminishes and becomes rather like a clean-smelling bath soap. Okay, it never smells like some designer-cologne fragrance, but it does become mild and not unpleasant — if, that is, one gives it a chance to mellow in open air.
However, fragrance aside, Arko remains one of the better values in shave soap owing to its ability to make generous, rich lather, yes, but more importantly, because of its slickness.
Common Bath Soap
For years when I was shaving with a double-bladed cartridge-type disposable razor, I would make one with-grain pass and call it good. For this purpose, any common bath soap worked acceptably as a shave soap. I would lather up with my hands to face, give it a shave, and things were just fine, thank you very much.
However, when I experimented with multiple passes using either disposable-razor/cartridge or double-edge technology, the bath-soap-shaving experience wasn’t’ so good.
But why? Anyone who has used soap and water to remove a ring stuck tightly on a finger knows how well it can lubricate.
Ah, yes, but give it the finger-thumb-rub test and you discover that it quickly loses its slipperiness as it becomes diluted. It therefore doesn’t lubricate well as the quantity of soap is removed, as it dries (and it dries rather quickly) or is overwhelmed by water. It’s adequate for a quick once-over shave, but not so good for the strokes in a typical straight-razor or double-edge shave.
Grandad’s Shave Soap
I worked very hard to come up with an all-natural, no-added-fragrance shave soap. I probably was too sparing with the soap quantity in my soap samples to offer an effective trial, though some who tried it liked it enough to order more. I, personally, found it lathered well in my local hard water. Yet not enough shavers ordered a sample and the demand wasn’t sufficient to actually go into larger-scale production.
It was a commercial failure.
However, if one did the finger-thumb-rub test, Grandad’s soap was pretty darned slick. It was actually a high-quality (again, in my opinion and judgement) shave soap. Its biggest factors, I think, in its commercial failure were 1) that it had no added fragrance — though this was intended to be a benefit to those who might be sensitive to the various fragrance oils and other additives — and 2) its lack of kick-ass bouquet.
An Unnamed Melt-and-Pour Shave Soap
There is an inexpensive brand of shave soaps that are clearly made using a melt-and-pour base, which the manufacturer-distributor buys from a larger soap company. In this brand, which I’ll not name, I like their menthol soap, which is not only pleasant to my nose, but also has acceptable slickness.
However, I also purchased their sandalwood and bay-rum scented soaps, which I continually found not to be up to par in the lubrication department. Sure enough, when I did the finger-thumb-rub tests, the menthol had better slickness staying power, while the sandalwood and bay-rum soaps were more like bath soap.
It appears that it’s not only the soap alone, but also the additives such as fragrance, that determines slickness.
So you can use your $35-per-jar super-deluxo shave soap/cream if you like. Enjoy. But rather than judging shave soap by price, bouquet or lather-porn reputation, I think slickness is king; slickness rules. And now you have a simple way to judge — and you don’t even really need a significant soap sample. Just a smidge between your damp fingers near running water may be completely sufficient to be a final evaluation before purchasing.
The flow-chart-type process looks like this:
- Like the price for the quantity? Yes? Then go to step 2.
- Like the bouquet? Yes? Then go to step 3.
- Passes the finger-thumb-rub test? Yes? Then purchase.
I wouldn’t go any further. Deep lather is over rated. Slickness, my friend; slickness is the thing.
Related post: What’s The Best Shave Soap?