For example: I have read on some shaving boards about home-made shaving soap and the large amount of thick, foamy lather that can be made, complete with photos of a shaving brush piled high with moderately-thick, foamy lather. Some readers eagerly responded with requests to try the soap -- as though deep lather was the primary characteristic of a great shaving soap.
Before I explain, I must address vocabulary because it's difficult to discuss shaving-foam qualities without some common understanding. Here's how I'll describe the qualities of lather:
- Thick versus thin: this is about viscosity. Thin would be runny, watery. Thick would be viscous like yogurt or sour cream.
- Foamy versus pasty: this is about fluffiness. Foamy means more air whipped into the lather -- a fluffier lather. Pasty means less air in the lather -- a flatter lather.
- Wet versus dry: this is about moisture content -- and is, of course, directly related to the thickness/thinness of the lather.
- Degree of slickness or slipperiness: better shaving soap will be slick -- especially in the layer just touching the skin, acting as a protection against abrasion and dryness from the blade scraping excessively against vulnerable patches.
Although it may be true that a really bad shaving soap can't make decent lather (see this blog article for an example), it may be equally true that a mediocre shaving soap can be whipped into a foamy, moderately-thick, whipped-cream lather. Focusing on lather quantity misses the essential point.
The point is that it's water combined with the lubricating, protective, and moisturizing (or non-drying) properties of the soap that make for a great shave. By whipping shaving soap into a thick foam, you aren't improving the ability of the soap to prep your face for your shave. You are just whipping more air into the lather, which does a few things:
- Requires more work and time to make a foamy lather
- Creates more work and time for you to "paint down" the lather on your face into an appropriately thin layer for the shave
- More air in the lather may, to a degree, reduce the ability of a soap to lubricate the shave and protect your face
Because a good-to-great shaving soap has the ability to lubricate and not dry the skin, to make better lather with such a soap, consider doing the following:
- Use sufficient water. The perfect amount will depend on the product, but moderation is probably the key concept. You don't want your lather so runny that the soap itself is diluted and therefore weak, and you don't want it so thick that there's not enough water to contribute its part to the lubrication of your shave. Also be sure to make sure your beard and skin are adequately wet just before you apply lather to your face.
- Go for moderately-pasty, not extremely fluffy lather. [UPDATE: I'm using the word pasty as I've defined it above, although the word probably brings forth an image of lather too dry. For the right idea of consistency, think loose yogurt but with a bit of air whipped in.] A moderately-pasty [that is, creamy] lather is easier to make, and will paint on your beard in a flat, mostly-opaque layer a millimeter or so deep, with not excessive foam that you have to remove by "painting" it off with the brush.
- To get a sufficiently wet and pasty lather, you want to be sure to load enough soap on your brush.
- A wet brush loaded with sufficient soap doesn't have to be bowl lathered, and can be face lathered to create a creamy, low-volume, opaque lather layer -- usually with enough lather left over in the brush for a four-pass shave if necessary.