What is wet shaving?Wet shaving at its simplest, is just that – shaving with water, a razor blade, and some sort of lubricant (lather, soap, etc.) on your face. Men have shaved this way for centuries, starting early on with a sharp knife or stone, progressing to the straight razor, safety (double-edge) razors, and eventually cartridge razors from companies like Gillette, etc. Why wet shave?To remove facial hair, of course! Less facetiously, a closer shave can generally be had from a wet shave versus an electric razor. Perhaps more importantly, the ritual, scents, and connection to the past associated with using high-quality wet shaving products can turn what is generally viewed as a chore into something pleasurable. Many men also feel their skin quality is improved by the exfoliating nature of the wet shave and the moisturizing nature of the products used. What tools do I need?The fundamental tools of the trade are water (obviously), some sort of lubricant (usually shaving cream or soap) that can be used to form a lather, a brush to apply the lather, and a razor to remove the beard. RazorsDouble edge razorsThis is the kind of razor your father and grandfather most likely used. The blade itself is a thin, flexible, two sided metal blade made to be used in a safety razor. These blades have a standard dimension of 42.75 mm long, 21.98 mm wide from cutting edge to cutting edge and they are approximately 0.11 mm thick. A safety razor holds the DE blade in place, and can be either fixed or adjustable in how much blade edge is exposed. Common brands include the currently marketed Merkur and vintage Gillette’s and Schick. The patent on Gillette’s safety razor dates to 1901. InjectorsIn 1921, Colonel Schick (who else?) invented a safety razor inspired by the army repeating rifle. It had replacement blades stored in a clip in the handle ready to be fed into shaving position by pivoting the head and stroking a built in lever, without the chore and danger of handling a sharp blade. This was the forerunner of the Schick Injector Razor, still made today. The razor blades are stored in a separate magazine, which is used to eject the old blade and inject the new one without touching a sharp blade. Straight razorsStraight razors (cut-throats) are one of the first metal implements fashioned specifically for shaving. It is a sharp, open metal blade with a handle to protect and store it. It needs considerable care to keep sharp enough for shaving. Excessive and deep wrinkles may cause shaving difficulty. Cartridge razorsDisposable (fixed-head) and cartridge razors began to appear in volume in the 1970s. Since then, there has been a proliferation of single, double, triple, quadruple, and five blade systems sold to the public. Which razor should I use?Much of this is personal preference. Many men choose to shave with a disposable or cartridge razor with some sort of canned foam or gel. While easy to use, this method has several negative issues: (1) cartridge razors are expensive, (2) aerosols used to dispense the cream or gel from the can are not good for the environment, and (3) a cartridge razor is made for the “average” male face, leaving little room for superior results. Furthermore, multi-blade razors can be quite irritating to many men due to repeated shaving of the same area by the multiple blades and the possibility of ingrown hairs due to the “lift and cut” operation. The use of a double edge (DE) razor can alleviate most of these problems. The blades are quite inexpensive, extremely sharp, and when properly used can provide an extremely close shave with little or no irritation. The same can be said of straight razors, though they have a higher learning curve. How long will one razor blade last?Experience differs here, but a good average is to change your blade once a week. This will vary with the number of passes you make with the blade for each shave. If you feel the blade skipping or nicking, then perhaps it is time to change it sooner. If you see light reflecting on the cutting edge it is time to discard or resharpen. Shaving BrushesA shaving brush consists of a handle containing some sort of animal hair, usually boar or badger bristles. These animals are somewhat unique in that their hair absorbs water rather than repelling it. This allows water in the brush to mix with the shaving cream or soap to create a lather suitable for shaving. There is also a third kind of brush, one with synthetic fiber instead of hair. These brushes generally are cheapest and of lesser quality, but of use particularly for people who object to using animal products. Why use a brush?The bristles in the brush aerate/hydrate the water and cream (or soap) to form lather. This is used to lubricate and protect the face during the shave. In addition the bristles have a mild exfoliating effect on the skin. Perhaps most importantly, the brush feels very good on the face – a very soothing feeling indeed when warm lather is applied. What kind of brush should I get?There are many types of brushes at many different price points. The handle should be comfortable to hold, and the bristles tightly packed. “Knot size”, or the diameter of the bristle mass at the handle end, is a measure of how large the brush is. Larger knot sizes make it easier to create large quantities of lather, but can be somewhat unwieldy on a small face. In the end, personal preference and aesthetics will determine what one person prefers versus another. A 22-26 mm knot size is a good starting point for many beginners. Badger versus boarBoar bristles are thicker, stiffer and hold less water than badger, and the brushes made from them are generally cheaper. Many men feel boar bristles are well suited to hard soap due to the stiffness of the bristles. Badger bristles, however, are much softer than boar and feel more luxurious on the face. Where does badger hair come from?Yes, the badger is killed to get the bristles. The badger is part of the food chain in China, and the bristles are harvested from the animal there. Grades of badger hairThere are several grades of badger hair, but unfortunately the nomenclature is not standardized. Generally, “pure badger” is the lowest grade, coming from the back of the animal. Pure badger is a dark color, and is the least soft of the grades. “Finest (sometimes “best” or “super”) badger” is the middle grade, and has white tips with a dark band below. “Silvertip” is the highest grade, with very soft white bristles, also with a dark band below. Silvertip is harvested from the animal’s neck area. More information on badger hair grades can be found here. Oooh that smell!Shaving brushes come from animal hair, obviously, and new brushes sometimes have an unpleasant smell reminiscent of wet animals. This dissipates naturally over time, but can be improved by washing the brush in a small amount of shampoo or conditioner before use. Others use a mild Borax soak to eliminate the odor and clean the brush. Brush CareYour brush is getting a nice cleaning every time you use it to shave with. After shaving, rinse it out thoroughly with warm water until all the lather has been removed. Then flick the excess water out of it and you are done until it is ready for action next time. There is some debate over whether the brush should be stored in a stand with the bristles downward, or standing bristles up. Since cogent arguments (and long experience) exist on both sides of the argument, the best advice is to use whatever technique you wish. After many uses, you may notice that the bristles start to repel water. This is caused by the gradual buildup of soap scum. To occasionally clean the brush more thoroughly, several possible methods have been suggested. One is to wash the brush in a mild solution of dishwashing liquid, such as Dawn, followed by a short soak in a solution of warm water and white vinegar at about 10:1 dilution. Finally, rinse the brush in plain water. Soaps and creamsA lather is formed by the aeration/hydration of a shaving cream or hard soap. A good soap/cream creates lather easily, lubricates and protects the face during the shave, and provides a pleasant aroma during the shave. Types of soaps/creamsSoap making was an established craft in Europe by the seventh century, and were the first products used to create shaving lather. More than likely whatever hand/body soap was around the house was used to create a lather for shaving. Later, soaps specifically formulated for shaving were created. Shaving cream is even a more recent phenomenon, only having existed for the past two hundred years or so. Creams have a soft consistency, containing glycerin, naturally occurring saponified fats, and added scents. Hard soaps are generally poured into a container or formed into cakes. What to look forSkin can react quite differently to different products, so what works well for one person may not work for someone else. In general, the more lubricating the material is, the better the shave will be. Of secondary concern is the scent of the product. These fall into several categories, including floral, woody, cologne-scented, etc. Lathering upRegardless of whether you are using soap or cream, soak your brush in hot water. This warms the bristles and loads them with water. If you are using a bowl fill this with hot water also. Get your face nice and wet; it is best to shave after a shower, when your beard is at its softest. At the very least, apply a hot towel to your face for a few minutes before shaving. Then proceed to the sections below Lathering with creamsShake out some of the water from your brush. The water to cream ratio is something you will have to learn by experience, but starting out with less water is preferable, since you can always add more. Either scoop out some cream from the tub (about a teaspoon to start with), or dip your brush in the tub to pick up some cream. Swirl the brush on your face, in your hand, or in a bowl to generate nice, thick lather. Lathering with soapsShake out some of the water from your brush. The water to soap ratio is something you will have to learn by experience, but starting out with less water is preferable, since you can always add more later. In general, you can start out with more water in your brush for a soap compared to a cream. Apply the hot, wet brush to the soap, press down a bit, and swirl 15 or 20 times on the soap. Swirl the brush on your face, in your hand, or in a bowl to generate nice, thick lather. Some people pour hot water on the soap and let it sit for a minute before pouring it off and lathering. Bowl v. face v. hand latheringThis is a matter of preference. Some people like to lather directly on their face, or in their hand. Try them all and figure out what works best for you. Shaving with a DEThe first shave with a double edge razor can be somewhat frightening. Follow these steps and you will get a close, irritation-free shave. First, get your face very wet and lather up as discussed above. Again, after a shower your beard will be at its softest. Before you even pick up the razor, consider two important factors: (1) use as little pressure on the razor as possible, and (2) angle the razor handle away from your face as much as possible (more parallel to floor). Remember that pivoting-head cartridge razors are very forgiving – it is difficult to cut yourself with one. This is not the case with a DE. You want the razor to glide over your beard – don’t press down, but let the weight of the razor do the work. Don’t worry – it will work. For the right angle, try this: put the top of the razor head directly against your cheek, with the handle completely parallel to the floor. At this angle, no part of the blade is in contact with your beard, and nothing will cut . Now slowly lower the handle until the blade just can cut the hair. This is the proper angle (some say it is ~30 degrees from horizontal) so you are cutting, not scraping the whiskers. These two items together, no pressure and angle, will prevent you from getting irritation and razor burn. I like to think of keeping my elbow high to get the angle right. After you are done shaving, splash some cold water on to close up your pores, and proceed to the after shave treatment. If you are new to DE shaving, keep it very simple and short at first – one N-S pass. Your face will take time to adjust to your new routine, so don’t worry about closeness at first, only technique. Beginners should not attempt to shave against the grain, only with it, and, after a little experience, across it. As you get better, you can add multiple passes (re-lathering in between) to get a very close shave. It's best to stick with a single razor while learning. The correct angle and handling can be quite different from one razor to another, so changing razors too early or too often can make it harder to learn the skills you need for a good DE shave. Many users branch out in search of the razor which gives them the best results, but this is something better left until you can competently use just one. The brand of blades for your double edge razor is an important choice. Many new users are surprised by how much difference can be felt by switching from brand A to brand B. Beginners are often encouraged to try out several brands and select the one which works best for them. You may find that your taste in blades changes as your technique improves. On a clean shaven and lathered face you may want try out a DE razor's weight & balance using no blade. Post-shave treatmentAfter your shave, your skin is at its most vulnerable. Some sort of post-shave treatment is in order. The simplest thing you can do is spritz on some hydrosol. Hydrosols are the byproducts of the steam distillation of plant essential oils. It is essentially water with the essence of the plant in it. They are very lightly moisturizing, soothing, and smell nice. Depending on your face, you may need some additional moisturizing. There are many products on the market, try them out to see what is best for you. TonersShaving soaps and creams are slightly alkaline by their nature (the saponification process uses a highly alkaline material to convert fats into soap). To return your skin to a neutral pH state and help remove any soap residuals, you can tone your face. Most toners also provide an astringent effect that helps close the pores that are usually wide open after the hot water and warm lather of a wet shave. The hydrosols mentioned above are good examples, and there are other including witch hazel, etc. After shaves/balmsDo you remember when your father taught you to shave and he showed you how to splash on some alcohol-containing after shave on your raw face after your shave? Hurt, didn’t it? Nowadays there are many more options that won’t dry out your face, as well as provide some relief from razor burn and irritation. If you like the sting of alcohol, however, there are high-quality after shave products out there that are good for your face; try a few types and see what works for you. ProblemsRazor burnRazor burn is another word for irritation caused by shaving, usually resulting in red, irritated bumps on the skin. This can be caused by many things, including overly-aggressive shaving, improper razor angle causing scraping, shaving aggressively against the grain, insufficient lubrication, and many more. Ingrown hairsA common problem with cartridge razors which use a “lift and cut” action. Ingrowns are hairs which are shaved too close and then do not emerge from the follicle, but grow into the skin, causing painful bumps. Shaving with a DE can reduce ingrown hairs, but many people are susceptible to them regardless of shaving regimen. NicksSmall cuts can occur during shaving. Often they stop bleeding by themselves, especially after a cold water rinse following the shave. For those that do not stop bleeding, a wet styptic pencil can be applied for a few moments, or an alum block run over the skin.
Thanks for sharing this wonderful introduction on wet shaving.