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The Distilled-Water Shave

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Water, Water Everywhere…?

Actually, a better name would be “The limited-water shave”: how to shave when you have only a small amount of heated water—as when camping, for example. But the most common use of this shaving technique is for shaving when the tap water is insufferably hard and thus cannot produce good lather from a soap because the minerals in the water immediately bond to the dissolved soap, forming a sticky scum that clings to bathtub, shower walls, sink, and your skin.

“Hard” Water?

A shaver who lives in the same town where he was raised may not even realize that the water is hard—it’s just water, the same stuff he’s used all his life. He may note that he can’t get good lather from soaps, but shaving creams do fine (because they are less affected by hard water), so he figures he must have “shaving-cream brushes” rather than “soap brushes”. But the problem is the water, not the brushes.

The distilled-water shave is both a way to test your tap water through a performance comparison, and also it’s a workaround in case installing a water softener is not an option (e.g., for apartment dwellers). As noted, the contrast between hard and soft water will be particularly evident with shaving soap, so try that.
Get a gallon of distilled (aka “purified” water) at the drugstore, where it sells for about $1/gallon for use in steam irons, steamers, vaporizers, and the like. Heat 1 cup of it to around 115ºF-120ºF (46ºC-49ºC).

For boar brushes: Pour enough hot water in a coffee cup to soak the boar brush while you shower. The remaining water in the cup can be used to rinse the razor’s head of lather during the shave. For other brushes, just pour about 1″ of water in the cup for razor rinsing and simply dip the brush into the reserved water to wet it throughly.

Load the brush with soap by brushing the tips briskly and with a certain firmness over the puck, and continue even after you first start to see some lather: you want to get enough soap into the brush for a thick and creamy lather.

You may need to add just a little water—on the order of 1 teaspoon—to bring the lather along, but since it’s distilled water, the lather will be abundant. Work up the lather on your beard or in a bowl, and shave.

I begin my shaves by washing my beard with ACH Brito Glyce Lime Pre-Shaving Soap (formerly known as Musgo Real Lime Glyce Soap) (Amazon affiliate link), but that takes almost no water at all: a spoonful-amount to wet the bar so I can get some soap on my hands, use that to wash my beard, and “rinse” with another spoonful-amount. This is not a thorough rinse: the residual MR GLO adds lubricity.

You can rinse your hands under the hot-water tap: no need to use distilled water on your hands. For the same reason, a warming scuttle, if you use one, does not need distilled water: again, just use water from the hot-water tap.

The “rinse” following the first and second passes can, like the “rinse” of MR GLO, is more a matter of using a spoonful-amount of water to wet your face than it is a true rinse. Only the final rinse needs to be thorough.

Use any remaining distilled water to rinse the brush as best you can, then finish the rinse under the hot water tap until the brush is cleaned of soap, followed by a final rinse in cold tap water.

With a little practice, you can get a good shave with 1/2 cup of distilled water, which means a gallon will provide water for 32 shaves: a month, comfortably.
If you try this and discover that you get a much better shave with distilled water, you might consider a water softener: hard water not only makes for bad shaves, it’s also hard on the plumbing and the valves. The best solution is a water softener that provides soft water throughout the house save for outside faucets and the kitchen cold water. (Because softened water is relatively high in sodium, it should not be used for drinking or cooking.) The best softeners regenerate based on volume rather than time, which automatically accommodates periods of low usage (vacations, for example) and high usage (house guests, for example). A twin-tank softener provides uninterrupted soft water even when the unit is regenerating.

UPDATE: Note that bottled drinking water is hard water, which tastes better than distilled water. A typical Brita filter removes only particulates, but the Brita Maxtra filter, as pointed out by Joachim Moeller in comments, will indeed soften water. However, a gallon of distilled water is only $1, so you might want to try that before buying a Brita Maxtra to be sure that any lathering problems are indeed due to hard water.

UPDATE 2, 25 Jan 2014:  I just learned about using citric acid as a chelating agent. Since it’s cheaper and less bulky than distilled water, it’s certainly worth checking out if your tap water is hard.


Michael Ham, author of Leisureguy’s Guide to Gourmet Shaving the Double-Edge Way, is retired and follows his interests in shaving and shaving products, cooking and creating recipes, reading books and watching movies. His blog,, reflects those interests. He can be found on Mastodon at [email protected].View Author posts

20 thoughts on “The Distilled-Water Shave”

  1. Thank you for the valuable information. Recently I purchased RO water purifier. The main problem with RO water purifiers is they need a lot of water. For example If 3 liters of water are sent into the water purifier, it will give only 1 liter of clean water and rejects 2 liters of water. Because It divides the water in to 2 parts and forces dissolves solids from one part to other.

  2. I have to admit, I’ve never even considered shaving with distilled water… I’ve always just used tap. Does it really make that big of a difference? Or does it only matter if your tap water is especially bad or something?

    1. Shaving with distilled water will tell you whether your water is hard: if the lather is a lot better, the water is hard. If there’s no difference, your water is soft.
      Chuck Falzone found that the lather is better if you add some tap water to the distilled water, since pure distilled doesn’t make quite so nice a lather.
      If you do find your water is hard, you can then use citric acid (a pinch in half a sinkfull of water—experiment to determine the size of the pinch, but normally it takes only a little).

  3. Have been looking at various spots on the web to figure out how to contend with hard water. One person submitted the idea of adding citric acid to the water used to make the lather. This made me think, why use citric acid that I have to go find somewhere, when I have “real lemon” in that handy yellow plastic lemon in the fridg. Added a few drops this morning, and the result was a nice lather. Worked very well, low cost and handy

  4. Is water that went through a carbon filter still dirty? I think it is, but I’m no scientist. I think it just tastes better because it imparts a charcoal flavor to it.

  5. Boiling water will not remove the hardness minerals, as you say it may reduce them very slightly through precipitate but the water will still be hard overall. I find the effect of softened water to hugely affect the quality of my shaves. I imagine the difference is huge with soaps, but even as a shaving cream user, I find that it still makes a marked difference on the amount of drag I experience. I understand some people without softeners use rainwater, but that must be pretty inconvenient!

  6. Carbonate hardness can be removed by boiling water. This removes carbonate hardness compounds which are responsible for the scale that can form on pipes and water heaters.
    Noncarbonate hardness compounds though won’t be removed by boiling the water, but noncarbonate hardness compounds are responsible for soap scum, which is a slimy residue…which could possibly act as a lubricant and enhance the shaving experience. Who knows? Could be an interesting experiment to try!

  7. If you boil water, I think you mainly get hot hard water, though some minerals will precipitate as the water heats (thus the hard-water deposits that ruin hot-water heaters).
    Good idea: using distilled (aka “purified”) water for the shave. It can be done simply to test whether your tap water is hard or not, or (if your tap water is hard), it can be used as a workaround to get a good shave. That in fact is the point of the post.

  8. What about just boiling the water for a long period of time? Or what I used to do. Just buy purified water from the grocery store and heat it up in a tea kettle on a portable electric burner. That’s what I used to do when I needed really hot water, when our water wasn’t coming out hot. It takes a lot of space and you have to be careful not to burn yourself or knock off the tea kettle, but it’s worth the effort I guess.

    1. Well, the Brita Maxtra filters I use for my drinking water (filtration bottle that fits in the fridge) reduces hardness immensely. Makes water super soft to drink. Even cold, our 25 dH water here tastes bad. Filtered and soft, it’s nice even at room temperature.

      1. Excellent! I stand corrected. I didn’t know about these—I was familiar only with the regular Brita filters. Thank you very much for telling me about those.
        UPDATE: BTW, those filters use ion-exchange method of softening. According to Wikipedia, the softened water will be high in sodium, so I would not use it for cooking or drinking (or watering plants, for that matter).

          1. I totally agree that the Maxtra cartridge is not the same as salt-based (ion-exchange) water softeners, and also not the same as reverse osmosis water softeners, either of which would do a better job of softening. However, some (e.g., apartment dwellers) are not in a position to install water softeners and the Brita Maxtra can help. As Brita writes:

            Due to an enhanced filtration technology, the unique Maxtra 4-step filtration, an improved limescale reduction of +20%* versus Classic cartridges is proven for optimum machine protection against limescale build up and great tasting cold drinks and aromatic tea and coffee.

            I believe the Maxtra, based on the paragraph above, would help in a hard-water situation. I am not in a position to test, however: my water is pretty soft.
            I believe that the softening effect of the Maxtra filter is what Joachim Moeller refers to in the comment above. Have you tried the Maxtra filter with hard water and found it not effective?

          2. Sorry, I misunderstood your update to imply the Maxtra filters due to ion-exchange were not suitable for drinking. We may have crossed wires 🙂 We have moderately hard water here and currently use a Maxtra filter jug for drinking water kept in the fridge and also a kettle that has one of these filters. Way better tea and coffee. I am going to try using this water for shaving and judging from the faqs on the Brita website I am expecting it to improve the shave 🙂

    2. I tried using the Brita Maxtra water filter for shaving and it didn’t make a huge difference. I must admit I only tried it the once but it did make the whole shaving process longer (having to boil the kettle etc.) I may try it again for a more thorough trial.

      1. It would be interesting to compare water from the Brita Maxtra filter with “purified” water sold in drugstores for use in steam irons, vaporizers, steamers, and the like. My guess is that the “purified” water (around $1/gal) would be better.

        1. I suspect the same. I have found some soaps and creams work extremely well with hard water and if you get the lather right, it ceases to become an issue IMO.

  9. Would it solve all hard water problems if you installed one of those purifiers on your faucet? I know Brita has one. I’m there are others out there, but it would take up a lot of the sink anyways. If you don’t mind shaving in the kitchen sink, then it would solve everything I guess.
    I personally like shaving outside of the bathroom. For some reason, I get better shaves. Maybe it’s because it’s out in the open and not in a closed, humid environment?

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