Shave Like a Man
At one point in my teen years I somehow acquired one of those gifty shaving kits you might see on display around Father’s day in Sears: a holder for the razor, a cup for the soap, a soap brush and a cake of shaving soap. I thought that, if nothing else, using it would certainly raise the cool factor of my shaving a few notches. Heck, I might even get a better shave using what seemed like the official shaving gear of the old grizzled shaving veteran. This was prior to the days of youtube, mind you, so I engaged in a little experimentation and then gave up, because I couldn’t get any lather. It was worse than the plain bar soap and basic razor I’d been using.
Over the years, my experience with shaving was all variations on that theme. I’d try a shaving cream here and there, but find the results were no better than basic soap. I’d buy razors that had more and more blades along with a higher and higher cost, but see only minor improvements in the outcome. I did figure out that the battery-powered vibrating 5-bladed version did better with heavy growth--plus, what guy can say no adding power to something? But still, for decades I shaved every other day and my neck would be raw. To save money, I also didn’t change my razor cartridge as often as I should have.
Cut to the 2010s, and suddenly I noticed stores catering exclusively to the “art of shaving” popping up in malls like old fashioned shaving brushes were the next buttered pretzel. Department stores started carrying celebrity lines of shaving creams and oils and soaps and lotions. I’m no fool; I wasn’t buying into it. Trends do not equal value. The guy with a beard that’s much too big for his face and groomed to the point of silliness turns me off. He’s just waiting for me to ask about the overly graphic designed products in his store, so he can let me know just how out of touch with HIS world I am.
Until… one day I’m reading a thread about shaving in a totally unrelated forum--procrastination makes you do odd things--and I see someone mention a shaving soap that is slicker than anything they’ve ever used. Ok, let me tell you, these guys are the well-heeled adult equivalent of “da shit”. They are mostly professionals or retired professionals that engage in several sophisticated pursuits. So maybe if it’s worth their time, it’s just possibly worth it. After all this time maybe I can find a way to shave that won’t leave me worrying about my shirt collar rubbing against a raw neck.
As I read, I realized these guys are as deep into shaving as you can be. They’re discussing what blade they use for what type of shave. The lathering abilities of various soaps. Handle shapes and weights for their brushes, which themselves of course can be made out of different types of hairs which, if you’re serious, you’ll have an opinion on. Long story not any shorter: I ordered the soap. Just kidding! It took me six attempts to order the soap, because it’s “artisanal,” and made in “small batches,” which are almost always “sold out,” as the kids say.
The soap finally ordered, I did the one thing that I knew would make the biggest difference between this attempt and those of my younger years: I pulled up youtube. I watched countless men showing how to create a lather. By the time I felt I understood soap, I’d become intrigued by the safety razors everyone seemed to use. Safety razors led to different types of brushes, and then the vast variety of blades for safety razors. Then I watched a video of why the 2017 Acura NSX is better than you think, and then more middle aged men shaving in front of the camera and providing commentary on their experience.
By the time the soap arrived, I was more than ready.
The soap was good. It took a couple of shaves to get down making a good lather without having soap hit the mirror, and I’m definitely going to want to upgrade from the little plastic ice cream bowl I stole from the kitchen, but making a lot of good lather is now a piece of cake. Putting the lather on has become a routine in itself. The brush I’ve chosen is just stiff enough to provide a good scratch and exfoliation.(1) I don’t just slap it on anymore, I spend a little time with my mini facial.
Then I shave. From the videos I learned that I should be applying very light pressure. In the past when I felt like I was missing some whiskers I would push a little harder. So now I need to remind myself to let the blade do the work. I also learned about mapping the hair growth. For many men, facial hair doesn’t grow in the same direction on the cheeks as it does on the sides of the neck and the jaw line. The 1st pass with the razor should be in the direction of the hair growth in each area, not necessarily just down. For me that is down on the cheeks. Then down and back at a 45 degree angle on most of my neck. And lastly straight back at the far edges of my neck.
Before going back and shaving in a different direction to get that close shave, I apply more lather. To get the closest shave I’ll do another pass across the hair grain, re-apply the lather and finish against the grain. In the past, I would just keep shaving with different passes without applying any more soap until the hair was gone. I guess it makes sense that my manly, yet delicate and more sensitive areas, would get raw as I was no doubt scraping away the top layer of skin to get baby butt smooth.
Finally, I give my face a hot/warm rinse, followed by a splash with cold water to close the pores before I apply anything to the face. I use an alcohol free aftershave lotion to rehydrate my skin. And to do the very best for my skin, I apply cologne only to the back of my neck and wrists. You can put it on your chest, wrists, rub through your hair, but I’ve finally learned not to put it on my neck or face to avoid irritating freshly shaved skin. The new routine decreased irritation on my neck, left my skin smoother after shaved, and allowed me for the first time in my life to shave every day.
In for a dime, in for a pound--why not go all the way? Next step is the safety razor. “Safety razor” is just another name for a razor that uses double edged blades; it was called that because prior to the safety razor the only choice was the straight razor. I did my youtube research again and ordered one suggested for beginners. It came with some free blades. I will say I felt some trepidation in putting a safety razor to my face for the first time. You’re controlling the angle, and you have so much edge exposed. But the videos paid off again. My first pass was like butter. I felt none of the pulling that I do with a cartridge razor(2), and at first I was really thinking it wasn’t cutting anything off. But I followed my new rules: short strokes, no pressure, let the razor do the work. Reapply lather, do another pass.
During the shave it felt like a lot of hair was being left behind, but a good half hour later when the dust had settled everything was nice and smooth, with no more soreness on my neck area than after shaving with my cartridge razor. So even without any improvement in the shave, I’m getting the same results with blades that cost ten pennies instead of many dollars. So okay, maybe there is something to this “art of shaving” thing. Now, I’m still not about to buy products from the mall hipster, but I’m thinking there’s still more improvements to come as I experiment with other blades--there’s one that seems highly recommended that I can order from Russia--and as I become more proficient.
In the end, yes the reduced expense, smoothness and decreased skin rawness are important, but there was also something about this experience I wasn’t expecting. A sort of calming quiet time when I’m not just going through a daily chore to get it accomplished, but performing a ritual where I slow down and let things take the time they need. A little calm before the storm of the day, if you will. Maybe in some ways enjoying a tranquil moment in the morning routines makes me feel older. Sure, I wish it hadn’t taken so many years to find my way here, but I’ll take it. Better late than never.
Women are not excluded from this, hobby, if you will. In fact some prefer a horsehair brush as it’s the most stiff of the shaving brushes and provides better exfoliation to the legs.
Cartridge razors ARE made to pull hairs. They are designed to pull the hair up so it’s cut below the skin level giving you a smooth shave. Also giving you ingrown hairs and the pain of hair pulling especially when the hair growth is heavy or longer.
Main image by Barney Bishop.