Several of the discussions and questions I have received lately have centered upon the idea of what are the prime factors that contribute to an excellent shave. So many that are relatively new to traditional wet shaving quickly get caught in the trap of thinking that a particular product or razor or blade has significantly contributed to the success or failure of their shaving experience. Quite frankly sometimes that's how it looks but is it really?
I have reviewed several razors over the past few weeks. I have gotten many comments that a particular razor is responsible for providing the most comfortable or the most efficient shave that that particular individual has ever had. I can understand that perspective. I used to think that way myself, until I came to understand what really matters in creating a superior shave. I am convinced that 95 percent of the time, the use of a superior product or specific razor or blade has very little to do with obtaining, or rather creating, a superior shave.
When I first seriously got back into wet shaving many months ago it wasn't long before I was searching for "the magic razor blade" or "the perfect razor". That seemed to be the end all and be all question in my mind and therefore the quest began. I sincerely believed that once I had found the correct razor and blade for my face and whiskers then all other problems would immediately go away. Granted some razors and some razor blades felt better and worked more efficiently than others, yet my shaves were still inconsistent - excellent one day, good the next, poor the following day and superior the next. A roller coaster ride of high expectations and crashing disappointment and confusion. Why was one day fantastic and the next just so so? This bothered me, not just a little but tremendously. It took some time for me to understand and realize what was happening.
Of course during this time period I was also using first this soap and then that shave cream, this boar brush and then that badger. There were so many variables it was a miracle I ever reproduced a good result from one day to the next, but I did and that really didn't help matters. It only served to cloud the real issues and the issues were so simple I had difficulty seeing or believing their simplicity. The secret to a consistent excellent shave just had to be complicated. It stood to reason that a better more expensive razor or a more expensive and higher quality razor blade or shaving product would surely result in a better, more comfortable and effective shave combination. But this assumption was so very wrong, so very costly and tremendously frustrating.
I know that there are those who will argue until they are blue in the face that a specific prized razor, soap, blade, brush and balm combination is far superior than another. Product marketers just love for us to believe that their products are the reason for a superior shave experience. That's what repeat sales and bottom line profitability is all about....convincing the customer that your product is the best and is worthy of a premium price tag and multiple purchases over time. Because of this single fact of life I have stopped reading website information for anything but simple basic facts. The rest is advertising and pre-packaged hype and rarely has any useful information. Rarely are even the product reviews useful because, let's be brutally honest about it, if you don't know who the person is providing the product review on the merchant's website, how do you know whether or not they are being straight up and honest.
The simple fact is that there is one factor and one factor only that determines whether or not you have a good shave or a bad one. Of all the factors that contribute to a shave: Razor fit and finish, blade sharpness and smoothness, soap cushioning and slickness, ease of lather building, beard condition and growth pattern, preparation and post shave product application, etc., etc., etc.. Of all the various elements including the current weather conditions and the quality and temperature of your water, there is no factor more important than how you prepare your beard prior to the razor touching your face.
How you prepare your face and beard is the key. Nothing else matters. I talked extensively about this in my video on pre and post shave routines and products. The simple fact is, if there is adequate moisture going into your individual whiskers and the protective covering of that whisker is removed sufficiently to allow water to penetrate it and your face is moisturized enough to be pliant, allowing the razor and blade to slide smoothly over your skin as the blade makes contact with the whisker, cutting it cleanly and easily, then a smooth efficient shave results without irritation or discomfort.
The amount of moisture is the key element that must be "made from scratch". A pre-packaged preparation doesn't cut it. The pre-shave face, and more importantly whisker preparation, is what determines the whether or not the whisker is sufficiently stripped of it's outer coating and subsequently becomes engorged and stiffened with water. Once this has happened the result is the most efficient and comfortable shave possible. Progressive beard reduction is the goal. What happens in that process determines the end result. Moisturizing the skin should not be the purpose of a pre shave preparation. Let me say that again. How much moisture retained by the skin itself is only a secondary factor and does not determine how effective, efficient, or smooth a shave you are able to obtain. It may contribute to it but it does not cause it.
Yes, I know. You now have a headache. This is a strange concept to many of you. All you hear is moisturizer this and hydration of the skin that, which is essentially a dog and pony show and marketing propaganda to sell unique and ever more expensive pre and post shave products. Post shave moisturizing does involve returning water (hydration - moisture) to the skin which is removed during the shave and exfoliating process. Yes, shaving is the exfoliating process. You do not...I repeat. You do not need to exfoliate as a pre-shave routine. Exfoliating the skin does nothing to prepare your beard for shaving.
Go to your medicine cabinet and take two pain relievers now. Yes, your head hurts. New disturbing information causes headaches at times and right now your head hurts because what you have just heard goes contrary to all you have previously heard about pre-shave products and routine. The amount of moisture on the skin prior to your shave only impacts how well your skin reacts to the act of the razor blade exfoliating the upper layers of your skin. Shaving is exfoliating. Effective and productive pre-shave preparation is the fattening and engorging the hair follicle (whisker) with water. It is the stiffening and hardening via filling the hollow hair follicle with water that prepares it to be cleanly, smoothly and effortlessly cut in two, parallel to the surface of the skin.
Getting moisture inside the hair follicle is the primary goal of pre-shave preparation. If the razor blade encounters an adequately water engorged and stiffened whisker then that whisker will be cut cleanly and smoothly by a sharp blade. There will be no pulling or significant drag on the razor. It is when the sharp razor blade, and most razor blades are adequately sharp to do the job most of the time, encounters a whisker that stands up perpendicular to the skin level, straight, tall and fully ready to be cut that the cleanest and smoothest beard reduction occurs.
When a whisker is not adequately engorged with water, the hair follicle's protective coating is not adequately removed and breached and it fails to open up and allow water inside. The dry whisker (on the inside) is too pliable, soft and limp and bends and yields to the sharp razor edge, which results in an oblique slicing down the length of the hair follicle like whittling a stick with a pocket knife. This not only dulls the razor blade but is extremely ineffective and creates a perfect storm of conditions that results in an uncomfortable and ineffective shave. Consequently this now "sharpened" hair follicle is also more likely to curve and plunge beneath the skin causing razor bumps and additional irritation. If a whisker yields and bends then the soft skinny water deprived whisker turns into a long slick weed that must be hacked and chopped instead of cleanly sliced at a perfectly perpendicular angle along the path of least resistance. A whisker fully engorged with water swells up and remains solid and firm and standing tall in the path of the razor blade. It will be cut quickly, precisely, efficiently and comfortably.
The soap from your pre-shave face wash begins the process of breaking down the whisker's protective shield and the lather applied prior to the shave finishes the process of stripping away the whisker's protective coating which allows the whisker to open up like a flower and let water flow into the whisker's "trunk" and prepare it to be cut in a plump, full and stiff state. It is the chemical reaction of the soap that makes the difference and the longer the fully hydrated soapy lather has contact with the whisker the more water engorges and prepares it for cutting. It makes no difference what the temperature of the water is at this point. Both cold or hot water works equally as well to hydrate the whisker. Cold water effects level of the skin tautness only.
As I have said before, you do not want your whiskers "conditioned" like you would condition the hair of your head and scalp. Using hair conditioner applies a coating to the hair shaft, repairing it and making it stronger and more resistant to the absorption of water. A soft beard is a beard that cannot be cut efficiently. It doesn't take long for the process of whisker hydration to take place, just a matter of a few minutes. That's all it takes. Water and soap applied and allowed to work on the beard from scratch for a few minutes does the trick. Created with your own hands and not taken from a pre-packaged box a good lather on your beard is all that is needed to prepare it for shaving. A pre-packaged, pre-fabricated and processed pre-shave concoction just doesn't work was effectively. I'm not saying they do nothing. I'm saying they don't do what needs to be done as efficiently and usually not as inexpensively as simple soap and water.
All of the other factors such as the keenness of the razor blade and design of the razor itself and whether or not you use cold or hot water are all factors secondary to the necessity of getting the whisker engorged with water. These other factors such as razor design, the use of pre-shave oils to coat the skin and make the blade slide over the skin easier and the level of sharpness of the razor blades edge are more comfort factors than efficiency factors.
A razor's design can make it feel more "aggressive" than other designs and the level of aggressiveness has more to do with how quickly the whiskers are removed than how efficiently (how the razor blade encounters the whisker) the beard is removed. Pre-shave oils do nothing to the whisker and have little impact on whether or not the whisker gets fully engorged with water. Pre-shave oils help protect the skin and help make the razor glide over the skin. It has nothing to do with how the razor cuts the whisker. Now some pre-shave balms are essentially soaps and their action is as a soap, therefore they do contribute to the work of the lather. I often apply Noxzema Deep Cleansing Cream as a pre-shave balm. This in essence is mixing another type of soap with my shave soap or cream and contributes to the building of the lather.
OK, I can hear several of you standing up and yelling at me right now. Please sit down. Relax. I hear what you are saying. One razor works better than another for you. What I am saying is that a particular razor is more "workable" or "manageable" for you in removing your beard. You can use that razor easier than another. Most razors will remove the whiskers in time. Some will require more reductive passes than others (they are milder) and consequently the more passes the higher the potential for skin irritation.
Razor aggressiveness has to do with how much razor blade pressure your face can withstand comfortably without skin irritation or discomfort. The use of pre-shaves, open versus closed comb design, and the keenness and coating of the razor blade all contribute to comfort and not efficiency. The efficiency of your shave is solely determined by how "prepared" and "moisture engulfed" your whiskers are before you apply the razor's edge to cut them. How smooth and comfortable a particular razor or blade is for you is a factor of how it interacts with the skin and not the whiskers. Take a deep breath. This is difficult information to absorb and process. It goes contrary to most conventional wisdom you have heard about shaving, and from where have you heard this information? From advertisers who desire to sell what? Pre-packaged, let's make your life easier, products that usually demand a premium price tag.
Early on in our shaving experience we fall into the trap of wanting a pre-packaged off the shelf style shave. We want magical products that will do the work for us. We live in a fast paced fast food, quick and easy world. Listen to me closely. For a comfortable, close, efficient shave you cannot obtain it without doing some preparation work. It cannot be purchased in a bottle and applied by a simple crack open the bottle, pour and apply manner. Most of the benefits and "positive" results you experience from using a pre-shave balm or oil is in relation to your comfort level. They are buffers that compensate for the added pressure or extra passes required to hack off the inadequately prepared whiskers. If, when using them you receive a superior shave, the reason is not the pre-shave products, it is the result of the lather hydrating the whisker to it's maximum level of effectiveness. Some pre-shave concoctions assist but many do not.
Since I have begun the simple soap and water preparation and allow the shaving lather to rest on my beard a few minutes prior to shaving, I have been able to obtain more two pass near BBS shaves than ever before. Not only do I not have to do full three pass shaves, most of the time, but I can almost always obtain a smooth and comfortable BBS shave whenever I want one. My shaves are far more consistent. My shaves are far more comfortable. My shaves are far less costly since I do not need a wide array of pre-shave products. My shaves are less complicated and far more relaxing.
Now tell me, would you rather have a simple home made from scratch breakfast of hot biscuits and sausage gravy or would you rather have a bowl of pre-processed pre-packaged cold cereal? You know what I will choose every time. Made from scratch biscuits and gravy. What will you choose?
Good Shaves, Be Happy, Be Safe