Sharpologist Expert Series: Electric or Wet Shave: What's Best For You?
Let’s start out this series of articles with something fundamental: should you use an electric razor or a manual wet shave razor? Each method has their advantages and disadvantages...and their advocates and critics. There are also some surprisingly subtle and complex technologies involved. So electric or wet shave--what’s best for you?
The question is personal for me. I shaved with an electric razor for 30 years and never really thought about it much. Buzz buzz zip zip, done in a couple of minutes. It’s what my father used and he gave me his old Noreclo so that was what I used.
Then about 15 years ago I met a wonderful young woman (who is now my wife). One thing she adored was the feel of my freshly-shaven face. Unfortunately she could only enjoy caressing my face for a few hours before it would get all “sandpapery” again--I would have a five o’ clock shadow at two. But I thought that was normal.
A couple years after we were married my wife and I were on a vacation for our wedding anniversary and as a gift she had a barber give me an “old fashioned” barber shave. The results were life-changing for me. I had never felt my face so smooth and soft. And my wife was thrilled!
Since then I have learned a lot about shaving, in all its forms. Let’s start with the underlying technologies and then move on to what may be best for your individual circumstances.
Shaving is a multi-billion dollar business so it shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of energy is devoted to researching different technologies. Both the electric and manual razor industries have a couple major technological categories but within those categories come some fascinating sub-types.
Electric Or Wet Shave Technologies: Electric
There are two basic types of electric razor: reciprocal (sometimes called “foil’) and rotary.
Reciprocating (“Foil”) Electric Razors
(Image source: Wikipedia)
Jacob Schick is considered the “father” of the electric razor, patenting the reciprocal shaving concept in 1930. The Remington Rand Corporation produced the first reciprocal electric razor in 1938.
Reciprocal razors use oscillating blades, known as cutters, beneath a mesh “foil” to cut hair. The foil captures hair within its holes, where the blades cut the hair without coming in contact with the skin.
If you have ever used a reciprocating saw for cutting wood, you have the idea for this type of razor.
Braun and Panasonic are probably the best-known brands of reciprocal razor technology.
A recent modification of the reciprocating razor concept is the “hybrid” reciprocal, such as the Micro Touch Solo, where hair is channeled into a guard with “teeth” and is then cut with reciprocating blades.
Rotary Electric Razors
(Image source, Wikipedia)
Originally introduced in 1939, modern rotary razors have a circular, inner spinning cutter that cuts the stubble captured by an outer, stationary guard. Several cutter modules (three are most common) are often combined on pivot points to create a razor surface that can follow the contours of the skin.
As the razor is moved in a circular motion hairs fall into the angular grooves of the guard and are cut off by small, scissor-like blades. The circular motion can make it easier to maneuver around difficult areas such as the neck or the chin.
Norelco is the brand most people associate with rotary electric razors, though there are many other brands selling them.
Wet Shaving With An Electric Razor?
Electric razors were originally meant to be used on dry skin (and many still are). However the past few years has seen the introduction and growth of the “wet/dry” electric razor. These models have sealed batteries and mechanicals that allow use in wet environments. More on this later.
Electric Or Wet Shave Technologies: Manual
Obviously, manual razors have been around a lot longer than electric razors! I won’t go into the long history of the sharpened edge, but here’s an overview of bladed razors for shaving.
Straight Edge (“Cut Throat”) Razors
The “modern” razor can trace its history back to the late 1600’s with the development of the folding “cut throat” razor. Straight razors were the primary way of shaving for about 200 years.
Straight edge razors represent the ultimate “manual” shave--the shaver must control every element of the razor, from the angle at with the razor is held to the geometry of the cutting surface of the blade itself. Straight edge razors require regular, careful maintenance.
Blades come in different heights, ranging from one inch down to ⅜ inch. Generally speaking the smaller heights provide more control than the wider ones. The most common size is ⅝ inch.
The end of the blade, the point, may have a variety of shapes but today most new straight razors have a simple rounded point or a square point.
The shape, thickness, and flex of the blade edge is called the grind. Generally speaking, thicker grinds are easier for the new user to shave with as they are more stable. Thinner grinds provide more tactile feedback and some say the are easier to re-sharpen, but they also can bend or spring more easily, making a consistent shave harder to accomplish.
The two most common metals used in straight razors are carbon steel and stainless steel. Carbon steel is more flexible but can rust if it’s not properly maintained. Stainless steel is easier to care for and might hold a cutting edge a bit longer.
You may have seen razors that look like a straight razor but use replaceable blades. These are often called “barber straights” or “shavettes” and while they seem like a less expensive option and don’t require maintenance, they may not give shavers the same straight razor experience. They just don’t have the weight and balance of a real straight razor. But they’re popular with barbers because there is no blade maintenance, and state or local law may require them anyway. Shaving with one of these razors may actually be more difficult than shaving with a genuine straight razor.
Single Edge Razors
King Gillette may get the press, but his designs came about 50 years after the first “safety razor” patents. Early safety razors appeared in the mid-1800’s. These very early razors were all single edge and morphed into various brands such as the Star, GEM, Valet, etc. Later designs like the magazine or Injector style razors built on that foundation. Of these vintage designs the two that are most commonly found today are the GEM razor and the Injector razor. And OneBlade’s blade style can be thought of as a “nod” back to the days of the Valet Auto-Strop!
The GEM razor was developed by an ex-employee of the Star razor company though through the vagaraties of business it eventually was produced by the company now known as Personna. Although the original GEM razor is no longer produced, vintage examples are readily found on internet auction sites for a reasonable price and several razor artisans are making GEM-compatible razors for niche’ markets.
Gem blades are still being produced in limited quantities. And there are shaving and non-shaving (“box cutter”) versions, so be careful when shopping (if you see them in your local home improvement store they are probably not for shaving).
The other commonly found vintage single edge razor is the Injector style razor. Early examples go back to the 1920’s but the “classic” form was introduced in 1935. Although Injector razors were produced by several companies most (older) people remember the Injector razor from Gillette’s major competitor, Schick.
The Injector razor’s claim to fame is a blade magazine with a safer loading mechanism. A tab is inserted into the razor head, which opens the head just enough to slide in another blade from the magazine, ejecting the used blade at the same time. Like GEM blades, Injector blades are still being produced, though in fewer quantities (finding them in “brick and mortar” stores in the US will be unusual) and sometimes with questionable quality control.
Although Schick Injector razors exited the US market in the 1980’s they were produced and distributed in other parts of the world (mainly Japan) until 2001.
Enter OneBlade. The blade that OneBlade uses can trace its lineage back to the Valet Auto-Strop razor of the early 1900’s. Of course, the technology OneBlade uses for its razors are light-years beyond the design and engineering of a razor that was developed in 1904.
In a large sense OneBlade can be considered “best of both worlds,” combining the advantage of long-established, single-blade characteristics with modern razor pivot technology.
Double Edge Razors
When most people think of the “classic safety razor” they think of the double edge blade and razor from Gillette. But there is actually quite a development history behind it, with many twists and turns.
Double edge (“DE”) razors have heads that can be divided into two broad groups: Open Comb and Safety Bar. Open comb razors have obvious “teeth” that help guide heavy stubble and shaving cream into channels. Safety bar razors have a bar (solid or scalloped) that provides additional protection to the skin from the blade’s edge. Generally, Open Comb razors will not be as gentle on the skin as safety bar razors. Most older vintage razors will have an open comb.
Within those two broad head styles are various design and engineering tweaks, mainly the amount of exposed blade edge, that can give a specific razor model “gentle” or “aggressive” characteristics.
DE razors as a unit are typically constructed in one of three ways:
- Three piece is the “classic” (and easiest to manufacture) type, consisting of a handle, a base plate, and a head or cap. Another advantage of a three piece design is that you can sometimes “mix and match” the three pieces from different manufacturers, creating entirely new razors (you’ll sometimes see this referred to as a “frankenrazor” after Frankenstein’s monster).
- Two piece razors have the base plate permanently mounted to the handle.
- One piece “twist to open” (TTO) razors are the type that was most common just before the advent of cartridge razors: the Gillette SuperSpeed is the razor most people think of when they think TTO. TTO razors are still available though overall quality can vary.
A slant-bar razor is a subclass of three piece DE razor whose blade is torqued in such a way as to strike the stubble at an oblique angle. Theoretically a slanted blade cuts more easily than a straight-on cut—think of the slanted blade of the guillotine or a kitchen mandolin--and many consider it a more “efficient” design.
The vast majority of razors have a set blade gap: the amount of the gap distance between the blade edge and the bottom of the razor (with safety bar) is determined by the manufacturer for a particular model of razor. However “adjustable” DE razors can change the gap to make them more gentle or more aggressive. There are only a few fully adjustable razors currently made though there are new models just beginning to enter the market. There are also vintage adjustable razors.
It’s worth noting that some razor artisans are making “quasi-adjustable” razors by offering sets of base plates, each plate offering a different amount of blade exposure.
The material for DE razors range from high-priced Titanium or Stainless Steel down to plastic, though most are made out of a chrome-plated zinc alloy called Zamak (or Zamac).
Now we finally arrive at the “modern” manual razor. These razors started popping up in the late 1970’s...coincidentally right about the time certain profitable patents on double edge technology were expiring.
Obviously the most distinguishing features of modern razors are multiple blades in proprietary cartridges.
The “lift and cut” effect of multiple blades is referred to in the industry as the “hysteresis effect.” Supposedly this yields a closer shave and razor companies certainly put a lot of effort into researching the effect, but it has never been confirmed by an independent source. Subjectively there does appear to be merit to the concept but the point of diminishing returns vs. increasing irritation seems to indicate anything more than two blades is unnecessary.
Similarly, vibrating handles and various on-board lubrication enhancements appear to have less to do with the quality of the shave and more to do with brand/model distinctions.
On the other hand, cartridges on front-facing pivots have proven to be a useful development. In addition to providing a more consistent shave around the contours of the skin, a front-facing pivot (vs. one that simply rocks on a central axis) can also help compensate for the shaver using too much pressure on the razor against the skin (a very common problem).
Blade Edge Technologies
Another thing that appears to make a difference in manual razors are the various aspects of design and engineering of blade edges.
First, the angle at which the blade edge is set to in the cartridge (or held to by the shaver with a non-cartridge razor) can make a big difference in the quality of the shave. One particular four blade cartridge from a major brand a few years ago was set to a notoriously steep, aggressive exposure angle. Reports of redness and irritation were widespread.
Another aspect is the “sharpness” of the blade edge. There are levels of “sharpness” that an edge may be ground to, and may be different for different cartridges from the same manufacturer. In fact it’s not unheard of for a manufacturer to ever-so-slightly “dull” a blade edge for a legacy cartridge when a new style cartridge is set to launch, to encourage shavers to try the new product.
Finally, various non-stick coatings can be applied to blade edges to provide a more comfortable cut across hair stubble.
Which Is Best?
So now we arrive back at the original question: Electric or wet shave, which is best?
There are some circumstances where the choice may be almost made for you. If you are taking blood-thinning medication, your physician may have told you to avoid manual razors. Conversely, if you don’t have a reliable source of electricity an electric razor probably isn’t the best solution for you.
If your choices are less obvious, here are some things to think about:
- Electric razors can provide a shave more quickly, though not as closely as a manual razor.
- Electric razors are far less likely to cut the skin compared to a manual razor, though there may be a greater chance of irritation (“razor burn”).
- Rotary electric razors and manual razors with a single edge (vs. double edge) blade may provide comparatively better results to someone with thick, coarse, or grey hair.
- Rotary electric razors and single blade (single edge or double edge) manual razors may provide better results for someone with stubble that grows in multiple directions (the “grain”).
- Reciprocal razors and cartridge-based manual razors may work better for those with relatively fine hair.
- Manual razors with fewer blades will be less likely to cause irritation on sensitive skin, compared to an electric razor or a manual razor with more blades in the cartridge. OneBlade is a terrific “best of both worlds” solution, here!
- Electric razors may be a better solution than manual razors for those with acne.
- A foil shaver or a single blade manual razor is better for those who shave daily.
To Get The Best Results No Matter What Razor You Use
The whole electric or wet shave question is almost moot if you do not use the proper technique for shaving with what you have.
First and foremost, clean skin is essential no matter what you are shaving with, electric or wet shave. Before shaving wash the area with a gentle facial soap (even if it’s not the face you’re shaving!)--a “body bar” or “deodorant soap” will tend to dry out the skin too much for a shave.
Second, do not press the razor into the skin. This is a major cause of irritation no matter what razor you use. Hold the razor to the skin with the lightest possible pressure.
Third, shave in the correct direction(s):
- For a reciprocal razor, shave up/down and right/left, with-and-against the beards grain.
- For a rotary razor, shave in circular motions.
- For a multi-blade cartridge, shave with-the-grain then re-lather and shave across the grain.
- For a single blade razor you can shave in the predominant direction but you usually do not have to be a slave to the grain.
Fourth, shave in the correct order:
- For an electric razor, shave the most sensitive parts of the skin first.
- For a manual razor, shave the most sensitive parts of the skin last.
The electric or wet shave debate got a little muddier a few years ago with the introduction of “wet/dry” electric razors. These are razors that use water-proof, rechargeable batteries and water-resistant housings. Using a wet/dry electric razor with a shave cream will almost certainly give you a more comfortable shave, and probably slightly closer, too. However I have found that many wet/dry electric razors (especially the lower-cost ones) shave more slowly (i.e. the reciprocal or rotary actions are slower than their corded counterparts), which can impair performance.
Using a shaving cream (or at least some kind of shave lubricant) is pretty much required for a manual razor.
But no matter what razor you are using it with, select a high-quality cream. Nothing out of a pressurized can: the propellant will dry out the skin. Use something out of a squeeze tube, or better yet a lathering soap or cream applied with a shave brush. The results will be noticeably better.
After shaving rinse the area thoroughly, apply a small amount of an aftershave balm that does not have alcohol as the main ingredient. High amounts of alcohol will dry out the skin and over the long-term will do you no favors. That “feel the burn” sensation of an alcohol-based aftershave splash isn’t manly, it’s telling you that the skin is damaged.
Don’t forget to police-up wherever you’re shaving and take care of your tools properly, too. Be mindful of others using the area….
Adjusting To A New Shave Routine
You may have decided the change your electric or wet shave style. Whether you have gone from electric to manual, rotary to reciprocal, or cartridge to single blade, be aware that it may take a couple weeks for your skin to adjust to the new way of doing things.
Now that you have settled your own electric or wet shave debate, it is time for a better shave.
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Ask Me Anything (AMA) Segment:
“I have the Genesis razor and love it. The brush that came with it is a Super Badger, how long can it last? When should you replace it? My present one is not shedding hair or anything but I’m curious.”
Any well-made shave brush that is properly used and cared for should last at least five years--more likely ten.
Here are some tips to get the most life out of a shave brush:
- Do not immerse it in extremely hot (like near-boiling) water. Doing so could damage both the hair and the glue knot holding the hair in the handle.
- Do not press all the way down on the brush. “Mashing” it down fully against a puck of soap or the skin will eventually crush the “breach,” the inner-most part of the hair knot that mixes water and soap/cream together. Press just enough to splay out the hair of the brush (maybe one-third of the way down).
- Do not aggressively “flick” the brush by the handle. Over time that may loosen the glue knot in the handle. A gentle squeeze or a couple light flicks of the wrist will work just fine.
- After use, rinse the brush thoroughly with warm water to remove all the lather, gently squeeze most of the water out of the brush, then lightly rub the hair on a dry towel. “Fluff” the hair with your fingers so it does not stick together.
- Storing the brush with the hair knot up or the hair knot down is a point of debate among “shave nerds.” In the absence of a specific recommendation from the brush’s manufacturer you can store it either way. What is more important is that you store it where there is some air circulation, not in some closed cabinet.
- Periodically (once a year, perhaps more often if your water has a high mineral content) clean the brush. Soak the hair in a very mild vinegar solution (one part vinegar and nine parts warm water. Set the brush in a small container with the handle above the solution) for about ten minutes then rinse thoroughly and allow to dry completely.
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Electric shaver turned wet shaving enthusiast, Sharpologist is everything your dad didn’t teach you about shaving. He’s the thought leader in the world of shaving and every day, he helps thousands of men around the world learn how to properly shave, discover new products, and use the right techniques and tools.