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Why Should I Use A Shaving Brush? Is A Shaving Brush Worth It?
Simply put, a shaving brush is the best way to prepare stubble for shaving. And not just for a single reason–there are a number of ways in which using a shaving brush benefits the shaving process:
Whether you’re using cheap canned shaving foam (just don’t…) or the most expensive shaving cream, it’s really water that does the “heavy lifting” for a shave, preparing the skin and the hair. But water alone is far too “volatile” to use by itself for most people (though admittedly some can shave in the shower with just water as long as there is a continuous flow available). Shaving products (foams, gels, creams, etc.) exist to stabilize and hold water against the skin–and yes, provide even more lubrication and cushion with additional ingredients.
Using a shaving brush further mixes product with water making an even more effective, rich lather for the razor blade edge to track on (and reducing the amount of air in the lather as well, preventing the skin from prematurely drying and possibly causing irritation). Plus the shaving brush usually needs less product to make a good lather: traditional shaving creams and soaps may cost more up-front but you use so little of it at once it will last far longer and the cost per shave can be quite low.
Cleaning And Exfoliation
Because a shave brush is most often used with a lathering shaving soap or cream, using a brush can reduce (replace?) the need for a pre-shave routine of washing or cleansing the skin. Using a shave brush also produces a mild exfoliating effect on the skin: think of it as helping sweep away tiny bits of debris from around hair stubble.
When shaving products are applied with just fingers, hairs tend to matte to the face, making them more difficult for the razor’s blade edge to get at. When used properly (more on this later), a shaving brush lifts hair and surrounds it with lather, requiring less work from the razor blade edge(s).
A Better Shave Experience
Beyond the more practical aspects of using shaving brushes, it can also enhance the shaving experience–it can feel really nice! Ever get a barber shave with the towels and the warm lather? You can get a similar experience with a shave brush. And for some, that feeling of a warm, fragrant lather on the face is very relaxing and appealing. It’s almost a “Zen” or meditative experience.
How Do I Choose The Best Shaving Brush For Me?
Not too many years ago the shave brush market was dominated by just a few manufacturers, mainly old-school British companies such as Simpson, Vulfix, and Edwin Jagger, plus a few established European brands like Shavemac, Plisson, Muhle, and Omega.
But there has been some consolidation of the old-line brands (Simpson and Vulfix merged, for example) and a dramatic rise of “artisan” brands using “OEM” products from the Far-East. Thanks to the wider availability of hair-only knots (sourced from Asia but sold through western outlets) artisans need only “turn” their handles in quantity to establish a reputation. More recently some of those Asian OEM’s have started selling directly to the consumer.
The result is a much wider range of choices, at better prices, for the shaving consumer.
Unfortunately selecting a shaving brush can be confusing to the uninitiated. There are a bunch of variables, each with their own advantages and disadvantages:
Shaving brushes generally come in one of four types of bristle: badger hair, boar hair, horse hair and synthetic material.
Badger hair brushes have been historically regarded as the preferred material for shaving brushes and can generally make a better lather, more quickly. They also can retain more heat and water than brushes of other types. However there are several different grades of hair (taken from different areas of the animal), and unfortunately there is no standardized grading process. But here are some general guidelines:
- The lowest grade of badger hair is generally referred to as “pure.” Pure badger hair is characterized by a dark color and thick, relatively stiff, coarse-looking hair. Some manufacturers will bleach the hair slightly to make it appear like a higher grade but the hair itself will still look coarse. A pure badger hair brush is not necessarily a “bad” brush–there are high quality, well-made examples that perform quite well.
- The next grade of badger hair is usually called “super,” best,” or “fine.” These mid-tier brushes are generally better constructed and the badger hair is finer-looking, softer, and lighter in color. These brushes retain water and heat noticeably better–sometimes dramatically better–than lower grades.
- The highest grade of badger hair is usually labeled “silvertip” (though Simpson and Edwin Jagger refer to these as “Super”). These brushes are typically made to the highest standard, often with hand-crafted workmanship, commanding the highest prices. Silvertip badger hair is often cream colored on top with darker bands of color below and very fine but still fairly flexible hairs. Silvertip badger bristle will retain even more water and heat than super badger brushes, but is a less dramatic improvement.
Then there’s the “two band vs. three band” badger bristle debate. Generally this refers to two sub-grades within the mid-grade (super/fine/best) tier, though some apply it to other badger hair grades as well. Visually it refers to the colors seen on a brush’s hair knot as seen from the side: two-band have a lighter color on the upper part of the hair and a darker color on the lower part; while three band brushes have a light color on top, a darker “stripe” in the middle, and a lighter color on the bottom.
Very broadly-speaking, two-band hair is a bit thicker and stiffer while three-band hair is a bit thinner and more flexible–though both are still “soft” on the skin.
Some manufacturers bleach or color their brushes which confuses matters further.
You may see references to “gel tip” silvertip badger shaving brush knots. This is badger hair that have a ‘hook’ at the very tip of each hair. They’re very soft on the skin.
If you’re about to buy your first badger hair shave brush my recommendation is not to worry about the nerdy details but to get a decently-made brush at a price you can afford from a reputable source.
A brush with boar bristles–sometimes called a “natural bristle” shaving brush–are the most commonly seen in mass market outlets such as drug stores and “mega-marts.” Most of these brushes are not very well constructed and tend to require more work to get a good lather from.
However that is not to say that all boar bristle shaving brushes are substandard. On the contrary, a well-made boar hair brush may provide years of service and can work quite well after a break-in period. Sometimes these brushes are dyed to look like badger hair brushes. Boar hair retains less water than badger hair but selecting a boar hair brush with a higher “loft” (see below) can help compensate for water retention.
Boar hair bristles are also quite “stiff” and provide more of a scrubbing or exfoliation action on the skin.
A Special Note About Badger And Boar Hair
“Are badgers killed for shaving brushes?”
Badgers (and boars) are killed to harvest their meat and hair so if that is a concern you may want to select a brush with synthetic or horse hair (see below). Virtually all badger hair used in shaving brushes come from China where the badger is considered a pest and controlled under license but there is some controversy over how humane the “harvesting” process is.
Some brands and vendors, including The Art Of Shaving, New York Shaving Co., Executive Shaving in the UK, and others have pledged to discontinue selling badger hair brushes.
Horse hair shave brushes have returned to the market after a being out of favor for 100 years due to an anthrax scare around World War 1. These brushes are generally made from the grooming castoffs of a horse’s mane or tail (or a mix of both) and the animal is not harmed.
The performance is roughly that of a boar brush (though less stiff) and it is considered the most “natural and animal-friendly” variety.
Note that horse hair shave brushes can smell very “funky” for a while, much more-so than other animal hair brushes. More on “the funk” later.
Finally there are synthetic shaving brushes. These can range from brushes with nylon bristles to those with more specialized synthetic material. In the past their price and performance usually fell between those of boar and “pure” badger brushes. However significant improvements have taken place over the past couple of years and the higher-end synthetic materials are now equal in performance to quality mid-tier and even “silvertip” badger brushes!
The ingredients of some “brushless” shaving products (like a gel or a foam) may damage a brush’s natural hair so if you are unsure of the ingredient reaction consider using a brush with synthetic hair.
Synthetic fiber shave brushes have a number of advantages over animal hair products:
- No break-in period
- No animal smell “funk”
- Quicker to dry
Different synthetic fibers have characteristics that emulate other types of hair. See Synthetic Shave Brushes – Are The Days Of Badger Hair Shave Brushes Numbered? for a complete discussion.
The type of hair in the brush is not the only important variable.
Brush dimensions are typically expressed in millimeters and are often divided into three sections: loft, knot, and over-all height.
- The loft is the length of the actual hair from the top of the handle to the tip of the hair.
- The knot is an indication of the amount of hair packed into the handle. The knot dimension can be a little ambiguous because hair can be packed tightly or loosely (the best shaving brushes generally have relatively tight knots, regardless of hair type).
- Finally the length of the handle is factored in to determine the over-all height of the brush.
Generally, larger brushes tend to work better at lathering large areas more quickly (think legs or skull), while smaller brushes offer more control. Brush sizes cover a very wide range but I think its safe to say that the average loft is about 50 millimeters and the average knot is about 22 millimeters.
Brush size and shape are a little more ambiguous. The tips of the loft can be shaped into a fan-like shape (some are essentially flat) or into a bulb-like shape. Each style has its advocates but there’s no real agreement about it.
Handle size and shape is yet another personal preference.
In the absence of knowing what you want I suggest measuring the distance from the palm of your hand to the pad of your thumb and let that measurement be the maximum length of the handle.
Criteria For The Best Shaving Brush
Unlike a few years ago, there are now many fine choices when it comes to purchasing a shave brush. With so many options, variables, and sources, how can the “best” shaving brush be determined? Like the other “best” lists on Sharpologist, I think we can use some (albeit somewhat arbitrary) parameters. Recommendations are based on extensive research of relevant blogs and forum postings, feedback from Sharpologist readers, and my own experience. Heaviest weighting first to narrow the field:
- Performance: how well the brush builds lather given the individual circumstances.
- Construction: materials properly waterproofed and manufactured; hairs/fibers don’t shed.
- Reputation and popularity: my experience and the experiences of others reported on blogs, forums, and shopping sites.
- Over-all value.
- Availability and length of time on the market: there are many fine artisans but they tend to come-and-go from the market so this list gives a little more weight to established sources.
- Available in different sizes: some brush lines have different loft or handle sizes to accommodate larger or smaller hands.
You should be able to find a brush with virtually any budget so set yourself a maximum price and stick to it. Bear in mind that many shavers who use shaving brushes (especially those who use a double edge safety razor) eventually get another brush after they have used one for a while and have decided they have a preference for a particular aspect or type of brush.
Listing a best brush can be particularly difficult because the performance aspect is partly “in the eye of the beholder.” Some people prefer brushes that are softer on the skin; others prefer a stiffer brush with more “scrubbiness.” Some think a fan shape works best while a bulb shape has its boosters as well. I’ll try to take ideas like these into account.
As with all products, caveat emptor and “your mileage my vary.” This list is not sponsored: I did not get paid to mention any of these products (however see below and the Disclosures page for more information on affiliate relationships. Alternate sources can usually be found with a simple search engine query). I plan to update this post as products change, enter, and leave the market.
So What Is The Best Shaving Brush?!
Note: AliExpress (Yaqi), Amazon, Etsy, Geni.us, OneBlade, PAA, smallflower, and West Coast Shaving links are affiliate.
Here’s the thing: there are a lot of excellent shave brushes out there! The wet shaving niche’ is currently experiencing an “embarrassment of riches” with a huge variety of quality products.
Other “best shaving brush” lists look at well-known brushes and don’t take into account the specific circumstances a consumer may be considering. Sharpologist thinks this article takes a better approach, taking into account the circumstances shavers may find themselves in (and will be updated regularly as products arrive and leave the market):
Best Low Cost Shave Brushes
There are a lot of low-cost shave brushes. Unfortunately most don’t perform well, are poorly constructed, and don’t last long. There are a handful of exceptions, though. Here are some decent brushes that go for under US $10:
Omega ’49 boar hair brush (US $9.99): a classic and regarded among many European barbers as the best boar hair shaving brush for heavy use. Overall Height 126 mm, Loft 63 mm, Knot 25 mm. The Omega ’48 is a well-known alternative.
Stirling Boar (US $9.95) is widely considered to be an excellent starter brush for the value-minded. Total Brush Height 4.75in, Knot Diameter 24mm, Knot Height ~57mm.
Maggard Synthetic Brush (US $9.95) Uses synthetic fibers similar to the popular “Plisson” style fiber. Loft 54mm, Knot 22mm, total height 109mm.
If you can raise your budget just a bit more, consider:
Phoenix Artisan Accoutrements (PAA) Peregrino synthetic shave brush synthetic shave brush (US $17.95). I think this brush’s value (price vs. performance) is astonishing. I can’t give this brush a “full throated” endorsement quite yet because it is fairly new on the market and long-term durability has yet to be established…but dang. See my full review here: PAA Peregrino Shave Brush Review. Complete Length 131 mm, Weight 122 grams (4.3 ounces), Knot 24mm, Loft 56mm.
Omega 11047 (US $13) Sometimes referred to as the “Mighty Mixed Midget” this small brush has a mix of badger and boar hair but it works very well for the price. Total Height 73 mm, Loft 43mm, Knot, 20mm
Yaqi synthetic fiber brushes. Many good models are under US $20. However shipping costs must be factored in and delivery times may be delayed unless you can find a distributor in the USA who has them in stock.
“Best Bang For The Buck” Shave Brushes
Besides the inexpensive brushes listed above, some brushes are known for “punching above their weight” and being a great value for the money spent:
Once again, the PAA Peregrino synthetic brush mentioned above is an excellent value.
Stirling Finest Badger Fan Knot is a great middle-of-the-road sized brush for a price below its competitors.
WSP Monarch “High Mountain White” (US $109.99)–High Mountain White (HMW) badger hair is reputed to be the rarest, most luxurious type. The price of this WSP brush is noticeably lower than other HMW brushes. Knot 22 mm, Loft 49mm, handle 49 mm.
Most-Popular Shave Brushes
There are several brushes that are well-known for the sheer number of units sold, particularly on Amazon. Unfortunately, from a quality and value perspective, uneducated consumers are often selecting brushes of dubious quality. Setting those aside, there are a number of shave brushes that are both popular and a reasonable choice for the shaver who is just looking for a middle-of-the-road, reliable brush recommendation:
Edwin Jagger Best Badger (US $36): popular and a better performer than what it’s price says it should be. Loft 53 mm, Knot 21 mm, Total height 99mm.
Parker “Long Loft” Pure Badger Brush (US $36.88): Parker’s best-selling brush and pretty widely available. Knot: 22mm
Parker Silvertip Badger Bristle Faux Horn Handle Shaving Brush (US $59.95) also gets ‘best badger hair shaving brush’ comments on Amazon. Knot 22mm.
Best Cruelty-Free Shave Brushes
As mentioned earlier, boars and badgers are killed for their pelts and meat. If that is concern to you, consider horse hair or synthetic fiber materials in a shave brush. Here are some good choices (though not the only ones by any means!):
Vie-Long’s model 12705 (US $21.95) may be regarded as the best horse hair shaving brush available. Height 104mm, Loft 57mm, Knot 24mm.
Synthetic fiber brushes can be considered “cruelty free.” In Addition to the synthetic brushes already mentioned, here are some other synthetic brushes that perform well:
The Taconic synthetic shave brush is a favorite of mine because it “feels” like a badger hair on my skin. See my full review for more detail.
The OneBlade Tuxedo synthetic brush is currently on sale for US $14.99!
The Best Shave Brushes For Travel
Really you can take any brush with you when you travel–you just need to keep it in a container that can get some air flow (I use a prescription pill bottle with a few holes drilled into it). But there are brushes that lend themselves to travel more readily.
I have taken the Omega 11047 “Mighty Mixed Midget” listed earlier while traveling and it was quite successful.
More recently I have taken my small OneBlade Tuxedo synthetic brush mentioned earlier. Synthetic brushes by their nature dry more quickly and are less susceptible to picking up weird things from the environment.
Then there are brushes specifically made for travel, housed in their own travel container. The Parker Travel Brush (US $48) is a popular option.
The Vulfix “Turnback” (US $65) brush has a really nice upgraded badger hair knot.
Shave Brushes With A “Pedigree”
Some shave brushes have a noteworthy history behind them.
The Omega ’49 as listed earlier is a boar brush that has been popular among European barbers for many years.
The Simpson Chubby 3 Super (US $229.95) is notable after it became the brush-of-choice among “method” shavers years ago and it still has gravitas as the best badger hair shaving brush among “old timers.”
The Shavemac “D01” silvertip badger knot has a reputation of being both very dense and very soft, and many of its users consider it the best badger shaving brush available. Use Shavemac’s “configurator” tool to build a semi-custom brush.
Best Places To Buy A Shaving Brush
Without a doubt the best places to purchase a brush is going to be with a specialty retailer with an online presence, such as West Coast Shaving, Maggard Razors, Smallflower, Fendrihan, Shave Shack Of TX, Bullgoose, Italian Barber, Super Safety Razors, etc. They will most likely have a variety of well-built brushes in stock and customer service personnel to help you with any questions you may have.
Another good source are shave brush artisans like APShaveCo, TurnNShave, Wolf Whiskers, Spiffo, and Declaration Grooming (among others). However remember that artisans tend to come and go more often, and their inventory is more limited, than established retail businesses.
What about Amazon? While they are certainly convenient they are probably not the best place to go if you do not know exactly what you want. Relying solely on Amazon searches and reviews can provide disappointing results.
How To Use A Shaving Brush
Here is your best opportunity to enjoy your shave. It takes (a little) longer to make a lather but it is worth the trouble.
NOTE: The first few times you use an animal hair shave brush (particularly the less expensive ones) you may notice a not-particularly-pleasant wet animal smell–often referred to by shaving aficionados as “the funk.” This is normal and should go away after a week or so of use. You may be able to knock it down more quickly by thoroughly washing the brush hair with pet shampoo, rinsing thoroughly, and letting it dry completely. Repeat if necessary.
The Lathering Process
There are some variations on how to make a good lather with different products, and it can take a little practice to get right, but the payoff can be a dramatically better shave. There are two general schools of thought on making traditional shaving lather, differentiated mostly on how water is integrated into the mix. The classic (sometimes called “frugal”) method of lather-making starts with minimal water on the brush, adding water until you get the lather consistency you are seeking.
Another school of thought starts out with more water on the shaving brush which the excess is drained in a particular manner. Neither method is right nor wrong. Try both methods to see what works best for you. You may need to set some time aside time to experiment as you learn the “art” of lather-making. Don’t worry–once you get the hang of it you can cut that time way down.
The type of brush you are using can make a difference. Here is an example of lathering with different brushes:
Making shaving lather the “classic” way starts with soaking both the brush and the cream or soap in water (if you’re using a synthetic material brush you can just swish it in the water, you don’t have to soak it. Though soaking should let it retain heat longer). Here is a video on YouTube that may help show the process:
An alternative to the “classic” way of making lather is a method I call “perfect” lather. After soaking grab the brush by its handle, hold it inverted with one hand (hair down, handle up) and with your other hand circle the hair with your thumb and forefinger like you’re signaling “that’s perfect,” and gently give it a squeeze.
Here is a YouTube video on tips for a more enjoyable lather:
If You Are Having Trouble
It’s safe to say everyone has experienced trouble making traditional shaving lather at one time or another. Here are four shortcuts to making a better, more stable lather, more quickly.
Priming the brush with a shaving soap then adding shave cream (often called “Superlather”) can be an effective (though perhaps a bit messy) way to get a stable lather. Loading a large, fairly wet shaving brush with shave soap (or even a gentle glycerin-based facial soap) will “trap” water and hold it where it needs to be. Then adding a shaving cream will fully hydrate the lather and also create a really slick cushion to work with. Here is a YouTube video of the “Superlather” process:
A trick similar to “Superlather” is “Uberlather.” Uberlather is the process of adding a few drops of pure glycerin to the shaving brush before lathering with cream or soap. The extra glycerin will create a more stable, longer-lasting lather. Glycerin can be found at your local mega-mart, drug store, or large grocery store, usually in either the skin care or first aid isle.
Sometimes lather is not very good because your local water has too many minerals or contaminants (e.g. “hard” water). If you have hard water try mixing in some distilled water. Just heat some up (not to boiling!) and pour it into your sink (with the stopper closed, of course).
Another tactic to try for hard water is a small amount of Citric acid. It can often be found with the canning supplies at large groceries and mega-marts. Again, you may need to experiment a little with the amount to add but start out with just a tiny bit–just a pinch of citric acid to a whole sink full of water. Using too much citric acid will change the pH of the water and you may not get any lather at all!
After You Are Finished
Most shavers rinse their brush after every use, though there are some who advocate leaving it loaded.
After you’re finished with your shave, rinse the brush thoroughly in warm water, gently “pumping” the water through the brush until it rinses clear.
Then–gently!–squeeze the water out of the brush and wipe it on a dry towel, “fluffing” the hair to break up any hair that might be clumped together.
Do not shake or “flick” the brush vigorously! Doing so may weaken the glue knot holding the hair into the handle over time: one day you may have a hairy projectile flying through the air!
Store your brush in a ventilated area–NOT in a closed cupboard.
A brush stand is useful but not required (unless a manufacturer recommends one).
“How long do shaving brushes last?”
A typical shave brush properly maintained should last for at least five years (and often ten years or more).
There are some variables involved but all but the cheapest shave brushes should last you for several years of regular use. Some of the high-end brushes may last a lifetime but most will show a noticeable decline in performance after five-to-ten years.
Have I answered all your questions? If not, leave a comment below!
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Over to you. What do you think? Do you have any of these brushes? Any other recommendations? Leave a comment!