As you delve deeper into the world of wet shaving, the mysterious fauna—badgers, boars, Internet shaving geeks—and flora—palm, lavender, whatever sandalwood is—will make you wish you had the right weapon with which to defend yourself. But if you are like the majority of Americans, you have been shaving with cruddy disposables that are worth little more than the garbage can where they inevitably end up. These have low quality blades that can irritate skin, and their light, flimsy construction makes them difficult to wield with precision. Most wet-shaving aficionados prefer either traditional safety razors or the straight razor, that symbol of the barber’s art. However, the general public still remains woefully ill-informed about these tools and even the differences between them.
Simply put, a safety razor is any razor where only the cutting edge is exposed, with the rest covered to protect the skin. This includes disposables and multi-blade cartridge razors, but when people today say “safety razor,” they usually refer to the old-style single- or double-edged ones you may have seen in old movies. Double-edge safeties are generally less expensive than cartridges (around $0.25 per blade) with less environmental impact (given that the only thing that ends up in the garbage is a single thin blade). Proponents attest that, with just a little bit of practice, a “DE shave” is the closest shave available; it’s a trick to learn how to align the blade at the proper angle to the skin, but once this has been accomplished, the DE can cut in ways disposables simply cannot.
In addition, disposable-blade razors are said to be sharper than other types, if only because they can be thrown away when they become dull. Novice users may find this dangerous, because despite their name, safety razors can still cut. A high-quality shaving cream and proper shaving technique are generally enough to prevent most injuries, but care must be always be taken. New users should remember to use very little pressure; one of the bad habits developed from using cheap disposables is the heavy pressure needed to pull the poor-quality blades over the skin, but doing so with a DE is a recipe for disaster.
Although safety razors have dominated since the turn of the century, some connoisseurs still choose the iconic straight. Consisting of a single long blade which can fold into handles called “scales,” the “cutthroat” is effectively a safety razor with the safety turned off. With such a sharp blade placed directly against the skin with no barrier but shaving cream, considerable skill is required to handle it effectively. Whereas most people can wield a safety with precision after only a couple tries, users often need several months before they can get comparable smoothness out of a straight. This often deters new users.
However, once the art has been mastered, many proponents claim it to be the most satisfying shaving experience, seeing it as “cooler” and more “old-school” than the alternatives. One major drawback, though, is that it takes much more care to maintain a straight than a DE. The straight razor must be stropped (passed back and forth along a leather strip to remove rust and restore smoothness) before each use and periodically honed to sharpen it. In addition, it usually takes more time in the morning, which for busy or impatient people may be a major turn-off. To avoid this, you can also buy straight razors with disposable blades like a safety. Besides eliminating the need to strop and hone, this is also more sanitary, and for this reason, barbers are required to use disposable blades in barbershops in New York City and other urban areas.
Debate rages over whether the straight or safety razor provides the closest shave, but the truth is that either tool, handled with care and skill, can leave skin fantastically smooth. Smoother than what you’ll get from a disposable, that’s for sure. New users are attracted to the traditional, rugged feel of both tools, and it takes time and care before the true beauty can be revealed. But for those who want the best shaving has to offer—and who want to finally understand the hyperboles with which enthusiasts sing praises—try a straight or safety razor shave. You likely will never look back.