Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Shave Soap Vs. Bath Soap

I first used shave soap for my morning shaves almost 40 years ago. At that time I was using the relatively new Gillette Trac II cartridge-razor system. I switched away from canned foam for ecological reasons: less waste to throw away.

Instead, I found some venerable Williams shave soap at my local drug store, along with an incredibly low-quality shave brush. At that time, I didn't know anything about shave brushes, so the low quality didn't matter -- and it worked fine anyway.

In those days I was a university student living in an apartment just off campus. One of the other students in the building happened to see my shaving gear, and mentioned that he never went to the trouble of using any special foams or soaps; he just used bath soap, lathered up with his hands, and shaved with that.

Now that application for bath soap had never occurred to me, so I tried it. It worked so well that I shaved that way from then on for decades.

In the years since that first bath-soap shave, I have also tried just shaving with water only while in the shower. I would let the water stream over my face as I used my dual-blade disposable razor, and that worked okay too. However, it never felt quite as safe as using bath soap.

But when I finally made the transition to a double-edge razor, the bath soap seemed very drying. So I returned to the Williams soap, which was better, but still seemed to dry my skin. That's when I went on my quest to find better-but-reasonably-priced soap with which to shave.

After giving this issue much consideration, I think there are three aspects to a good shave lubricant. Moisture (water) is first and foremost. Though there are some fine oil-based shave butters available (Old Woodward brand shave butter springs to mind), for shave soaps, sufficient water is a key part of the process. In fact, after my final pass, I will occasionally add water to my face and make touch-up passes with the razor, and the small residual shave soap combined with added water still offers adequate lubrication. Bath soap and shave soap are about equal in this aspect.

The second aspect to a good shave soap is its slipperiness. Drag reduction, the ability of the soap to allow the blade to pass smoothly over the skin without catching is a key quality of a good shave soap. A good shave soap will be more slippery than bath soap. This is rather intuitive because bath soaps are designed to dissolve and hold dirt and oils, while shave soaps are, or at least should be, designed to be slick. Shave soaps get the nod here.

The final key aspect is the removal of skin oils. Most bath soaps do this rather well, and a good shave soap won't. This is important because the act of running a scalpel-sharp blade across the skin tends to squeegee natural oils from the skin like a windshield wiper removes rain.

Although shave soaps also tend to make more generous and often more stiff lather than bath soaps, I have come to know that these are more perceptual than functional qualities to shave soap, usually making the user believe that the foam is more effective, though the stiffness of the lather makes no significant difference in the quality of the shave.

What do you think?

Happy shaving!

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