I’m all for progress and modern living, but some things are just done better the way they were done a long time ago.
I’m thinking specifically of shaving with a safety razor and mastering the traditional wet shave like our grandfathers did. It has become a lost art to do a proper shave, and I think that is a downright shame.
Though there is nothing wrong with using a disposable cartridge razor system, I do think their rise killed off an essential passage to manhood.
If you don’t already know how to shave with a safety razor, then I hope this guide will put you on the right path.
I’m going to lay out all the benefits of using a straight razor vs safety razor to up your shaving game.
Benefits of Using a Safety Razor
Let’s start with the why of safety razor shaving before we get into the how of it.
Once you have a healthy appreciation for why you should ditch the cartridge and shaving cream from a can, then we can discuss how you can make shaving with a safety razor part of your routine.
1- Save Money
Whether or not you are trying to save money doesn’t matter. The fact is that you will save money by shaving with a safety razor.
Yes, the initial outlay of cash can be quite a bit, but you’re shaving for pennies after that so over time it more than pays for itself.
Let’s make an example here.
Now, you can use a double edge razor multiple times, but for the sake of making a conservative estimate, let’s say you only use each blade once.
That’s 100 shaves for $15.
Now, I typically get about 4 shaves from a Gillette Fusion so each pack of 8 gives me about 32 shaves. Let’s assume I stretch it and get 6 shaves per cartridge. I still only get 48.
I would need to use each cartridge 12 times to get the same 100 shaves from the pack of Persona. And even then it still costs $10 less for the safety razor blades.
If you take care of your Persona, or other safety razor blades, then you can easily get close to 200 shaves from a pack of 100 blades.
2 – Be Eco Friendly
The EPA estimates that 2 billion razors are tossed away each year. That is not an insignificant number we’re talking about there.
When you stop using a disposable cartridge razor, you are keeping a lot of those out of the garbage dumps and causing less of an impact by your actions.
Using a double edge razor will reduce your footprint considerably. And not just in the sense that you are throwing away less.
Their size is also relevant.
Even if you throw away as many DE razors as you would cartridge, look at how much less space they take up. That means less waste piling up in garbage dumps.
Then, there is transportation. Since they take up less space, that means that it costs less to transport more of them and reduces greenhouse gases.
Cartridge razor systems take up way more space in a box that then takes up more space in a cargo container. Think about the same amount of space dedicated to DE razor boxes and you can see how you are way more efficient with space.
Then there is the packaging.
These days packaging is one of the biggest sources of waste. I get that people are tempted to steal cartridge razors so they need to come in bigger boxes to reduce theft, but it causes so much waste. Also, maybe if they weren’t so expensive they wouldn’t be so attractive to steal?
Look at the pile of plastic and cardboard from a pack of Gillette razors and then compare to the tiny, paper box of 100 double edge razors.
It is clear which is going to cost more to dispose of and recycle.
And the waste doesn’t just come from the actual blades.
Look at an aerosol can of shaving gel or cream. It takes quite a bit of fossil fuel to produce and transport those.
Now look at a disc of soap that simply comes wrapped in some plastic film or even a bit of wax paper. It’s obvious that a bar of shaving soap has a much smaller environmental impact. Heck, you can make it yourself and save even more money and create less waste that way. You can’t make yourself an aerosol can of shaving cream, after all.
3 – Better, Closer Shave
One of the most consistent questions I get in the barbershop is does a safety razor give you a closer shave than a cartridge?
The answer is yes, but in the right hands.
The first few times you shave with a safety razor, you may notice a few spots that you didn’t get very close. You may even wonder what the fuss is all about.
Once you have learned how to shave with a safety razor then you will see a dramatic difference when shaving with a safety razor vs a cartridge system.
When you shave with a cartridge, the whole idea is to make for a smooth shaving experience. The point isn’t so much that you’re getting a close shave, just that it is comfortable.
That isn’t to say that shaving with a safety razor isn’t comfortable. When you do the prep right, it is as comfortable as any cartridge razor, it just takes a bit of technique to do it right where there is no learning curve with a disposable razor.
What basically happens when you shave with a safety razor and do a proper wet shave is you cut the hair further beneath the layer of skin so it gets much closer.
It isn’t just the razor that helps get so close. It’s also the preparation and using a shaving brush that exfoliates the skin and opens raises the follicles so you can cut much lower at the base.
When you shave with shaving cream from a can you aren’t opening up the pores, softening the skin so the hairs get raised and the hair doesn’t soften. All you are doing is lubricating the skin so the razor can glide easier.
The razor blades don’t have a chance to really get down close to the base of the follicle because you can’t control the angle and you have many blades instead of only one very sharp one.
The only way it seems that you are getting a closer shave with a 5 blade system is that you can go against the grain and cut the hair at various angles without any irritation. But, this ends up giving you a higher chance of getting ingrown hairs and razor bumps.
If you don’t like shaving everyday, then you will also get an extra day or two before you need to shave again compared to when you use a cartridge system.
4 – Less Irritation and Razor Burn
The first few times you shave with a safety razor, expect it to be a bit uncomfortable. Once you have the right angle down and understand which way your beard grows, then you will have remarkably less irritation that with a 5 blade system.
Since you need to do a wet shave, that increases the comfort and reduces the risk of razor burn.
The key to avoiding razor burn is to properly hydrate the skin and facial hair, to get the right angle of the blade and to not use any pressure when shaving.
This takes some practice, but the payoff is a super smooth and irritation free shave is worth it.
If you use a good shaving soap that has lots of glycerin and a high fat content, then that also helps reduce the risk of razor burn.
5 – Feeling of Self Satisfaction
For the perpetual learners out there, there is always the satisfaction that comes with mastering something that seems difficult to do.
Though shaving with a safety razor is not actually as difficult as it seems, the feeling you get when you finally get the technique down pat is something akin to taming a wild beast.
You’ve done something that many men are too afraid to try to tackle and done it well.
I don’t know about you, but I love this feeling and is something that drives me to take the path less traveled whenever I can.
I think that learning a lost art like doing an old fashioned wet shave and using an old timey razor is something that many men will delight in.
And, think of how impressive it will be to tell people that notice that your shave is looking a lot better that you used the same type of razor your grandpa used!
Straight Razor vs Safety Razor
Something that needs to be cleared up is the difference between a straight razor and a safety razor.
A straight razor is the classic cut throat razor that you see in old movies with an open blade. They can use the same type of disposable double edge razors as a safety razor, just broken in half, or they can be a fixed blade that needs to be honed and stropped to keep the edge.
There is no protective guard on a straight razor, so they are more dangerous than using a safety razor. A safety razor can cut you, too, but it is much easier to get the right angle and since it has a bit of a buffer, it is not as easy to screw up. If you get the angle wrong with a straight razor, which is very easy to do, then you can do some serious damage.
Even barbers shaving a customer with a straight edge can get the angle wrong and leave a serious cut.
Aside from the danger, it is also very hard to get as close a shave with a straight razor when using it on yourself as a safety razor.
Think about where the handle and blade lie and you can see that on certain parts of your face, you won’t be able to angle it right. Unless you are ambidextrous and can use your left hand on the opposite side of the face. So inevitably there will be spots that you just can’t cut down as well since you can’t get the right angle.
I have loads of experience with a straight edge and sometimes will give myself a shave with one. I am right handed, so the right side of my face never gets quite as close as the left side because of this. With a safety razor, it doesn’t matter where on your face you are shaving, you can always position it correctly.
If you have a classic cut throat with a fixed blade then be prepared for some work.
You will need to hone it regularly to keep the edge. It only takes about 15 minutes, but it does take some skill and has to be done. If you skip it then be prepared for nicks very often since the edge of the blade will end up pocked.
Then before every use it needs to be stropped on a special leather belt. It only takes a minute, but if you forget and don’t want to bother, again, expect some nicks. The stropping doesn’t sharpen the blade, but it creates a nice straight edge on it and smooths out any imperfections.
A safety razor needs no maintenance. You open it, drop in a blade, then open it again to take the blade out. You don’t have to do anything to keep it sharp.
Now, honing and stropping a blade makes it considerably sharper than using a disposable, so there is that benefit to doing it the really old school way when thinking about the difference between straight razor vs safety razor shaving.
You can get a straight edge that uses the same blades as a safety so you don’t have to bother with any of that if you really are dedicated to the idea of using a straight edge, however.
In fact, in barbershops in the US, you can only use that kind of a straight edge since many states consider the traditional blade to be unhygienic. It isn’t actually, but try convincing a state board and see how far it gets you.
If we’re talking about the difference between a straight razor vs safety razor with regards to a fixed blade, then the cost difference can be quite considerable. For a middle of the road straight edge, you can expect to pay over $100. For a high end one that will be passed down to your kids then you can pay into the thousands.
The ones that use a disposable blade are pretty cheap, but you don’t want to go too cheap because the balance of the razor is important.
The same goes for a safety razor. They cost much less than a traditional straight edge, but you do want to spend a bit to get a higher quality one than to go for the cheapest.
We wrote up an article with reviews of the best safety razors for more details, but let me give you a brief overview of what you want to look for when making your first purchase.
Let me first say this, since everybody is different, there is no one size fits all when it comes to choosing the right one. What works best for me won’t necessarily work best for you.
With that said, however, there are a few things that make for a very good razor that you should be looking out for. Personal preferences aside, these things will indicate quality and be more likely to give you a better shave.
The key to a good shave that is irritation and razor burn free is to let the weight of the razor do the work. You shouldn’t have to put much, if any, pressure on the blade when shaving.
If you have to press down on the blade to get closer, then the razor is too light.
On the other side of the coin, if the razor is too heavy then it may cut too aggressively.
What is the ideal weight?
Weighing in grams, you can see a range from lightweight coming in around 25 grams or so to very heavy at over 100 grams.
The ideal weight is going to vary between shavers, but to me it is a safe bet that you will get the right beginner’s safety razor if you look for one in the 50 to 75g range.
Experienced double edge shavers will tell you that the balance of a razor is just as important, if not more so, as the weight.
When a razor is balanced, it means that there is the right center of gravity to make sure that you can maintain the proper amount of light pressure and angle of the blade.
Usually, this means that the center of gravity is closer to the head. The head will be the heaviest part of the razor but it should bear too much of the weight or it will end up not balanced.
An unbalanced razor will be harder to manage and take way more practice to use correctly than one that is properly done.
The length of the handle has more to do with personal preference than anything. Again, as long as there is good balance, it doesn’t matter if the handle is long or short.
Personally, I prefer a shorter handle as I feel that it is easier to maneuver than a long handle. Some people like the longer handle when they have longer hands as they feel like they have better control over the razor.
This one is way too personal for me to recommend the ideal length, but is just something for you to consider. Most people prefer a shorter handle over a longer one.
It isn’t just how sharp the blade is. The construction and design of the razor itself will determine just how aggressive a shave you get.
What does aggressive mean in this case?
Basically it is how much you’re going to feel the blade on your skin. A more aggressive razor will give you much more of a feel of the blade on your skin. If you have sensitive skin this may mean irritation or razor burn even if you are using the proper technique.
A less aggressive one will feel much smoother and won’t have you feeling like you’ve got a sharp blade on your skin. You don’t usually get quite as close a shave with slightly aggressive razors, however. Then there is medium which is kind of the best of both worlds.
What determines how aggressive it is?
The angle of the blade is the biggest determining factor. The closer the blade is to being parallel to your skin, the less aggressive. That also means that it is less likely to get you a close shave. The ideal angle for a blade is between 30° and 45°.
Then there is the gap between the blade and the safety bar.
This limits how much of the blade is exposed so the shorter the gap then less blade there is on your skin. This gap is also called the comb. So there are open comb razors that either have no safety bar at all or a very wide one. A closed comb, then has a safety bar that only lets a little bit of the edge poke through.
If you have very sensitive skin, go for a mild. For everybody else, I recommend a medium aggressive razor as a good beginner safety razor as it will give you a great shave and not require too high a learning curve. If you’re feeling adventurous and aren’t scared off by a lot of initial nicks, then a more aggressive razor will give you a very close shave.
The best material for a safety razor is stainless steel. Those ones can resist corrosion and rust and last a long time.
The more expensive ones are almost always made from stainless steel, but you may also see some that have wooden handles. That is mainly for a visual effect and not a sign of better quality.
Chrome plated is the most common for the budget minded, but be aware that eventually chrome will corrode or stain as well as being more likely to chip.
You can also find nickel plated on both ends of the price spectrum from the cheap ones to expensive.
I like the look of the matte finish of nickel plated razors, but the downside is that they can stain or show your fingerprints too easily.
Though it doesn’t require a lot of effort or time, you need to take care of your safety razor to get the most out of it.
If you want your blade to last more than one use, then take the razor apart and remove the blade. All you have to do is rinse it dry, being careful to handle it in a way that you don’t end up slicing yourself, and then dry it off.
While you have the head open, you should rinse it under the faucet and then dry it. If you want to be sure that you aren’t cultivating any bacteria on it, then give it a quick rub with some isopropyl alcohol and let it dry before reassembling.
I have had people tell me that they like to steam their disassembled razor to totally disinfect it, but I think this is a bit of overkill and you risk discoloring your razor by doing this.
If there is any gunk that doesn’t come off by a simple rinse, then use a dedicated toothbrush you no longer use to brush it off.
Using a razor and brush stand will keep it dry when not in use and will prolong the life of your razor.
How to shave with a safety razor
I’ll just give you a quick rundown of how to use a safety razor since I already linked to the more in depth guide to doing a wet shave earlier in the article.
Before you put the blade to your face, you need to understand your beard growth. Take a look at how it grows and what spots have thicker hair. Usually the beard is thickest around the chin and mustache and then down on the neck.
Next, take a second to see which direction the beard grows in different areas. If your beard grows straight down from the cheeks all the way to the neck, then congratulations, you’ve won the beard lottery. Your shave will be infinitely easier than somebody who has multiple growth patterns all over the face.
For most guys, it grows down, then at the very bottom, the hair grow pointing up towards your chin. Some guys even have swirls where it looks like a whirlpool.
Having an idea of where the beard changes directions will help you avoid shaving against the grain which is uncomfortable and can cause some nicks and razor burn.
Prepare the Face
The most important part of using a safety razor, or any razor at all actually including a cartridge razor, is prepping the face for a wet shave.
Once you have your shaving cream lathered up on your brush and applied to the face, you’re ready to use the razor. Assuming that you took the right time to get your face wet and the pores open, then this will be very smooth.
The best way is to plan out your shave according to the changes in beard growth and then start in one spot and work your way methodically across an area.
The way I like to break it down is to look at your face in four parts. Divide your face in two right down the middle. Each side above the jaw is one section, so you have your two cheeks that count as 2 sections. The right and the left.
Then the mustache and chin is another section and under the jaw is the last.
Start under your sideburn and go down to the top of the jaw. Make sure to let the razor do the work. You shouldn’t have to press the blade against the skin. Let the weight of it and gravity pull it down.
Do this all the way until you get to the mustache.
Then lift up the nose with one hand while you start the shave right below the nose on the upper lip. Go down in strokes towards the cheek you’ve already shaved.
Then angle the razor parallel to the jaw bone and go from the middle of the chin towards the cheek you’ve already shaved.
When doing this, make sure you’ve pulled the skin tight on the shaved cheek with your other hand so the skin is taught.
Generally this is the right direction for most guys as the hair grows from the middle of the chin towards the cheek and not from the cheek towards the chin, but this might be different for you. If that is the case always go with the grain.
Next, go under the jaw on the side you’ve already shaved, stopping when you get to the hair that grows in the opposite direction. Do this until you get to the halfway point under your jaw to just under your chin.
Then, start under your ear and shave upwards from the bottom to shave the hair that grows up towards your cheeks. Do this to the middle.
Now move onto the next cheek and repeat the process.
If you feel like the cream is drying out on any of your face as you work, then you’ll need to get it wet again.
You’ll likely be doing this several times the first few times that you shave since you will be taking a lot longer to do the shave.
As you get better at it, you’ll move faster and may be able to do the first pass without ever needing to reload on the shaving cream.
Do a Second Pass
You’ve gotten the hair off of your face, but it still isn’t exactly a close shave. Now you need to go over the face again, but not in the same direction.
This is when most guys are tempted to go against the grain. It may feel safe to do so, but I still advise against it.
Anyway, lightly brush your face with cream again. You don’t need a thick lather here, just whatever is still on the brush will do as long as it is wet.
Once the face is coated, go at a right angle to how you shaved before. Instead of going down from the sideburn towards the jaw, you will start at the jawline and go from your ear towards your chin. Keep the razor angled with the handle parallel to the floor basically.
Just repeat this until your cheek is done from the top to the jaw. When you get to the upper lip, change the angle slightly so you are still going at a 45° angle to the way it grows.
Under your jaw, do the same thing. Always keeping in mind which direction the hair grows in.
Close the Pores
To make sure the shave is as smooth as possible, you have to tighten up the skin and close the pores.
Rinse off the remaining shaving cream, which should be minimal if you did a good job, and then rinse your face with ice cold water.
Dry your face off and add some bracing after shave or aftershave balm cream.
So now you have the basics on how to shave with a safety razor and what to look for.
I hope you’re inspired to give it a try as I really believe that shaving with a safety razor is very rewarding.
Always remember that I am here to help, so if you have any questions, make sure you ask away. In the barbershop, I get questions all the time so I am expecting to hear back from a lot of you guys out there just getting into wet shaving with a traditional razor. Most likely with questions about straight razor vs safety razor shaving, probably.
Just drop a comment or question in the box below and I will get right back to you!