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A Close Shave

April 28th, 2009 - 5:28 am

The Most Controversial Item Ever Posted on Any Weblog Ever

Our fathers and grandfathers shaved better than we do. They had better equipment, honed sharper skills, and I’d bet they enjoyed themselves more, too. That’s no small thing, either, for something you’ll spend five or ten minutes doing almost every morning for your entire adult life. And I’d bet, too, that the same held true for our mothers and grandmothers.

I should know — because I’m the perfect test case.

When you’ve got baby butt skin and a barb wire beard, getting a good shave takes years of practice and a willingness to experiment. Near endlessly it sometimes seemed. Two things helped: No teachers and no preconceived notions. Shouldn’t those be hindrances? Not when it comes to a good shave.

Look. Most guys just drag whatever razor is popular across their faces. And when their sons come of age, they teach them to do the same thing. This is the blind leading around the blind — with sharp objects in hand. No good can come from this.

NOTE: I’ve also included a couple items for the ladies, so just keep reading, girls.

By the time my beard was really coming in, I’d been sent off to military school, where, in my mind, asking for help was an admission of defeat. So I taught myself. Badly, at first. Then, eventually, better. And after a quarter century of pure trial and error, of trying everything without any preconceived notions, I think I’m finally pretty good at the whole shaving thing. Here’s what I know.

Shaving comes in four parts. Pre-shave, lather, shave, and post-shave. Let’s look at each in excruciatingly close detail. And everyone faces the same two enemies: Friction and tearing.

Pre-Shave

You’re about to drag a razor-sharp, uh, razor blade across your throat. You’ll want to take care. A pre-shave oil is a nice touch, although possibly unnecessary. That said, I’ve found that a pre-shave oil can make it slightly more work to get as close a shave as you might want, but makes the closest shaves put less stress on your skin. You’re working on the margins — but small margins make the difference between a great shave and a a merely very good one.

I prefer my shave in the shower. The steady supply of steam keeps your beard soft, puffed up and lifted away your skin. A hot towel applied to the face post-shower is the next best thing. But the towel is applied only once and briefly, and, besides, who has a hot, wet towel?

The VodkaPundit Call: Shave in the shower, and use a pre-shave oil if you still experience post-shave discomfort. If you must shave in the sink, I’ll have other recommendations later.

Lather

That can of shaving cream on your counter? Do yourself and your face a favor and throw it out.

Friction is Enemy Number One, and nothing you get out of a can, can beat the lubrication you’ll get from a proper shaving soap and a badger hair brush. Shaving cream — or gel — sits on your face. It’s good for marking your territory so that you’ll have some indication of where you’ve already shave. I mean, you’ll hardly be able to tell by the length of your beard.

When you use a good brush and soap, two things happen. First, you get a better, denser lather than anything you can squirt out of a can. Second, the badger hair brush gets the lather under your whiskers. That’s lubrication — a slick barrier between the blade, the beard, and your skin. Merely rubbing canned stuff on your face can’t be as effective.

So how do you make the best lather? That’s totally personal. I like the combo of Taylor’s shave soap, a badger hair brush (that part is a must), and a shaving bowl. You might prefer to use a cream and to make the lather on your face. Or some other combination. I haven’t noticed that a cheap badger hair brush is any worse than an expensive one — but that badger hair is completely necessary.

Don’t lather your whole face. Lather one cheek, then shave it. Then the other. Lather and shave your neck third. Finish up with everything between your nose and chin — those are the toughest hairs, and will benefit from spending the longest in the steam.

Still insist on shaving in the sink? Before you even apply your pre-shave oil, fill your shave mug with hot water and let the mug warm up. Anything room temperature is the enemy of a good shave, and that’s doubly true of your lather.

The VodkaPundit Call: Shave oil is OK (American Crew makes the best I’ve tried), if your skin is super-sensitive. But it does a better job of protecting your skin (and clogging your blade) than it does of providing a close shave. And anything that comes out of a can is no better (and possibly worse) than aerosol cheese.

Random Tips for the Ladies

I’m not a woman, but I’ve provided the occasional helping hand in the shower over the years. So here are a few things I’ve learned.

Women’s shave cartridges are overpriced, and no better or different from the men’s stuff. Also, the ones labeled “for women” are usually a year behind the newest men’s stuff. Your best bet? Buy the latest and greatest cartridge system for men, and be happy. Because you can’t live long enough to shave your legs with a double-edge razor and not bleed to death.

Also, I was once acquainted with a professional clothing-removal engineer, who made an important discovery. She noticed that, although her armpits and bikini area were both quite sensitive, only one ever suffered razor burn. The only difference between the two, shaving wise, was that her pits got treated afterwards to a clear stick antiperspirant. So she tired applying her clear stick antiperspirant to her bikini line, and — low and behold! — no more razor burn down under.

I can’t count the number of women’s showers I’ve seen with a bottle of Neutrogena body oil sitting on the shelf. I’ve used it a time or three as a shaving oil or a pre-shave oil, and I can tell you — it’s good stuff. In a real pinch, Kama Sutra brand almond-scented massage oil can work wonders, in or out of the tub.

Otherwise, just get everything waxed and then laugh at us men for worrying so much about being so safe over shaving such a small area.

The VodkaPundit Call: Never trust a man who can’t handle a blade, whether it’s near his parts or yours.

The Shave

Let’s get one thing out of the way right away: Electric razors suck. Almost literally. They don’t shave — they pull and tear. An electric gives the appearance of a good shave, by yanking each hair up and away from your face, then tearing it in two. The jagged remainder then pops back down, close to your skin. That’s not a shave; that’s dermal abuse masquerading as a pricey barbershop.

Now then, let’s get on to the real stuff.

Choose the right tool. For the absolute best shave ever, use a straight razor. Unfortunately, I can’t. Or at least I won’t. For two reasons — I prefer to shave in the shower, and I’m a klutz. If I drop a safety razor in the shower, the worst thing that happens is a broken razor and a bloody toe. If I drop a straight razor in the shower, my son might never get a baby brother or sister. I do own a straight razor, and it’s a beautiful tool; but it’s one I only use before special nights out, when Melissa showers first and has the bathroom all steamed up for me so I can shave in the sink. Otherwise, forget it. A straight razor is just too much maintenance and, in my clumsy hands, too damn dangerous to use naked.

If you insist on using a disposable cartridge razor, I have three words of advice: Death Before Schick. In the never-ending Silly Wars of adding more and more blades to ever-expanding cartridges, Schick has got it all wrong. By the time Schick got up to three blades, their cartridges became so heavy, they were like dragging, well, an electric razor across your face. Their new four-blade jobs are terrible. Friction city.

Starting with the Mach 3, Gillette had the right idea, by changing the form of the cartridge/handle combo into a “paint brush” configuration. Held properly, you won’t apply any unneeded pressure to the blade — and you’ll spare your face a lot of wear and tear. So if you insist on using a cartridge system, go with Gillette. Also, using a modern Gillette system provides decent training to help you graduate to a double edge razor.

But at nearly four bucks a cartridge for a second-rate shave, the question is: Why?

With my horrible, terrible, no good, very bad skin/beard combo, I used to go through two Gillette Fusion cartridges a week. That comes to almost eight dollars a week, or nearly $400 a year. And that’s to get a shave no better than the one I got when my beard was still soft and my age was still in the teens. Personally, I prefer to get better at things as time goes on. So I tried out the shave of our fathers and grandfathers.

(Well, not my dad and granddad. Grandpa, for all his genius, used an electric, and Dad died so young I hadn’t yet taken an interest in how he shaved — so I have no idea what he used. But by and large, the generations born before the Idiot Boom used double edged safety razors. And as I said before, they shaved better than us, and got better results than we get.)

The safety razor was invented by King Gillette a century ago — and abandoned by his company once it realized greater that profits could be gotten from disposable cartridges. And if the shave wasn’t as good? Well, you could be sure they’d come out with a new and improved cartridge in a year or two.

Double-edge razors just work, although they do take some small amount of skill. The heads don’t rotate, so you’ll have to learn how to — gasp! — flex your wrist. But the best ones — from Germany’s Merkur in Solingen, home of some of the world’s finest knives — are adjustable. From safe to aggressive, you can dial in your own shave. Just remember to develop your skillset before you ramp up the aggressiveness. Even better: at about fifty cents a blade (or half that for the Walgreens no-name brand), even the most expensive DE razor will pay for itself in months.

Don’t believe me? Gillette and Schick have tacitly admitted that DE razors work best. Their newest cartridges feature a “plus-one” virtual DE blade, supposedly for shaving those hard-to-reach areas under your nostrils. Tomorrow morning, try using that “plus-one” blade on your entire upper lip. You’ll get the next best thing to a DE shave, and you’ll wonder what the hell the other four or five blades on that stupid cartridge are there for, anyway.

There are two kinds of DE razors to choose from: Flip top and butterfly. The butterfly tops open beautifully, and are marvels of precision engineering. They’re also so bulky that you’ll need a nose job before you can get the blade under your nostrils. That, or you’ll give yourself an accidental rhinoplasty one morning. The clip-top models are also generally cheaper.

Finally: No matter what tool you use, use it slowly. Shaving isn’t a speed contest, and you are, after all, dragging a sharp blade around your face. Remember: You want to slice those little hairs off, not tear them. Because whatever you’re doing to your beard, you’re doing worse to your skin. So be gentle.

The VodkaPundit Call: Straight edge razors rock, but are too much work for anything but a Saturday Date Night shave. Schick sucks, full stop. Gillette is passably good. Electric razors are for men with more money than beard. Double-edge razors are the smart compromise. They take some acquired skill, and some money up front. But in the long run you’ll save both money and skin.

Post-Shave

Underrated, but still important. Wash your face after you shave, not before, or you’ll strip off your skin’s natural oils — your best, natural protection against friction. Also, shaving is the perfect exfoliant, so you’ll only need to scrub the parts where hair doesn’t grow. Convenient.

After you wash, gently towel dry and apply a good toning lotion. Or if you don’t mind the scent, just borrow a dollop of whatever facial moisturizer your wife uses. Then — if you still need to — and only then, apply an alcohol-based aftershave. And that’s pretty much all there is to it.

The VodkaPundit Call: The post-shave is easy, takes no time at all, is vital to good skin care, and is almost totally overlooked by most guys. Don’t be most guys. Ever.

But the margin separating most guys from the rest of us can be razor thin.

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