Thursday, May 1, 2014

Shaving Soap Review: Hand Crafted Is Not Always Superior

Farmington Soap Works (FSW) shaving soap puck in
my red bowl (right), and its plastic wrapper and label (left)
There are two mass-produced shaving soaps that I consider touchstones; that is, they are the standard by which other shaving creams and soaps are judged. These touchstone products are not the best, but they are good, readily available, and inexpensive. These two products are Van Der Hagen (VDH) shave soap and Williams shave soap. The prices that I pay locally for these two soaps are $1.69 and $.99 respectively. I do not love these products, but I like them; they do the job at a very reasonable cost.

[UPDATE: As you can see in this article on my re-visiting Williams shave soap, the prolonged use of a superior shave soap has dampened my enthusiasm for the Williams brand despite its low cost. It's worth it to pay a bit more for a better shave. I haven't returned to VDH yet, but I suspect I would downgrade my opinions of both of these touchstone soaps to mediocre rather than good.]

Both lather readily and well -- even in the hard water of metro Detroit. Williams is a bit drying on my skin, so when I use it, I always doctor it with some added shaving oil, glycerin, and, sometimes, a pinch of colloidal (powdered) oatmeal. I also, as often as not, doctor the VDH for my shaves.

So having these basic soaps in mind, when I see a shave-soap puck that is obviously hand crafted by a small, local soap company, at a $5 price, I have expectations that the soap will be an improvement over the standard brands. So I put down my five-dollar bill, took home the Farmington Soap Works (FSW) shaving soap, and lathered up the next morning.

'Farmington Soap Works (FSW) lather in red bowl & brush at right, compared to lather from unmodified
Van Der Hagen (VDH) brand shaving soap at left. Both lathers freshly made.
The VDH lather is thick and more creamy, FSW lather is thinner and frothy.  

The soap lathered quickly, but took some time to build a sufficient foam. It had a neutral fragrance, neither particularly feminine nor manly. That was OK with me; no problem. After I applied it to my face, however, while I was distracted for a moment, it rather quickly dried out to a sickly thin layer. So I lathered again and shaved.

The soap is sufficiently slippery, having benonite clay in the formula. But the lather was not only thin but also drying on my skin. My first-shave impression was that I had spent five times the price of Williams or three times the price of VDH, but got an inferior product. My sense was that this FSW shaving soap was too similar to a bath soap merely with added clay for better slip.

Undaunted, I gave it another go the next morning. This time, I tried doctoring the soap with added shave oil and glycerin as I do with the Williams to get a creamier, more moisturizing shave. But it didn't work with the FSW soap. The lather was still thin and left my skin still dry, even though I made a careful two-pass shave to minimize damage to my skin.

After sitting for about 15 minutes, the difference in lather quality becomes
even more apparent. Normal, un-doctored VDH on left, FSW on right.
After the disappointing second shave, I returned to my shaving gear several times that day to experiment with FSW soap. Maybe, I thought, this is a case of cockpit error, where it is my fault that I can't get an acceptable lather. So I tried some tricks of the trade. I filled the bowl with hot water and let it stand for a few minutes. Then I poured off the water and made more lather. No appreciable difference.

I tried again, this time loading my brush even more with the FSW soap before trying to make lather in a separate bowl.  I was careful about adding water, trying less water, then adding more to try and find the lathering sweet spot. But no luck.

Because I have been thinking of making my own shaving soap, I have been doing extensive study on the subject for a while now. (I have my first formula ready for test, and am accumulating the final bits of gear and supplies to give it a go.) So with my prior knowledge in hand, I checked out the ingredients list for FSW shaving soap. To tell the short version, the four oils used by FSW are coconut, olive, palm, and castor; these are not rich in the fatty acids that develop creamy, stable foam. Also, unlike a bath soap, shaving soap often benefits from moisturizers added late in the process after the main fatty acids have been saponified (turned to soap). This FSW soap seems to have none of that and only a degree of super fatting; that is, it was likely processed so that a small proportion of the fatty acids were not turned to soap. The intention of that usually is to ensure the soap is not chemically caustic and to leave some oil remnants as moisturizers. This can be effective for a bath soap, but shaving soap often needs more help -- starting with, of course, the right combination of fatty acids.

To show the difference in lather between the FSW soap (red bowl) and unadulterated VDH soap (that is, no custom additives), I did a side-by-side lather comparison summarized in the photos above. Initial FSW lather was frothy but present in some quantity. The VDH lather was more abundant and richer, more creamy, thicker. After letting the two lathers sit for a while as I shaved with a third shave product, both lathers diminished but the FSW much more so, becoming thin, feeble as shown.

What the pictures don't show was when I squeezed and rinsed the brushes, the FSW brush had no appreciable lather and basically released soapy water when rinsed. The VDH brush, on the other hand, when squeezed, released a mound of rich, creamy lather from deep within the bristles of the brush. (This is normal shaving-soap behavior.) When rinsed, the VDH brush released lather in the water.

Also, by the way, I gave the FSW soap every advantage. I used a badger brush to make lather, while I used a boar brush for the VDH. I also lathered the VDH soap first, meaning that it actually sat a little longer than the FSW foam, and therefore had more time to decline in quality. Yet the VDH lather remained far superior throughout the trial.

In sum, I can't recommend the Farmington Soap Works shaving soap. There seem to be many more products that might offer better performance and value.

Prior to writing this review, I did contact Farmington Soap Works via email, which their web site says is their preferred contact method. I wanted to meet with them and discuss my observations and suggestions before publishing my view. I was also curious about how they arrived at their shaving-soap formula, how it was tested, and specifically how they intended it to be used for greatest effectiveness. I received no response.

Happy shaving!

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