Thursday, June 6, 2013

Choosing your shaving gear: Soaps vs Creams

When a person first takes an interest in traditional wet-shaving (I say “person” rather than “man” because there are an increasing number of ladies who use straight razors and double edge razors for leg shaving), the three key considerations are:
1) Solid soap vs shaving creams
2) Brush hair grades
3) Straight razor vs safety razors

This order may seem odd to some people as this puts the cheapest choice first, but there is some logic to it. Some brushes are better at soaps, some are better at creams, and some are all-rounders. Choosing a brush may be a little easier if you know what you’ll mostly be lathering with it. Both brushes and creams/soaps are arguably more important for the quality of your shave than the razor, unless you’re one of the unlucky few who are very badly irritated by multi-blade cartridges. For this reason, razor choice is in last place, even though it’s often the razor that tempts people to take up traditional shaving (we will get to razor choices later). The better cartridge razors will still produce a decent shave if you prepare properly, and by mastering your lather before you change your razor, you have less steep a learning curve when you do.

The purpose of both soaps and creams is to form a lather when hydrated and aerated using a shaving brush. The advantage of a lather is to help prepare the skin and hair for shaving by lifting the hair away from the skin, removing some of the natural oils protecting the hair so that water can penetrate and soften the hair, and by providing a slick surface to the skin so that the razor’s edge glides over the skin rather than digging in and nicking it. The better soaps and creams will also be at least a little bit moisturizing on the skin, and should leave the skin feeling soft and smooth after a shave, even before the application of any aftershave creams or moisturizer.

Arguments abound on shaving forums over whether soaps give a better shave than creams, or vice-versa, but probably the best soaps and creams will offer equally good shaves if used correctly, with the more important factor being the brand and technique. However, there are some general differences that are useful to consider when making a choice.

Solid soaps are the more traditional choice, and have many fans purely because of it. Many soaps used to be animal tallow based but many brands have switched to a vegetable base, including Geo. F Trumper and Taylor of Old Bond St. Glycerin soaps also exist, arguably the most famous example being those made by the Colonel Conk brand.
Soaps tend to last a lot longer than creams, with the hardest, triple-milled soaps lasting the longest. Generally, the harder a shaving soap is, the more effort it takes to build a lather from it. This hardness favours shaving brushes that are a little stiffer, either due to a denser knot of hair or stiffer bristles such as boar or the cheaper grades of badger. As with food, the less moisture content a product has, the less preserved it needs to be; some soaps will be preservative free, and the few with preservatives will have very low levels. Finally, some people feel that soaps produce a slicker lather than creams.

-Longer lasting
-Fewer preservatives
-Possibly a little slicker
-A little more time and effort to use
-Allowed in hand baggage
-Works better with a stiffer brush

Shaving creams are effectively soaps that are softer, oilier and slightly hydrated- not entirely unlike the relationship between liquid hand soaps and bar soaps. In creating a product that is not intended to be solid, manufacturers can add more moisturizing and protecting ingredients such as glycerin, in amounts that would not work for a solid soap. Since the ingredients responsible for fragrances tend to be more liquid, creams are often contain more of them and are more noticeably scented than their solid counterparts. Because creams are already slightly hydrated, and by definition much softer, they are very easy to work into a lather and are often recommended for beginners because of this. Because of the higher moisture content they will tend to need more preservatives, or consequently have a shorter shelf life. A cream will also likely contain more ingredients that are there for the sake of keeping the cream consistent, rather than for the benefit of your skin- if you have concerns about synthetic ingredients, a solid soap may be a better choice for you. Whereas soaps like a stiffer brush, creams benefit from a softer brush that holds moisture well.

-Tend to be more moisturizing
-Often more strongly scented
-Easier to lather
-Possibly a little more protection (but less slick)
-Works well with softer brushes

Which to choose is entirely a matter of what appeals to you, but although many wet-shavers are advised to start with creams, do not be afraid to try a soap if one appeals to you- it is entirely possible to start out wet-shaving using a soap. When I started out wet-shaving, I purchased Taylor of Old Bond Street’s Sandalwood soap, and still keep some in my rotation. For those in need of a recommendation for a good cream to begin with, Proraso makes some excellent creams which is reasonably priced for beginners.

A selection of shaving soaps and creams from various brands is available from and