Wet Shaving with a Brush by Em

Best Practices and Wet Shaving Thoughts
By Emily Witherspoon
Em’s Place, Owner

Overview: I was surprised to realize how many men have never been educated in the area of daily body care as it relates to shaving. It is as if many men were given a razor and then sent to venture out on their own in the out-back, thinking that irritation and the chore of whisker removal was a dreaded task that needs to be performed daily for their place in society.

Many men shave for their job, their loved ones, themselves, or because they don’t want to sport a beard for various reasons. But not for fun, and that is the sad part! Because yes guys, shaving can be fun… or at least something not to be hated or cause irritation.

Some men are fortunate to have a father, grandfather or other figure head that showed them how to have a comfortable shave, and others have stumbled on how to get a decent shave on their own, or were lucky enough to talk to others who get a good shave. But for many, this is not the case. And it is to those that have been flailing in this area, or have sensitive skin, that I dedicate this article. First let me say there is no right or wrong way to shave. There are many who espouse a regimented routine, but really… it's not an exact science and too much regimen is not fun. And I want you to enjoy your shaving experience. Every person is different and has their own unique whisker pattern and beard texture. Therefore it is more about paying attention to best practice ideas and incorporating them into your own style of shaving. So let's get started:

Prep: What is most important? Soft whiskers, I repeat, soft whiskers! There are many ways to soften whiskers and the most popular are in the shower, using a damp, hot towel or splashing warm water on the face. The question is, how do you know, or do you already know, when your whiskers have reached optimal softness for the best shave. Before softening, most growth will feel like steel wool or sandpaper. However once you adequately soften the stubble it will go from feeling coarse to feeling more like a terry towel texture, indicating it is supple and ready to shave. Use water that is as hot as your hand and shave area is comfortable with, but not hot enough to scald or burn. Often whiskers can actually be made softer at the sink because your hand and shave area can handle hotter water than the rest of your body - for example, hotter than what you can achieve in the shower.

Direction of growth? Do you know what direction your whiskers grow? Take a close look and you may be surprised. It is usually not in the same direction, so shaving in the same direction for all shaving areas could actually be the cause of irritation for many men, and they don’t even realize it. The first pass with a razor is best done with the grain. (See whisker study reference)

How do you know which way is “with the grain”? Rub the backside of your index finger first in one direction of whisker growth (do this after at least a full day without shaving), and then rub the other direction. Do this for all the different areas or quadrants of your face and neck. Rub the back of your finger over the particular area in several directions and take a mental note of which way feels soft with no appreciable prickle feel, and then which way you feel the prickle and resistance. The “soft” direction is with the grain, and the “prickle” direction is against the grain. Therefore the first razor pass should be in the “soft” with the grain direction.

In addition, you can look in a magnifying mirror and take a visual inspection to see the direction of growth. Most men’s whisker pattern is different. The cheeks are the easiest and largest area so make for the most simple part of the shave. The neck can be all over the map in terms of what direction the whiskers grow. Some men are lucky and it grows in one basic direction, downward from the top of the head toward the feet (north to south). But for most, that is not the case. This is why you need to know the direction, because if you don’t there is no way to get the optimal in shaving comfort. Many men’s neck area grows downward for the first half of the neck and then upward (south to north) for the bottom half of the neck. For others it grows from the center of the neck outward toward the ears. And for many it is a combination of all directions. In a pinch, go cross grain if it is difficult to go with the grain. So take note and shave accordingly because this comes right after soft whiskers in importance.

How many passes. The most popular response is twice. There are some that will go as many as four or five. But unless you have iron clad skin or a need to go over the same area this many times, once or twice is usually enough unless you simply missed a spot. Generally you would go with the grain on the first pass, and against or sideways to the grain depending on your need and sensitivity for the second pass. Then just go over spot areas that may have been missed as needed.

The razor blade should glide over the shaving area, and use a light touch with no pressure. It is also helpful if the razor blade has been warmed under the water first. Rinse the razor as needed while shaving so removed hair doesn't get clogged up in the razor. Irritation can also be caused by shaving too fast or applying too much pressure with the razor. Your face is not a race course, and pressing too hard is simply not necessary.

What comes next - the shaving brush and quality lather. These two items go together and are the heart and basis of the wet shaving experience as we define it.

The brush – A shaving brush creates lather by using a shaving soap or cream and is warm to the skin as it raises the hair for shaving. In addition, it gently massages the face and improves skin circulation. It is kind, cleansing and mildly exfoliating yet gentle enough for sensitive skin.

There are a variety of bristle grades on the market starting with the boar brush which is generally the most economical way to start. Boar bristles are more stout and not as flexible as badger bristles, and therefore much different to use. The higher end of shaving is with the badger bristle brush, and there are several different grades and associated differences in feel and performance. These range from the entry level pure badger to the upper end silver tip badger. Which brush to use or start with primarily depends on bristle attributes desired, handle style, size or material and budget. Often a person will start out with a more economical brush to see if they like the wet shaving concept, and then move into a higher end model. The older brush can be used for travel, at the gym or other on-the-go locations. And brush requests make a good gift idea.

To use: Soften whiskers as discussed with warm water. Soak shaving brush in warm/hot water to saturate and warm the bristles, then shake out some excess water. For hard soaps, semi-vigorously stir bristles over the soap round to pre-whip up some lather and then finish on the face. For creams, place a dollop or pump of cream in a mug, bowl or palm of hand and stir the damp bristles semi-vigorously over cream to pre-whip lather. Add more water to bristle tips as needed and stir some more to generate additional lather if desired. Too much water and you create bubble water, too little water and you get a dry film.

Apply pre-whipped lather to face in a light, circular or back and forth motion as lather is further created by aeration on the skin. Another method when using shaving cream is to simply apply to the wetted bristle tips, brush a pre-layer over face and then start with the semi-vigorous brush action to create lather directly on the shaving area. Dip tips in more water as needed and continue the lather action. You can control the amount of lather created by how much moisture is left in the bristles when applying the soap or cream and the scrubbing action on the shaving area. The faster you create lather the warmer it is. The lather application does not need to be dense to provide a great shave. Badger bristles generate better lather when more moisture is left in the bristles, however neither boar nor badger hair should be dripping with water. Use a slow, light touch with the razor as you let it glide over the prepared shaving area.

Brush Care and Information:A light massage is sufficient to obtain ample shaving lather. It is not necessary to mash the brush into the soap or on the skin because this can cause hairs to break and ruin the brush in a very short time. Remove soap residue after use by gently rubbing the bristles while rinsing. Do not expose to boiling water, pull or tug as this can weaken the hairs. Shake off excess water and store between use – preferably with the bristles facing down especially for wooden or metal handles. Leave in open air to dry and never enclose a damp brush for any extended time. Some hair loss is normal, especially at first, however should not be unreasonable. There are many different grades and quality of brush, and each user will take care of it in a different way. In general, boar hair tends to have the most breakage and shedding with the shortest useful life. For badger, the higher the bristle grade, the less hair breakage and shedding together with the longest useful life. With care your brush will give you years of service.

Cleaning Brush and Razor: Periodically, especially when using shave cream, the brush may benefit from a brush cleaning. See our brush cleaning video. Our preferred method is to use a liquid dish soap or shampoo and wash the bristles. Then rinse out soap, and apply a cream hair rinse. The most important part is this - do a final rinse with vinegar and water (20% vinegar to 80% water, however this ratio can be moreor less). If you have any pure glycerin on hand you can also stir in a spoonful to the mix for extra softening. For this vinegar treatment, put the vinegar solution in a cup and dunk the bristles up to, but not including, the handle and swirl the bristles around for about fifteen to thirty seconds and rinse out. Understand that the brush will have a slight vinegar aroma that will go away with the next shave. Why vinegar?... It helps to strip out the soap residue that can build up over time but doesn't hurt the hairs. Or, you can do the vinegar treatment before the cream hair rinse, so you decide what order. Further, you can use an old tooth brush with some liquid dish soap to gently scrub any soap buildup on the handle and area where the bristles meet the handle, however be sure to brush the hairs outward from the handle so they don't get mangled. For razors, to clean off soap residue or buildup, try using an old toothbrush with some liquid dish soap or toothpaste and gently scrub, then rinse clean. Please note: don't use harsh chemicals!

The lather: There are many shaving creams, aerosols and gels on the market that aren't formulated to lather with a brush. Therefore be sure to look for products intended for brush lathering. Generally, there are two distinct types of lather material. Hard soaps like glycerin rounds, and shaving creams. Both lather well with a brush but have slightly different techniques and attributes. Some men prefer the hard soaps, some prefer the creams and some actually use both or combination of the two. Glycerin soaps are generally more economical, slicker and cut closer while shaving creams are thought to provide more cushion and a denser lather. If you are not sure which type you will like, try one of each to experiment and find out. Or put a small dab of cream on top of soap and get the best of both worlds... After all, a good portion of the experience is enjoying the different aromas available and the process of creating lather. It can take a few days to learn the bristle's water ratio retention in conjunction with the lather material used because each brush and soap/cream has its own personality and technique. Additional info: Adding Essential Oil to Unscented Shaving Cream or Glycerin Soap - video

Shaving soaps: These are hard soaps and generally of a glycerin base and come in rounds or tubs in a variety of scents. Rounds are placed in a mug, bowl or other container and are kept there until used up and replaced with a new bar. They can be left in the open air between use, or kept in a covered container. The user takes the wet/damp brush and stirs over the soap until the bristles are well coated with soapy lather, and then finishes on the face. When done drain any excess water from the soap container if there is any.

Shaving Creams: Shaving creams have a runny or paste-like consistency depending on the brand. They usually come in a tube, tub or pump dispenser. The user can make lather in several ways depending on preference. (See our shave cream lathing video):

A)  By putting a dab into a mug or bowl and whipping up a lather first, and then moving to the face. Based on our customer feedback this is the most popular method, with the palm method being second.

B) By putting a dab into the palm of the hand and then stirring the wet/damp brush in the palm to pre-whip up some lather and then finish on the face

C) By placing a dab (pump or two, a heaping dime's worth or almond sized dollop) on the brush tips and then going straight to the shaving area to create the lather. For a tub, some people swirl the bristle tips directly on the cream. However a consideration with this method is that the tub of cream can get diluted over time by daily dipping of a wet brush right into the tub itself.

What about pre-shave oils? Some men with especially heavy beards or sensitive skin also use a pre-shave oil. In this case it is applied just before the lather. It only takes a small amount massaged onto the shaving area. Apply lather on top and shave as usual. The oil will be removed when shaving, Just be sure to apply the oil with your non-razor hand, or that no oil remains on the hand that holds the razor as that could be slippery. Brush bristles are compatible with pre-shave oils, however in this event they can benefit from a brush cleaning as discussed above to avoid any residual buildup.

What comes next - the razor. There have been many styles of razor blades, handles and cartridges over the years going from the straight razor (cutthroat), double edge (single edge blade on two sides), the double blade cartridge, the three blade cartridge, the four blade cartridge, and now the five blade cartridge. There are blades that need to be sharpened by the user (straight razors), razor heads that remain stationary, razor heads that swivel or pivot and on it goes. Most men can get a comfortable shave with just about any razor of choice as long as the these best practices are part of the process. Razor selection seems to have more to do with style, time allocated for the shave, replacement cartridge costs, weight or feel of the handle, closeness of the shave and other factors that enter into the decision about razors. More info: Razor types...

Post shave: Once the shave is complete, simply rinse the face with warm to cool water. If you have oily to normal skin you can apply an after shave splash to hydrate and replace lost moisture if using something without alcohol. For sensitive skin products without alcohol are much more skin friendly. If you have dry to very dry skin, you can use a non-alcohol splash followed by a balm, lotion or cream, or just use a lotion or cream on its own. Generally, splashes are the least moisturizing and creams are the most moisturizing, with balms and lotions being in-between. Look for products that have ingredients that are beneficial for skin care. Post shave can be simple and make you feel, smell and look even better.

What are the biggest objections about using a shaving brush from non-brush users? Time it will take, cost of brush, seems old fashioned in that it is a grandpa thing (hum, must be the young guys who think that, as my generation fully remembers at least the double edge razor, and often the straight razor and shaving brush. Recall that the double edge razor was the safety razor back then.)

So let’s look closer at each of these objections:

Time: Myth – It takes forever to shave with a brush and best practices. Reality – No, it doesn’t have to take any more time than it takes using a canned foam or gel. But unlike the cold, lifeless, harsh ingredient filled aerosol foams, or cold thick non-foaming gels, quality lather is easier on your face and warm when applied with a brush. The time you take creating lather is a personal thing and can be fun. Some men start and finish within minutes and have no patience for taking longer. Others appreciate this “me time” and like to slow down the pace and enjoy each step of their process. So how long does it take? As little or as long as you want. Just make sure your whiskers are soft and you make the first razor pass with the grain – heard this before, right?

Cost: Myth – It is so expensive to use a brush and quality lather. Reality - An entry level boar brush and glycerin soap can be had for under $20.00 and that usually includes the shipping. Yes, an entry level brush may not be the most optimum, but is fun to try and better than not trying anything. Then of course you can work up to the badger brushes or the higher end silver tip brushes. Another thought - since men are so hard to buy for at gift giving time, why not put a brush and quality lather material on the list. I’m sure many gift givers will thank you for providing a new and different idea. And your start-up cost in this case is zero.

Old Fashioned: Well actually sometimes the older really is the better. Just because something was around years ago and went away as a fashion trend, does not mean it didn’t work. And often it is much better. But large companies who need to make corporate profits would want you to think otherwise. However when it comes to a shaving brush and creating your own lather it is making a come back. Albeit a niche market, but becoming more popular. My saying goes “not just for past generations but an evolving trend”.

Conclusion: The most popular phrases I hear from men who have tried wet shaving as defined above after having used aerosols and gels, especially if having problematic or ho-hum shaves, have been:

“I'm almost afraid to admit it, but I actually kind of enjoy shaving now”

“I wish I know about this before”

“It’s fun”

“How come I never heard about this, what took so long”

"I can't wait to try a new shaving cream or soap, and a new scent for variety."

...and other comments similar to these. Well men, I am here to say wet shaving can be a pleasure and irritation free. Be proud to shout it out! Enjoy and have fun, Em

Copyright © Emily Witherspoon 2006, All rights reserved

~ There are many methods, viewpoints and preferred tools used for traditional wet shaving and Em's Place has compiled what we believe to be some "best practices" for achieving the most comfortable shave. Keep in mind that we define wet shaving first and foremost as shaving with a brush and quality lather. Men who wet shave in this fashion all seem to agree that it takes shaving to a whole new level of comfort, smoothness and enjoyment. This information is based on that shaving concept. Additional articles...