One of the basic key elements of wet shaving is the shaving lather. In recent years the most advanced products (claimed by the big boy cosmetics industry) is shaving gel. What advantages do they claim? More protection, moisturizing, hydration, slickness and cushioning capabilities. It's the same old song and dance with just a new pretty face slapped on for marketing purposes.
Men have been using shaving soap, the most basic element of shaving lather for many years. Very early on it was clear what was needed. The lather (moisturized whipped soap bubbles) should be long lasting and not evaporate once applied to the face and whiskers. It would help if there was a good portion of slickness so the razor blade would glide more comfortably over the skin. The basic properties of applying a soap mixture to the skin can remove moisture from the skin leaving it dry. I could go on talking about several other points. There is one and only one primary and crucial function of the shaving lather. Preparing the whiskers to efficiently be cut (shaved). This is accomplished by hydrating not the skin but the individual whiskers themselves. So another function of the lather is to carry water to the whisker.
Individual hair follicles are by their very nature a tube like structure with a hard outer shield. At the base of the hair follicle (whisker) certain oils are secreted as the hair grows. These oils assist in the outer layer of the hair follicle to remain lubricated and sealed, allowing the whisker to be more pliable. When a whisker grows long and becomes a full grown beard or mustache this flexibility allows the hair to be "trained" into growing in one direction and to stay in a certain orientation (to be combed and stay in place). This is why the application of conditioning oils is beneficial for the care and maintenance of a full grown beard or mustache.
Now when talking about a whisker that is shaved daily or frequently enough to appear clean shaven the presence of these conditioning oils does only one thing. It seals the hair follicle preventing water (hydration) from entering the whisker, plumping it up, making it become stiff, stand up straight allowing a razor blade to cleanly cut it off perpendicular to the skin. If the whisker does not become harder, stiffen and stand up straight and tall then the chances of it being cut lengthwise or parallel to the skin. This results in the whisker becoming like a sharpened stick that can then pierce into the skin causing ingrown hairs, razor bumps and skin irritations.
The chemical properties of soap breaks down the oils protecting the whisker and allows the fibers to essentially open up like a pine cone opening up once it matures and dries. Water can then penetrate into the interior of the whisker, fill it up, plump it up resulting in it standing straighter and taller so it can be cleanly cut off. So, shaving lather's purpose is to effectively remain in place, covering the whisker for as long as possible allowing the water used to dissolve and interact with the soap to transfer into the whisker.
Over the years various shaving soap makers have made products that accomplish the basic tasks of shaving lather quite well. Tallow (animal fat) in combination with a lye mixture transforms the fat into a soap that effectively removes dirt and oils. Certain other things have been done to soaps to improve their properties over the years. Mitchell's Wool Fat Shaving Soap uses the lanolin from sheep's wool to create a soap that leaves the skin moisturized and feeling soft. Some soaps provide thicker lathers, some provide more slickness and it all depends upon the personal preferences of the individual shaver what qualities they desire the most in their shaving lather.
For many many years the smell of most shaving soaps...smelled like soap. There wasn't much interest in making them have a more aroma or unique perfume. That's because in it's most essential function it isn't needed. Now as time passed the scent of the soap did rise as a good selling point. It made a basic functional soap seem different or unique and possibly more enjoyable during the shave. Yet this aroma or scent went away as soon as the lather was washed completely from the face. Post shave lotions and colognes were the mechanism for providing a longer lasting aroma or scent if desired.
Today in the traditional wet shaving world there has been an explosion of new soaps, primarily made by small shop businesses in small batches. They are called artisan soap makers. The emphasis is how to attract attention from the relative small traditional wet shaving marketplace and thus gain more sales. This has caused a variety of experimentation, copying, etc. with scent combinations. Quite frankly the end result of many are Frankenstein's monsters. Yet even the most potent smelling shaving soap or cream usually doesn't linger longer than a few minutes post shave rinsing.
From my experience there are very few artisan soaps that fall outside of the "average" realm of performance or uniqueness. One is just about as good as another and usually the more hype and claims of their sales pitches the more suspicious I am of their claims of being "better" than the others.
One of the characteristics of many artisan soaps anymore is that they are "softer" in consistency, thus making them easier to produce a lather. This is usually nothing more than creating a soap that has more water suspended in the soap. This can simply be done by adding more water or there are certain chemicals that prevent the complete drying of the soap mixture in the curing process. If I were to look at this situation from a purely economic point of view, i.e. which kind of soap would last longer and be of greater value, then I would choose a hard soap. With a hard soap you aren't paying for simple water that has been added to make it softer. I can take any hard soap, grate it and mix my own water into it and create a soft soap, or "croap." So in it's purest sense, soft shaving soaps are a kind of marketing gimmick.
Shaving creams are also nothing more than soap that has been created to remain more hydrated than it would be if allowed to harden completely. Creams are easier to lather because most of the needed water is already present. It doesn't have to be added during the lather creation process. Some people would say that they don't want to have to bother with softening a hard soap prior to shaving, which is accomplished by putting water on top of the hard soap puck for a short period of time (5 minutes) to soften it allowing the shaving brush to better collect or "load" prior to face lathering or bowl lathering.
So this brings us to the difference between bowl and face lathering techniques. Both of them have been around for ages. Face lathering is just building the final stages of the lather production while on the face utilizing a brush. Bowl lathering is a method of creating the lather by using a brush to mix the soap in a bowl, adding water, whipping/mixing until the desired consistency of the lather is obtained. The shaving lather is then applied to the whiskers with the brush. Personally I believe face lathering is the better technique because it allows the soap to be on the whiskers a longer period of time, thus allowing the chemical reaction between the soap, whiskers and the water carried in the lather to have more time to accomplish full hydration and stiffening or hardening or plumping of the whisker prior to the act of shaving (cutting).
As I have hinted in a previous episode in this series, which soaps in my opinion provide a slicker sensation on the skin? Here is my personal ranking of the slicker shaving soaps and creams: Eva Nestorova's Goat Milk (The Rose version replaces Klar Kabinett very nicely), Mike's Natural, Kiss My Face, Sterling Shave Soap, Michell's Wool Fat, Body Shop Maca Root, and Gentleman's Groom Room Shaving Soap. A soap that is one of the slickest I know of is Lightfoot's Gentleman's Pure Pine (a mug soap that is a bit trickier to dial in the lather production process). I would recommend this soap only to those who would take the time to learn how to dial in this soap in order to make a usable lather.
A comment about heating shaving lather in a scuttle. On a cold winter day nothing can be more pleasant than the feel of warm shaving lather on your face. Mugs and scuttles that allow convection heating from a chamber that contains hot water below the cup that contains the lather have been used for many years. One of the things that happens when you heat shaving lather is that it will break down faster due to the increased heat. Simply the increased heat caused the micro bubbles of the lather (soap) "pop" faster. So using a soap that creates a thicker lather works better along with possibly not using as much water. A balance must be found as to how hot the water is in the water chamber below the lather cup. The hotter the water the faster the lather breaks down.
So, in conclusion I will make this final comment. Most shaving soaps and creams get the job done. A vast amount of inaccurate marketing hype is presented in the artisan world. It's basically soap and most perform essentially the same way and have the same results. Don't get caught up the the buzz words of "all natural" or the benefits of one ingredient over another. Don't feel compelled to go on a buying spree to try something new and different. Most things aren't new and very few are enough different to be able to tell in reality. One performs generally as good an the other. There are a few stinkers out there in the marketplace but in the past couple of years the overall functional quality of the products that are available in a moderate price range are about the same. Now a word of caution. More expensive doesn't necessarily mean better, particularly in performance. One of the best performing shaving soaps out there is Eva Nestorova's Goat Milk and for only about $6 for a 4-5 ounce puck shipped.
At the end of the accompanying video to this blog, to all of my friends worldwide I have a personal request and appeal for positive thoughts and prayers.
Good Shaves, Be Happy, Be Safe