That was a close shave.
There are three essentials in life (mine, at least): oxygen, chocolates, and a wet shave.
There’s nothing like a traditional wet shave. With today’s artisanal renaissance of coffee, avocado toast, and growing your own roses in your backyard, a good shave can always equated to your favorite barber.
In my case, his name was Angel. When I was growing up, the piece de resistance of my monthly haircut was the part where he would shave my sideburns—or whatever passed for them when I was a pre-teen. I was growing hair all over the place, and the novelty of using a sharp razor to shave off facial hair was new to me.
The ritual of preparation itself was fascinating. With his perfumed hands, Angel would lather my face with soap, then proceed to grease the long leather strop with natural oils. That was what he would use to sharpen the straight razor. Then, the shave would begin.
That was perhaps the best accidental ASMR of my pubescent years: the sound of the metal scraping on the skin near my ears. And let’s not forget the hot towels: I loved the hot towels. Luxury at a barbershop was defined by how many towels you could use on a face. One time, they used three: one before the shave, to open the pores; one afterwards, to wipe my face clean; and then an ice-cold towel to shake me back to reality.
Fast forward many years later: thanks to the ubiquity of plastic, disposable razors have become the norm outside the barber shop. Life happens, and a morning shave becomes just one small step in the routine of your day. It’s basically fast food, an afterthought in the wake of more important matters. You have coffee. You walk to work. You shave in the morning. Life goes on.
And then, today’s digital lifestyle came: the Internet, social media, smartphones. It was ironically disconnecting, making more noise than conversations. Many found respite in rediscovering artisanal crafts: woodworking, indoor gardening, the third wave coffee movement. And for many men, it was the joy of wet shaving.
I am not an expert. I am, at most, an invigorated learner who has discovered the slow and methodical process of a traditional shave. This is a beginner’s guide. Throw your disposable razors away and let me help you.
The Double-Edged Blade
They go by many names: safety razor blades, double-edged (DE) blades or simply razor blades. These blades are more affordable, sharper, and have minor nuances that affect how close a shave you want in tandem with your safety razor (more on that below).
There are many brands: Feather, Astra, Derby, Gillette (yes, even Gillette still makes DE razor blades in some parts of the world). Work with what you have available in your area, but what’s important to know is that each brand has its own level of sharpness. There’s no right or wrong pick, but you can try a variety until you find The One. A sampler pack of five or more brands from Amazon can help you get an idea of what blade goes well with your shaving style.
Here is the first myth of wet shaving, dispelled: In terms of price, a budget of US$20 can easily get you about 100 razors, which can last between one to three years. That same budget applied to disposable razor cartridges can only last a month, tops, if you don’t shave daily.
Wet shaving actually saves you money. A blade should be discarded after about four shaves. Other artisanal fanfare is more expensive than the mainstream stuff, such as the case of specialty coffee, which is a lot more expensive than your K-Cup, Starbucks, or Nespresso.
The Safety Razor
The precursor to the disposable razor is the safety razor or DE razor (not to be confused with the previous section, where I talked about just the DE blades themselves). The DE razor, so named because you can shave using both sides, is the apparatus that guides the blade along your facial hair. It is called a safety razor because it’s designed to prevent unnecessary razor burns from shaving too close.
If you’re a beginner like me, do start with a DE safety razor. Don’t go all Bruce Willis with a straight razor and start shaving your head. You’ll get cut, trust me. And you’ll probably burst a pimple on your head if you’re not careful.
Safety razors can range anywhere from US$3 to US$100. The difference is in the material and configuration. Some have wooden handles. Others use stainless steel, while others even use faux ivory (the elephants!). Merkur, Edwin Jagger, Parker and even no-name brands litter your favorite online shopping stores.
When you’re starting out, look for a razor with a long handle and ridged grip. A smooth handle can sometimes slip when your hands are wet.
Weight also matters. Too light and it seems like you’re holding air. Too heavy and it might fall. You need to be able to exert light pressure on your skin, at more or less a 45-degree angle.
You know you’re doing it right when the razor just skates on your skin, making clean lines of your five o’clock shadow. This is very different from a disposable razor, where you need to push down on your skin.
And this is myth number two, that wet shaving is difficult. Wet shaving is actually easier to pull off if done correctly. An added bonus is that these razors can be passed down to the next generation. There’s nothing like inheriting your grandfather’s razor (please sterilize it first!).
The Shaving Brush
In our bathroom I proudly display my two shaving brushes beside my wife’s makeup brushes. The brush serves as an applicator for your shaving soap or gel if you don’t want to use your hands. The advantage of the brush is that it helps create a sexy lather, which functionally also makes shaving smoother and less prone to razor burn.
Like razors, there are several types of brushes in the market, but it boils down to the animal hair used. Boar hair and badger hair are the two most common types.
Boar hair is generally cheaper and more robust, which means it needs some time to be broken in, like trying to wear in a brand-new cap. Badger hair is more expensive and feels softer to the touch, with subclasses for different levels of softness. I prefer boar hair brushes, because they can really help get in and around your facial hair. The choice is really up to you.
If you are a vegan, they also sell synthetic brushes of varying lengths and designs, and these work just fine.
The Shaving Soap
This, for me, is the second-best part of shaving. Building lather is an art, and as a kid I would watch my barber churn a thick lather in a wooden bowl. Now, I can do the same in my little Moscow Mule mug.
Any container works, really. Many shaving soaps already come in a bowl anyway. There are many techniques for building lather, many of which you can find on YouTube.
It really boils down to one thing: how much time do I have? Am I shaving before going to sleep? Then great, I can spend ten minutes on this—an added bonus because I have kids. I think shaving in front of children can be an interesting experience, since many engaged moments of my childhood involved me watching my dad do things, mundane things, like shaving. I let my kids help me build lather. Then they paint my face with soap.
If you don’t have ten minutes, you can opt to use shaving butter, which is almost like gel. You don’t even need the brush. Apply with your hands like you’re applying a facial wash, and that’s it.
And that’s it! The four components of a great shave: the razor, the blades, the brush, and the soap turn a mundane chore into a treat. Add a hot towel for that home barber treatment, and you will definitely feel better about yourself. When you feel great about doing the small things well, you can move on to the bigger things of the day.