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Pre-Shave Oil vs. Pre-Shave Cream vs. Pre-Shave Cleanser: Which Is Better?

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I think we can all agree that some kind of preparation before a shave can make the shaving routine much easier.  But what kind of preparation?  There are three approaches most shavers can take: cleansing and rinsing, using a non-oil pre-shave product (like pre-shave creams), and using an oil-based pre-shave product.

Each method has its own benefits and drawbacks, so it can be difficult to decide which one is right for you. Let’s take a closer look at each of these methods and help you decide which one is best for you.

Warm Water And Cleanser

man washing face

I still firmly believe that some kind of skin cleaning and rinsing prior to shaving is really important.

In a 1937 paper for the American Medical Association by Lester Hollander (MD) and Elbridge Casselman (MD), “Factors Involved In Satisfactory Shaving” the effect of water was one of the factors examined.  The most relevant quotes from the paper:

“The tensile strength and consequently the hardness of hair are lessened by water absorption.

“Hair also takes up sebacceus secretion, which retards water absorption–an important factor in shaving, because in hair covered in sebacceus secretion there is a delay in water absorption during lathering.”

Donald Deem (MS) and Martin Eiger (PhD) published a paper for the Society Of Cosmetic Chemists (available at in 1976 studying the use and temperature of water for shaving.  The summary:

“Synopsis: Device is described which permits measurement of the force required to CUT a BEARD HAIR FIBER under a variety of conditions. Studies with this device show ​that the force required to cut wet beard fibers with commercial razor blades is about 65 per cent less than that of dry fibers. Beard hair is almost completely hydrated by exposure to water for about 2 minutes at room temperature, and this hydration is accelerated by an increase in temperature.”

So the process of cleaning and hydrating the skin before shaving can be scientifically proven to improve the shave.  The downside is that this process takes time.  Doctors have told me it can take up to three minutes to properly hydrate hair for shaving, depending on temperature and other factors.

Non-Oil-Based Pre-Shave Products

man applying lotion to face

Pre-shave oils get all the buzz in shaving circles, but what about pre-shaves that are not oil-based like a pre-shave cream? There are actually quite a few, and they can work a little differently than oils.

There’s an old saying that “oil and water don’t mix.” I think that’s the key difference (albeit perhaps over-simplified) between oil and non-oil pre-shave products such as pre-shave cream: oils form a layer of lubricant between the skin and lather. Non-oil pre-shaves seem to either mix with the existing shave cream or soap to create a more effective lather, or to (intentionally) create an additional protective layer between the skin and blade.

Broadly-speaking, non-oil products can provide a little more protection to the skin while oil-based pre-shaves provide more lubrication for shaving allowing for a smoother shave.

For recommendations of these pre-shaves click/tap here to read “11 Non-Oil Pre-Shaves”

Oil-Based Pre-Shave Products

Pre-shave oil can be an important part of a shaving routine. It can help moisturize the skin before shaving (by preventing moisture loss) and provide an extra layer of lubrication to help protect sensitive skin against irritation. There are many different types of pre-shave oils on the market, so it can be difficult to decide which one is best for you.

For years I had been in the “pre-shave oils are a crutch” camp of traditional shaving. Then back in 2019, I had a bit of an epiphany: I tried a pre-shave oil that a sponsor had asked me to use. And I discovered that, under certain conditions, a pre-shave oil could actually be pretty useful to me.

Pre-shave oils that contain essential oils can offer various benefits due to their properties and effects. Pre-shave oils containing essential oils offer a range of benefits including antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, aromatherapy, skin healing, moisturizing, and antifungal properties. These oils can contribute to a more comfortable and beneficial shaving experience by promoting skin health and well-being. Here are some key benefits of essential oils commonly used in shaving products:

  1. Antimicrobial Properties: Essential oils like Lavender, Bergamot, Clary Sage, Jasmine, Lemongrass, and Ylang Ylang have been shown to have antimicrobial properties. These properties can help reduce the risk of skin infections or irritations when applied before shaving, promoting healthier skin.
  2. Anti-inflammatory Effects: Essential oils such as Lavender have anti-inflammatory properties that can help soothe the skin and reduce redness or irritation post-shaving. This can be beneficial for individuals with sensitive skin or those prone to razor burns.
  3. Skin Healing Properties: Lavender oil, for example, has been studied for its wound healing potential by accelerating granulation and wound contraction through the induction of TGF-β. This suggests that lavender oil, when used in pre-shave oils, may aid in soothing the skin and promoting healing after shaving.
  4. Moisturizing and Nourishing: Essential oils like Lavender and Vanilla can help moisturize the skin, cleanse, and leave it smooth and soft. These oils can hydrate the skin, making it more supple and reducing dryness, which is beneficial for a comfortable shaving experience.
  5. Antifungal Properties: Some essential oils, such as Thyme, Tea Tree, Peppermint, and Clove oil, have been tested for their antifungal activities, which can be beneficial in preventing skin fungal infections. Using pre-shave oils containing these oils may help protect the skin from fungal issues.

For recommendations on pre-shave oil products, click/tap here to read The Best Pre Shave Oil: A Comprehensive Comparison Of Shaving Oils

Summing Up

Pre-shave creams are water-based products that focus on moisturizing and preparing the skin for shaving, while pre-shave oils are oil-based products that create a protective barrier and lubricate the skin for a smoother shaving experience. Both products have their unique benefits and should be chosen based on individual preferences and skin needs.


Shave tutor and co-founder of sharpologist. I have been advocating old-school shaving for over 20 years and have been featured in major media outlets including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Lifehacker. Also check out my content on Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest!View Author posts

3 thoughts on “Pre-Shave Oil vs. Pre-Shave Cream vs. Pre-Shave Cleanser: Which Is Better?”

  1. For over a year, I’ve been using Maggards lime pre-shave oil. I first rub half my face with Arko stick. Then 10ish drops of oil. I work that in. Then apply cream with my brush. I start with a shower, or at least wash my face. I work the brush for a minute, glance at clock. Then let that set, for 4 more minutes, refreshing as needed. This works great for me!

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