Many people have trouble getting a good, close shave without getting razor burn, ingrown hairs and general irritation.  It took me 20 years to realize that my shaving routine caused many of these problems.  The solution was simple and cheap – shaving the way my grandfather did.

I wish I would have known the benefits of traditional wet shaving decades ago.  Not only does it lead to clearer skin, but it is also a much more enjoyable shaving experience.

The goal of this guide is to share how shaving with a safety razor can give you a consistently better shave with less irritation.

Ever since middle school I have been blessed (or cursed) with thick coarse beard hair.  Its perfect for growing a great beard.  But unfortunately I stay clean-shaven most of the time for my job.  Shaving has never been enjoyable for me.  Getting a good, close shave takes a few passes – even with a 5 blade razor.  And no matter how close my shave is, I have never been able to prevent ingrown hairs, razor bumps, and irritation.

That was until a friend encouraged me to consider shaving with a safety razor – the kind my grandpa used.  I never even considered using an old-school razor.  It couldn’t possibly match the performance of a 5-blade, pivoting-head cartridge with moisturizing lube strips, right?

Wrong.  The old-school razor gave me the best shave of my life.  Not only is my shave better, but the ingrown hairs, bumps and irritation are gone.  Not just reduced…but gone.  My face is less dry and noticeably smoother.  I actually enjoy shaving for the first time in 20 years.

This is a beginner’s guide for the first-time DE shaver.  I’m not a shaving aficionado or purist – I’m just a guy who is getting a much better shave than ever before.  Many of the products I mention (and use) are on the “cheap” end of the market.  There are certainly higher-quality razors available, but if you are just exploring DE shaving for the first time you probably don’t want to drop $150 on high-end equipment.

My old routine

Prior to DE shaving I had a routine in place to get the best shave I could, with the least irritation possible.  My routine wasn’t awful, but it did feel like a chore.  Here was my morning ritual:

  • Shower to soften hair
  • Clean face with facewash containing salicylic acid
  • Apply high-quality face lotion (for lubricity)
  • Lather with drugstore gel shaving cream
  • Shave with 3 or 5-blade razor, always with the grain
  • Dry with a clean towel
  • Apply face moisturizer
  • Clean razor with alcohol (to kill bacteria and limit dulling from corrosion)

Parts of my routine were on the right track (for instance, its a good idea to use a clean towel with every shave).  But what I didn’t realize was that the razor was causing a lot of my problems.  I was buying the highest quality (and most expensive) razors available and replacing them weekly to keep them sharp.  But no matter how expensive or sharp the razor was, I kept having trouble with my face.

Problems with multi-blade razors

DE Mach 3
Left side of hair cut with a Mach 3 and right side cut with a DE razor

The primary problem with multi-blade razors is that they cut hair below the skin.  Theleading blade pulls the hair up and the following blades actually do the cutting.  It sounds good on paper – a closer shave looks better and lasts longer.  In my case (and probably yours, if you are reading this) that closeness leads to ingrown hairs, pimples and bumps.

Multi-blade razors also cut the hair differently than single blades.  Multi-blades tend to slice along the length of the hair before cutting it off.  This means that the end of the hair is much thinner and less rigid than it should be and it may become ingrown.

Double-edge shaving routine

I have since adopted a new routine which has helped immensely.  Here it is:

  • Shower to soften hair
  • Clean face with facewash containing salicylic acid
  • Apply a pre-shave oil (for lubricity)
  • Lather with a badger brush and good shaving cream
  • Shave with DE razor 
  • Dry with a clean towel
  • Apply after shave balm
  • Repeat lather and shave a second (and often third) time

Here are a few of the key differences in my old vs. new routine:

Pre-Shave Oil

I was very apprehensive about putting an oil on my face.  I was sure that it would clog pores and cause pimples.  But adding oil has made one of the biggest differences in the quality of my shave.  The added slickness helps the razor glide effortlessly across my face.  It also has more “staying power” than lotion so it still gives protection even on the second or third pass.  The oil has definitely helped reduce razor bumps.

Oil has a second benefit when it comes to shaving.  Virtually all shaving creams have a soap base – a combination of sodium/potassium hydroxide and a fat such as stearic acids.  Soaps bond to both oil and water, which allows it to cling to oil and wash away with water.  Without adding some oil to your face the your shaving cream will pull the natural oils from your skin, which contributes to drying.  Adding a pre-shave oil gives your shaving cream something to bond to so it doesn’t strip all of the natural oil from your skin.

There are many oils on the market and they vary in quality, price and viscosity (how thick the oil is.)  I use oil from American Shaving Co because it is both high-quality and reasonably priced (about $15 for a 2oz bottle).  It is also lightweight, which helps reduce buildup on the razor and avoids leaving a film in the sink.  Look for an oil with all natural ingredients (i.e. without mineral oil) and find one with the thickness and glide that works best for you.

Lather with a badger brush and good shaving cream

No matter how “moisturizing” drug store shaving gel claims to be, I now realize that it was causing my skin to dry out.  Using the badger brush and a bowl to whip up shaving cream/soap may add an extra 30 seconds to your routine, but your face will thank you.  A high-quality shaving cream/soap will give your face a lot of protection and it won’t pull moisture out of your skin like the aerosol kind.  Also, the brush helps the shaving cream get all the way down to the skin, which reduces irritation.

Shave with a DE razor

The technique for DE shaving is a little different than using a multi-blade razor and I recommend watching a few videos on DE shaving before your first attempt.  I also have a write-up on shaving technique that may be helpful.

You may also find my post on razor aggressiveness basics helpful.  There I cover what makes a razor mild vs. aggressive and which mild razors are a good choice for beginners.  A decent mild razor can cost as little as $15 and it is a good way to test out DE shaving.

It’s worth pointing out that there are a lot of different blades on the market, and it is a good idea to sample a few blades before settling in on your “go-to”.  Some are sharper than others.  Before you assume that the sharpest blade is the best, you should try a few out for yourself.

Apply after-shave balm

I have always used some sort of moisturizer after my shaves but many would leave my skin feeling greasy.  I also tried alcohol-based aftershave thinking that it would kill any bacteria on my face (it probably did, but it really dries out the skin).  I have found that a good glycerin-based aftershave balm is a happy medium.  It gives the right amount of moisture but it is very light and doesn’t leave the skin feeling greasy.

Repeat

Repeating a second (and third) time is a key difference with DE shaving.  With a cartridge you are essentially making several passes in one stroke.  With DE shaving the goal of each pass is “hair reduction” not “hair elimination”.  This means that you shave once (typically with the grain of the hair), lather and shave again (across the grain), and often lather and shave a third time (against the grain).  Surprisingly, you can shave 3 times with a DE razor and get less irritation and less dryness than one pass with a cartridge razor.

Concerns about time

You are probably thinking that this routine takes longer than a cartridge-and-aerosol shave.  You are right…it DOES take longer.  You have to pay some attention to technique and it takes some extra time to lather up 2-3 times.  But the really amazing thing is that you won’t mind the extra time.

For me, shaving has gone from a chore to something I enjoy doing each morning.  I may spend 10 minutes instead of 5, but there is almost an artisanal quality to getting a good shave using the same tools my great-grandfather did.  Not to mention my skin problems have completely cleared up as a result of my efforts.

My mornings are hectic already (I have two daughters who need to eat and get to school) but I never mind shaving in the morning.  I even do it on days that I work from home.

Further Resources

If you have made it this far you are probably seriously considering DE shaving.  Here are some additional resources that can help get you started:

Shaving Technique – A “how-to” guide for shaving with a safety razor

DE Shaving Cost Comparison – Analysis comparing the cost of DE shaving vs cartridge shaving (spoiler: DE razors are cheaper than dirt!)

Gear for Beginners – The low-cost tools that introduced me to DE shaving

Razor Aggressiveness Basics – An explanation of what makes a razor “mild” with recommendations for beginning DE shavers

I hope you found this information helpful and I hope DE shaving can save your shave the way it has saved mine.