A Guide to Shaving Brushes: Part 1

When it comes to traditional shave routines and what often gets referred to as the “art of wet shaving”, it seems almost unanimous that shaving brushes are featured as a “must-have” inclusion if you really want to achieve an optimal, barbershop-quality shave. After all, your grandfather probably used a shaving brush… and so did his grandfather.

But are shaving brushes absolutely necessary for everyone? How do you navigate between the various types of brushes and what elements are most important to consider? How do you use them and — arguably more important — properly care for them? Since we get these questions sent in to us on a regular basis, we thought we’d spend some time covering each point in detail.

Shaving Brushes

For Part 1 of this guide, we’ll be focusing on the benefits of shaving brushes along with the types and differences to look out for on the market. In Part 2, which we’ll follow up with later this week, we’ll dive into a step-by-step tutorial on how to properly use shaving brushes and then maintain them.

A Brief History on Shaving Brushes

Bristled shaving brushes can be traced back to more than 250 years in France, although they started gaining much more popularity in the 1800s, coinciding with the development of the folding-handle straight razor which made it much more practical for men to shave themselves instead of having to visit a professional barber. Since hard soaps were almost exclusively used, brushes were paramount for achieving a quality lather. And not too different than today, original shaving brushes varied greatly as the quality of brush hairs, knot tying expertise, and handles ranged considerably, coinciding with one’s own personality and affluence.

Advantages to Using a Shaving Brush

When used correctly, a quality shaving brush will add several benefits to your shaving routine, ensuring a better all-around experience.

Incorporating a shaving brush into your routine will:

Help you generate a rich lather while only needing a small amount of shaving cream or soap

Add heat to your lather and help open your pores if you allow your brush to soak in warm-hot water for several minutes prior to using, leading to a smoother shave

Provide you with better overall control of moisture and heat during your shave

Simultaneously lift the hair off your face and gently exfoliate your skin

But is a shaving brush absolutely necessary? If you’re using a quality soft style shaving cream and don't have overly sensitive skin, it’s very possible to get a great, effective lather using only your hands with generous amounts of water. And you can achieve some of the same great exfoliating benefits of a brush by incorporating a quality facial scrub into your prep routine. But keep in mind that a shaving brush does such a terrific job of whipping a quality lather together using only a tiny amount of soap/cream… and that by opting not to use a brush, you may find that you’re using way more cream/soap than you would otherwise. So outside of the pure skin benefits of using a shaving brush, there’s also long-term cost savings associated with cream/soap usage.

Now, there are many differences in shaving brushes and, quite honestly, it’s difficult to pinpoint the “very best” because it ultimately comes down to personal preference and budget. But it’s important to understand sizing and bristle types when deciding for yourself.

Brush Sizing

Critical dimensions to keep in mind when evaluating a shaving brush include knot size, loft height, and overall height, which all typically get expressed in millimeters.

Knot size refers to the amount of hair packed into the handle and gets measured at the point in which the bristles visibly emerge from the handle. Note that knot size can be a bit of a tricky measurement as hair can be packed very tightly or loosely. The average knot size is around 20mm, but higher end brushes and those often favored by shaving enthusiasts tend to be larger, upwards of 24-28+ mm.

Loft height refers to the length of the actual bristles, measured from the base of the knot to the tip of the hair. Generally speaking, a shorter loft height will equate to greater “backbone” (how firm / dense the brush feels against your face), but may not hold significant amounts of lather. On the contrary, a larger loft height may feel a bit more pliable against the skin and hold more lather. The average loft height tends to be around 50mm.

The overall height of the brush is simply loft height + handle length. While handle length won’t necessarily impact latherability, it does play a role in overall ergonomics depending on if you prefer a shorter handle vs. larger handle. The average overall height of a brush tends to fall around 100mm or so.

Bristle Types

Shaving brushes generally come in one of three types of bristle: boar hair, badger hair, and synthetic fiber (horse hair is also somewhat popular but we won’t dive into that category for the sake of this post).

Boar hair brushes, often referred to as “pure bristle” or “natural bristle” brushes, are generally thought of as great starter brushes as they are typically very affordable and can be easily found at most drug stores and grocery outlets. Compared to badger and synthetic brushes, however, they tend to be much coarser prior to what can be a lengthy break-in period, and therefore are not quite as soft and comfortable against the skin. They also may require a bit more work to get a quality lather. So ultimately you're getting what you're paying for here.

Advantages of boar hair brushes:

Very affordable options

Widely accessible at drug stores and grocery outlets

Okay water and heat retaining qualities

Disadvantages of boar hair brushes:

Typically very coarse / uncomfortable prior to lengthy break-in period

Can take more time / work to achieve quality lather

Natural hairs make these more work to properly care for / maintain compared to synthetic brushes

Badger hair brushes tend to be considered the best and most recommended by industry standards for their long history, natural bristle softness, durability, and great water/heat retaining qualities. Within the badger hair category of brushes, you’ll find different grades of hair. These grades denote quality. Higher-ranked hair grades are typically softer and feel more pleasing on the face. Additionally, while all brushes need to be soaked, the best, higher-grade badger shaving brushes require a much shorter soaking time, as they are much better at holding on to water and lather. The most recognized grades of badger hair (from highest to lowest quality) include Silvertip, Super, Best, and finally Pure.

Advantages of badger hair brushes:

Range of grades (subtypes) available for all budgets

Very soft and comfortable against skin (even lowest grades)

Superior water/heat retaining qualities

Easy and quick lathering

Disadvantages of badger hair brushes:

Generally more expensive than boar or synthetic brushes

Natural hairs make these more work to properly care for / maintain compared to synthetic brushes

Last but certainly not least, synthetic brushes have been gaining momentum in the shave community over the past few years as a result of improvements to the production of synthetic fibers, which are often made from nylon or similar materials. These brushes tend to offer a terrific bang for the buck with overall performance and ease of maintenance… and if you’re looking for a product that’s vegan / animal-friendly, these are a perfect option for you.

Advantages of synthetic hair brushes:

Typically soft fibers / very comfortable against skin

Very durable and low maintenance

Cruelty-free / animal friendly

Great bang for the buck

Disadvantages of synthetic hair brushes:

Can’t hold water/heat like natural hair brushes

Can have slightly less backbone than natural hair brushes

And while not specific to a type of bristle but rather an overall brush category, it’s also worth mentioning travel brushes. These are specialty shaving brushes that can be stored in an enclosed, drainable (and breathable) container or case, making them great for storing in dopp kits and drawers.

(Pictured: the OneBlade 22mm Super Badger Travel Brush)

So Which Shaving Brush is Right for You?

Again, as previously mentioned, this ultimately comes down to budget and personal preference. At OneBlade, we tend to favor badger and synthetic brushes for quality and ease of use. If maintenance and brush care isn't a concern for you, we highly recommend opting for a badger hair brush. If you're looking for lower overall maintenance with cleaning, make sure to check out our custom synthetic hair brush.

Available badger hair brushes that we offer:

OneBlade x Thater Premium 24mm Silvertip Badger Brush, $169 — Shop Now

OneBlade 22mm Super Badger Travel Brush, $49.95 — Shop Now

Vulfix Medium 20mm Super Badger Brush, $29.95 — Shop Now

Available synthetic shaving brushes that we offer (below offered in two colors):

OneBlade 20mm Synthetic Brush, $49.95 — Shop Now

If you enjoyed this read, please make sure to look out for Part 2 of this guide which we'll be releasing later this week, covering in more detail the process of actually using shaving brushes and then caring for them. Of course, if you have any additional questions that we didn't answer in this post that's not technique or maintenance related, please don't hesitate to comment below or email us at hello@onebladeshave.com.


Additional Recommended Reading:

A Guide to Shaving Brushes: Part 2

Wet Shaving 101

How to Wet Shave with a Brush

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