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April 24, 2006

Quest for the Perfect Shave

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The endless shaving war continues to escalate.

Gillette introduced a five-blade razor last fall and Schick marketed a four-blade razor the year before. As for perpetually clueless me, I'm at three blades and holding (for now).

For most people, shaving is a voluntary chore. I find the time it absorbs every morning small, yet annoying. But I can't avoid it because I can't grow a convincing beard and, even if I could, The Fiancée would not be pleased.

Fortunately I don't have my son's heavy beard, sensitive skin problem or any other special shaving need. But over the years I've tried out different approaches to shaving, hoping to find that elusive sweet-spot maximizing convenience and cost-effectiveness.

For what it's worth, here's my tale.

My father was an electric shaver guy during the time our lives overlapped. When I was a child he had a black Sunbeam with a single small (inch to inch-and-a-half wide) shaving head. So when I started sprouting whiskers I too got an electric shaver and continued to use them until well into my thirties.

The Army insisted that we have a double-edged "safety razor" to be displayed in our footlocker during inspections. I recall using that razor a time or two when I was in an Army hospital with Pneumonia, but shaving was uncomfortable: the blade "tugged" too much.

What I don't remember is exactly why I stopped using an electric shaver and switched to a blade razor. Most likely, my electric broke down and I didn't want to spend the money on a new one. Or perhaps I was dissatisfied with the quality of the shave I was getting.

So I went through the discomfort of transitioning. If you have never gone from using an electric shaver to a razor or vice-versa, the first week or so you'll probably experience discomfort. For some reason the skin or beard or both get "trained" for one kind of shaving instrument and need to "re-train" when you switch.

In fact, I even bought another electric shaver after razor-shaving for a while and found that transition difficult. Thereafter when using the shaver I found myself using an electric shave lotion to make shaving more comfortable. But after several months of electric shaving I went back to a razor. The shave wasn't close enough to satisfy me.

For many years I used shaving cream when razor-shaving. Then I discovered that it wasn't necessary -- for me, anyway. Besides, shaving cream (soap) is messy and applying it and cleaning up afterwards prolonged the overall task. In any case, those multi-blade razors have a little strip above the blades that, when wet, lubricates the skin to make shaving smoother. Running a wet hand across a bar of bath soap and then rubbing the soap film on your face yields about the same degree of lubrication when the on-razor lubricant wears off after three or four shaves. (Penny-pinching me tries to stretch a set of blades over a week of shaving.)

Additional rows of blades indeed seem to improve the quality of the shave. Well, I find that the three-blade jobs work better for me than razors with only two blades; I've yet to test four and five blade razors.

On the other hand, the newer the razor model and the more blades per razor, the higher the price for a blade cartridge or disposable razor. Being cheap, I tend to hold off upgrading until I find supplies of my current razor/blades disappearing from store shelves. Then I'll move to the oldest (and cheapest) of the newer breeds.

Even after many years spent of the fringes of Marketing, I'm sorry to report that I'm far, far from the beau ideal of an "early adopter" of new products.

Gallery of Razors and Shavers

Straight razor.jpg
The straight razor
I never used one of these myself.

Ronson - 1950ish.jpg
Ronson electric shaver , 1950s.
Note the cool atomic symbol on the side. Well, it was cool in those days.

Gillette - safety razor ad.jpg
The safety razor.
I used one of these a few times while in the Army.

Disposable 1-blade razor.jpg
Disposable one-blade razor.
Simplest of the modern razors. The safety razor shown above had a blade edge on both sides of the shaving head, but now blades are only on one side.

Gillette Trac II - blades.jpg
Gillette Trac II.
An early two-blade razor. The theory is that the second blade will chop what the first one over the whisker missed.

Modern Norelco electric shaver.
Even electric shavers have multiple blade sets these days.

Gillette Fusion - 5 blade.jpg
The recent Gillette Fusion.
This is the one with five blades.



posted by Donald at April 24, 2006


I'm blessed (cursed?) with a really heavy beard, and it's taken me a long time (I'm almost 40) to find my optimum shaving solution. It's a high-end Panasonic electric shaver (it's just like this one, except without the auto-cleaning system -- that's not really needed, as it's waterproof, so you can just wash the whole thing under the tap). It's far quicker, safer and less troublesome than blade shaving, causes no irritation whatsoever, and provides a remarkably close shave.

Coincidentally, did you happen to see this meditation on blade shaving from Andy Crouch in (interestingly) Christianity Today's Books and Culture magazine?

Posted by: mr tall on April 24, 2006 9:02 PM

I've almost always used an electric shaver. Blade razors just take too long and are too messy.

Posted by: Peter on April 24, 2006 9:20 PM

Five blades? They're up to five blades? I wonder if the extra blades make any difference.

I hate shaving myself. Boring boring boring. Plus I work at a media place that's tolerant of grizzle, and The Wife doesn't seem to mind. Occasionally I let it all go and walk around with a beard for a month or two. But beards require a suprising amount of upkeep too. Gotta keep the cheek lines and the neckline neat, and gotta keep the overall length pretty consistent or you start to look like a mountain man or bum pretty fast.

When I'm in a shaving phase, I go back and forth. If I've let the beard grow for more than two or three days, I'll use my three-track. Scott Chaffin tipped me off a while back to the wonders of Aveno shave gel -- it costs a little more than the usual but it's worth every penny. In my pre-Aveno days I seldom shaved without it resulting in some blood. These days, mostly thanks to the Aveno, I seldom nick myself.

If I'm shaving and the beard hasn't been growing for more than a day or two I'll use the electric shaver that Mr. Tall linked to. It's really good, and it's great to be able to wash and rinse it so easily. It's almost too good for my skin and my beard -- it's more likely to take off a little too much than a three-blade razor is. But it's an awfully good machine.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 24, 2006 10:39 PM

Has anyone tried one of the new five-blade razors? Are they much of an improvement on a good three-blader?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 24, 2006 10:40 PM

There's a good posting for someone to write about the design of that Gillette Fusion. Good lord, look at that thing.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 24, 2006 10:40 PM

I followed up on Mr. Tall's links and also enjoyed reading Corey Greenberg's posting about "wetshaving," essentially using old fashioned brush-and-lather and a safety razor. It's full of advice and links, here. I wonder if there's anything to it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 24, 2006 11:21 PM


The absolutely best shave I get is when I let my beard grow out for 2 or 3 days, and then shave it away with the simple double blade and shaving cream. Smooth like a babys rear.

For shaving everyday, use a new double disposable blade razor every three shaves, and take it easy.

I've never tried an electric, but those I know who do use one like it. It doesn't shave as close as a blade though. And it can give you rubbing burns real easy, especially if the blades aren't sharp.

Posted by: Btm on April 24, 2006 11:55 PM

I think I'm in the same boat as Btm. My ultra-blond, rather thick and even beard looks fine for two or three days, and the most recent gf was neutral to positive about it. (I also have longish hair and a retro-long goatee.) I use a 3-blader, and that 2-day growth is just about perfect for a smooth shave.

The thing that's driving me crazy is nose hair. I never had it until a few years ago, and now it grows amazingly fast and I can't get it out painlessly. A trimmer I bought is absolute crap, unless I just don't know how to use it right.

Posted by: J. Goard on April 25, 2006 3:25 AM

I think, of course with perfect modesty, that I look very fine indeed with a couple days' beardly growth. Mrs Tall, however, despises it, so farewell to all that!

She likes the close shave I get from my Panasonic electric, but she also says it cuts my beard in such a way that when I get stubble, it's now 'sharper' than the stubble I grew when using my old electric razor (a Braun, BTW -- also quite expensive but highly overrated). This is a razor feature I really had never thought about before . . . .

Posted by: mr tall on April 25, 2006 4:15 AM

I'ne used a blade all my life, but if I could shave with that nuclear Ronson, I might just switch...

Posted by: tschafer on April 25, 2006 9:08 AM

Funny. I am 77 years old and have yet to solve the tedium of shaving every day. You've given me some ideas though. Thanks.

Posted by: citrus on April 25, 2006 9:45 AM

The geniuses at The Onion predicted this over two years ago:

Posted by: Bryan on April 25, 2006 11:01 AM

What I hate and don't understand about shaving is why the blades are so friggin expensive. At the supermarket, when you buy the cartridges it's $30 for 12 blades. I now buy mine at Sams Club and get a 60 pack for some obsence price, but at a lower cost per unit.

This tends to make me not want to change blades, which in the end makes any "comfort" that 3, 4 or 5 blades can give me meaningless anyway. Thus, I'm stuck with the Mach 3 for the time being.

If a competitor to Gilette could make a 3 blade that was cheaper, I'd gladly change to that.

Seems to me that in the US there is a duopoly between Gilette and Schick and that they have a pretty cozy business model going, even though I'm sure that a new entrant to the market could make the blades in China and sell them for a third of the price.

Posted by: James Dudek on April 25, 2006 11:21 AM

Wondering here, what will it take for men to adopt alternative hair removal systems, like f.ex., this one?
Yeah, a bit more painful I guess, but so much more long-lasting.

Posted by: Tatyana on April 25, 2006 2:47 PM


Posted by: Jonathan on April 25, 2006 3:20 PM

But it's poetic, Jonathan! Isn't poetry worth a bit of suffering?
I would imagine some people in the Village pay good money for far more painful stuff (* announced to the tune of "Eat your grits! people are starving in China!"*)

Posted by: Tatyana on April 25, 2006 3:41 PM

Over a decade ago Saturday Night Live did a skit featuring, I think, Tim Kazurinski. He has Hawking a 4 blade razor with the tag line: "the ___ razor, because you'll believe anything" Pretty funny stuff then, not so when we are the future.

Posted by: Matt on April 25, 2006 3:42 PM

Tatyana, I don't know poetic but looking good isn't worth that kind of pain. Not to me, anyway.

Besides, waxing is girl thing. Jon is man! -- must not do girl thing. (However, maybe wax marketer will repackage wax, label as new "Extreme Waxing System for Men" with patented Anti-G-Shock Ballistic-Titanium Waxing Technology and handsome brushed gunmetal case, then maybe Jon will reconsider.)

Posted by: Jonathan on April 25, 2006 8:10 PM

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