Face-Off: A Guide to Shaving The pros and cons of different razor options

Few things in a man’s life can be as satisfying as a close clean shave. Indeed, many of life’s other very satisfying things likely involved somebody shaving within the past 24 hours. We acknowledge that beards and other, less voluminous forms of facial hair have their own appeal.  We address that matter here. This article is part one of two about elective tracheotomies — shaving, and the gear you need to do it well. Part two discusses wet vs. dry shaves, and the differences between shaving soaps, creams, and gels.

Excluding Bowie knives, obsidian, and shells, there are five main types of shavers from which to choose: 

  • straight razor(or straight-edge)
  • safety razor
  • electric razor
  • cartridge razor
  • disposable razor

Each type has its merits, and circumstantial factors and conditions – like what you are shaving and where you are shaving it – will recommend some options and militate against others.

Disposable Razor

Disposable Razor

Usually sold in packs of three, five, ten, or even twenty, these generally inexpensive razors are well-suited to travelers, particularly those who aren’t too fussy about their morning toilette. A disposable razor consists of a plastic handle and non-replaceable head, which may be fixed or adjustable — “adjustable” meaning only that the blade-head pivots a bit.  Depending on a number of factors — intensity of beard, how often you shave, how many square inches of flesh you’re planning on mowing – a single disposable can last anywhere from two to seven days. The quality of shave will worsen with each use, and we recommend 86ing the device after no more than three uses maximum. We do not wish to malign an entire product range, but we hope our readers will resort to these things in extremis only.

Cartridge Razor

Cartridge Razor

Today’s cartridge razors are generally sold in a package that includes one or more multi-blade disposable heads, which detach from the handle for replacement. The blades are sharp enough to provide a good shave, and many replaceable blade-heads (the cartridges) have flexible centers which bend in order to conform to the contours of your chin and jawline.  If you prefer to shave in the shower, shave your own head, and/or are punctilious with your manscaping, this is the razor to use.

There are however a few downsides to these modern miracles. First, the “multiple blade” system can encourage ingrown hairs. Heads with more than two cutting edges (“twin blades”) can clog easily, and you’re thus likely to find yourself replacing blades more often than the manufacturer recommends. This is the cruelest cut: regular replacement can get pricey. 

 

Safety Razor

Safety Razor

Safety razors may have been around (at least conceptually) since the late 18th century, but they appeared on the mass-market retail landscape around 1901. (Does this make them millennials?) Safety razors are nifty old-school tools — a marriage of form and function that’s withstood more than a century’s innovations and gizmos. If there’s such a thing as a genuinely useful steampunk gadget, this is it.

Safety razors consist of a permanent handle with a fixed metal head, into which one places disposable stainless steel razor blades.

The fact that these are called “safety razors” requires explanation. Back when these were bleeding-edge technology, the semi-captive replaceable blade made these shaving tools “safer” than straight razors; and it is not an accident that their popular appellation was part of one manufacturer’s marketing spin. (Well-done, Mr. King Gillette.) “Safe” is a relative concept, though, and as with straight razors, the proper use of these requires a tad of practice. A very light touch is sufficient to denude your cheeks and chin of man-moss. More than a light-touch, and you’ll be using Neosporin like it’s going out of style.

Basic models will ring-in at about twenty bucks, but expect to pay nearer to $50 for a razor you’ll be proud to own and excited to use. Some models are positively gorgeous — we like the selection on offer here.  Blades, which you will wish to replace every week at least, are not terribly expensive, and for that reason, a well-made safety razor is a good investment.

Nota bene: Two things to remember. First, whereas the blades of cartridge/disposable razors are angled (that is, they have a slight rake, pitching at less than a 90-degree angle to the handle), the blades in a safety razor are perpendicular (90-degrees) to the handle. There’s no need to apply a great deal of pressure to your face — a light touch works best, and never push the razor-head into your face. Second, this is not a razor to use in the shower. Safety razors are reassuringly heavy — they are the stainless 1911s of the razor world. Handles tend not have slip-proof grips, and when wet the knurling present on many handles doesn’t do much to make the razorless slippy. You do not want to drop a locked and loaded safety razor when you’re naked. These are hefty and fall fast and furiously. If you are accustomed to shaving in the raw, do please wear a towel around your waist while using a safety razor.

Straight Razor

Straight Razor

The straight razor is regarded by many as the king of all razors, and for good reason. Wielded properly, it enables an expert to achieve the closest shave possible. How close? Think surgical. Think scraped with a giant phloem. It is unlikely you’ve never seen a straight razor, and hopefully your frame of reference is not limited to an infamous scene in Reservoir Dogs.

With most models, the extremely sharp blade folds into the handle, but there are some glorious exceptions to this design.  Fine, fixed-blade models can cost well beyond a Benjamin, and a top-end model will outlast you and your progeny. Not for the fainthearted, and regarded in many jurisdictions as an offensive weapon, deft use requires practice, patience, and fortitude. Buy one today. They are perhaps the manliest thing on the planet. But before attempting to use one, we recommend getting expert tuition from any professional not named Sweeney Todd or Mr. Blonde.

Electric

Electric Razor

Electric shavers are perhaps the safest and the easiest “razors” to use, and many models allow for either wet or dry shave. This capacity to safely deliver with reasonable efficacy a quick dry-shave is, in our view, the most redeeming feature of 21st-century rechargeable razors.  As such, they suit men who are constantly on the move or are perpetually in a rush.  Although some manufacturers assure consumers that the resulting shave will be as close as a blade, our personal experience suggests otherwise. Blade “foils” – the sharp bits that do the actual cutting – will need to be replaced from time to time, and thumps to the blade surface will sometimes damage these.

Once the foils as compromised, the unit delivers a very patchy shave at best. Depending on the model in question, replacement foils can cost as little as $15, and the swap-out is relatively simple. There’s much to be said for owning and properly looking after a high-end compact electric shaver — they’re very handy in the lavatories of trains, airplanes, departure lounges, and office buildings.  Using one conspicuously in public – in a taxi, or on any public conveyance – is in very poor taste, whatever anyone else tells you. Shaving on the metro is as cool as flossing on the metro. Don’t do it.

Ready for Part Two of our Shave Guide?

The Poetry of Shaving Implements