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Shave Soap Chemistry And the Unnecessary Lubricating Razor Head

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Understanding why quality wet shave soap and cream provide more protection than their out-of-the-can counterparts requires scratching the surface at the molecular level. Furthermore, the emergence of over-engineered technology in multi-blade cartridge heads was likely a direct contributor to a generation losing the best component of the daily shave: a good lather.

The Shave Soap Background

Admittedly, my first safety razor shave was performed with a $20 razor and a cheap can of Barbasol. I was impatient to try out my new toy and had failed to simultaneously order a proper shave soap or cream with my new razor. Introducing a wet shaving neophyte to the “art” with a cheap can of cream was not only underwhelming, it was downright painful.

Needless to say, my first wet shaving experience elicited nicks, cuts and under-the-chin weepers. It was truly a classic example of what not to do. Luckily, I remained undeterred in my quest for a quality single-blade shave and subsequent shaves performed with the right product have improved drastically over my initial foray into the wonderful world of wet shaving. No more canned cream meant no more weepers.

In reality, canned shaving cream is a misnomer. It’s not cream at all. It’s foam. The chemical properties of canned foam “creams” (and I use the term very loosely) vary widely from the high-quality shave soap typically used by wet shaving enthusiasts.

Shave Soap And The Micelle

Soaps are made from a process called saponification wherein a salt (typically a sodium or potassium) is mixed with a fatty acid and reacted along with an alkali like potassium hydroxide or sodium. The resulting molecule includes a longer hydrophobic (water-fearing) fatty acid chain with a hydrophilic (water-loving) head. The longer fatty chain’s hydrophobic and non-polar properties causes adherence to fats. Conversely, the ionic and hydrophilic salt is more prone to adhere to water in mixture.

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Because soap includes both unique properties it acts as an emulsification bridge between oil and water, separating them in either bilayer sheets, liposomes or spherical structures called micelles. These bilayer sheets or micelles tend to trap the oils that are attached to dirt, making it a great cleansing agent.

However, when it comes to shaving, a quality soap acts as a great emulsification buffer layer between the blade and the skin. The longer the fatty tail, the thicker the lather.

And, based on the chemistry above, that layer operates best under conditions that include water and oil. That means the complete buffered layer would not be wholly efficacious without your pre-shave oil. You’re already activating the soap with water but skipping the oil step may cause you to be missing some of the emulsifying benefits of the soap.

Lube Over-Engineering

But why on earth did manufacturers opt for canned creams over quality soaps at the same time multi-blade cartridge razors first made their debut? The answer is likely more complex than we might expect.

Believe it or not, the lubrication strip on cartridge razors actually fills at least some of the same face-protection need as a quality shave soap, albeit limited to the real deal. The other half of lubrication need with the multi-blade cartridge shave can typically be completed with some hand soap in the shower or canned cream. However, we can easily surmise several economic incentives at play here.

First, the multi-blade cartridge itself does not play well with traditional shave cream. Because traditional cream is thicker, there is a higher likelihood of clogging a multi-blade cartridge head. Have you ever wet shaved with a quality soap and a multi-blade cartridge? It doesn’t cut nearly as well (the cream is too emulsifying) and the head gets backed-up with the mix of thick soap and hair. In other words, in order to sell the public on the idea of a more expensive cartridge razor, they had to make the razor play well with the other components. The addition of the lubricating strip took more of the wet lubricating job away from the cream and put that value-add directly in the hands of the razor. The added feature that gave the disposable head even greater reason to produce more margin for Big Razor, Inc.

Second, a higher quality cartridge razor creates an additional economic incentive to create lower quality cream (see reasoning above) with high margins and faster obsolescence. Enter canned shaving cream. A quality shave puck might last six months or more, but daily shaving with a cartridge razor will burn through a shave can within just a few weeks–added bonus for Big Razor, Inc.

As I have found, the best quality shave is had from the best quality shave preparation, not necessarily in the act of shaving itself. Prepare well and you will shave well. That starts with a good shave soap or cream and a thick, quality lather.

Unfortunately, we have over-patented and over-engineered ourselves to the point where we lost sight of those tools that were better. If we are focused on innovation solely for revenue sake, in the end, we end up with lower-quality foam combined with expensive technology that is a complete pain in the follicle. Use a decent shave soap or cream.

Joshua Chou is marketing and operations manager with, a provider of traditional and modern shaving tools and equipment. Josh has been a wet shaver for over a decade and is a harbinger of all things shaving.

Joshua Chou

Joshua Chou

9 thoughts on “Shave Soap Chemistry And the Unnecessary Lubricating Razor Head”

  1. I’ve noticed that all the vendors have stocked pre-shave oil for years, but I’ve never seen a post from anyone on the forums who uses or likes it.

  2. As the commentators above stated, the pre-shave oils I have used in the past yielded mixed results at best and were a bear to clean up. Currently I use Noxzema face wash cream with great results IMHO. And it’s more economical to boot.

  3. I second Juan’s letter. One tube of Cremo lasts me for 3 months. I spread it by hand (since I don’t need a quarter inch of wasteful shave puck soap on my skin), and it is like Teflon for the face.
    My experience with shave-oil was disastrous. Not because of its effects on skin; it’s because of it’s effect on a porcelain sink or shower! That stuff is nearly impossible to clean off.
    Words of wisdom; read and repeat:
    “The best quality shave is had from the best quality shave preparation”.
    Welcome, Cremo.
    Goodbye, WAY over priced shaving soap.

  4. Well, the shave combination I have used for at least 4 years…an ebay bought Gillette single edge injector razor and (the key is) Cremo. That stuff is amazing…teflon for the beard. It takes months for me to use a tube and you don’t need a brush to apply it. It works just as great with cheapo two blade disposable razors too. In both cases I can’t tell which shave is best.

  5. Never had a problem with pre shave oil. I get a bit smoother shave with it. You don’t need a lot, just a small bit on your palm and rub it on your stubble. I’m quite happy using the Gillette Fusion 5 blade cartridges and canned gel, along with the pre shave oil. The lubricating strip on those cartridges does its job of a smoother glide across the skin. One more thing–from my experience using Art of the Shave gourmet shaving cream and canned Gillette gel, I note no difference in quality. The only difference is that the canned gel is priced lower and ready to use after squeezing the trigger. Gourmet creams require work with a brush, mug, and water to whip into a nice lather. More time consuming and more expensive.

  6. Do I understand your column correctly that one should ALWAYS use a pre-shave oil to “fully activate” one’s brush applied shave cream/soap?
    I have always understood this to be a personal preference choice rather than a chemistry-based requirement. Any further explanation would be appreciated…

    1. Just a personal opinion – I have never found pre shave oil to be of any significant advantage to a top class shave and it is extremely difficult to thoroughly cleanse your brush after using it over an oil base. I have absolutely no hesitation with ignoring any advice to the contrary. Been there, seen it etc. and ruined the T-shirts with oil

      1. I dislike oil as well, I do like a glycerine soap washing of the face as a pre shave. I use Musgo Real Glyce Lime Oil Pre-shave Soap (aka Ach Brito Glyce Pre-Shave Soap…same stuff) I find I get a better shave.
        I have Thrown away every single bottle of pre shave oil I ever tried.

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