Years of using disposable and cartridge razors. Hundreds, if not thousands of little bits of plastic, all ending up in landfill. Hundreds of tins of shaving cream and gel, all powered by chemical propellant. All choking up the earth.
As for the aerosol foams and gels, they use a propellant to deliver the product into your hand, which acts as ‘surfactants’ and dehydrate the skin – just what you don’t want when you’re shaving. To counteract this, they add oils, which clog the pores and increase irritation. Then there’s propylene glycol – just think ‘anti-freeze’…
That’s the impact of my years of shaving with disposable cartridges. And it’s yet another human practice where our laziness, desire for an easy way, and willingness to believe the marketing hype has contributed to our devastating assault on the environment. But I have to admit, environmental consciousness wasn’t my motivation at first.
One day, after I’d shaved as I had done for forty years, in the shower and with a five bladed steel and plastic implement, I was idly trawling through YouTube, when I chanced upon a video of a chap shaving with a Safety Razor. I remembered Safety Razors, as many men over the age of around fifty will, as the type always used by our Dads. I remembered mine lathering his face with a brush; the stretching of the skin, and the drawing of the bladed tool across the skin, every so often dipping it in the hot water to clean it. Of course, in later years my Dad, like most men, turned to follow the revolution in shaving which came in the 1970’s when BiC, Gillette and others began the hard sell of a cheap, plastic, disposable razor with a light handle, a small (reasonably) sharp blade that could be used each day, then thrown away in favour of another.
Just as the Safety Razor saw the demise of the ‘straight’ or ‘cut-throat’ razor, so the disposable heralded the demise of shaving with a double edged razor blade. These new tools were bound to be safer, easier and quicker. No lathering of the face – just squirt some foam from a can onto your face, chaps, take your lightweight disposable in hand, and a quick smooth shave awaited!
So we were drawn in to a never-ending spiral, so it seemed, of buying those little yellow or blue plastic things, ten or twenty at a time. Of buying cans of aerosols with foams and gels that promised increasing levels of comfort for ‘sensitive skin. And of continued cuts and nicks that had to be contained with that delight of every shaver of a certain age, the styptic pencil.
And that’s how I also began my journey into the realms of tonsorial endeavour. Of course, the single bladed disposable soon became the magical twin-blade, which of course was bound to better than a lone stubble scythe. And if two blades were better than one, well it follows that three are better still, doesn’t it? And why not use a disposable cartridge, instead of throwing the whole thing away? Logic then dictates, or rather our consumerist gullibility dictates, that four blades MUST be better still. And if you’re going to get a smoother shave with four blades, then if you had five….
Nowadays, the razor manufacturers have become obscenely rich thanks to our pursuit of the Most Convenient Life – the best a man can get, you might say. Nowadays, a razor with six blades is available from Gillette for £7.99 (handle and four cartridges) which promises you, modern man, ‘a thorough shave in just one go’, an ‘elegant timeless design that epitomises form and function’, and a ‘flawless shave’ – after all, each little plastic cartridge is equipped with a ‘Glide strip with aloe, vitamin E and lavender extract (which) soothes sensitive skin’. Come on fellas, what more do you want? (Dorco make one with seven, but don’t let on…) But when those cartridges are done, you’ll need more – followed by some more…
Of course, as in many things, there’s more than one player in the game. So, my modern friend, you can be entranced and enchanted, treated and pampered by these plastic delights called Fusion, Fusion 5 Proglide, Proshield, Skinguard Sensitive, Mach 3, Mach 3 Turbo, Mach 3 Start, Hybrid 3, Vortex, Taconic, Xtreme, e-shave, Exacta, – I wouldn’t know whether I was buying razors or a 21 plate Millenium Falcon. For only £220 you can even buy a plastic, disposable, cartridge-using HEATED version, for heaven’s sake. Tilting, swivelling, ball-headed designs abound. You can even still go back on the scale and buy those blue, plastic twin blade throwaways called ‘MT RZR50DS’ – imagine popping into Wilko’s and asking that little chap with the limp ‘can you tell me where the MT RZR50DS razors are, please?’ He’d be perfectly within his rights to wango you with the small tin of white emulsion he’s always carrying. But whatever their name, colour, temperature or number of blades, they’ve all gone on to pollute the earth and its oceans in the same way that plastic straws, plastic bags and plastic bottles do. It’s been estimated that 160 million Americans alone use, and throw away, disposable razors. And that 2 billion disposable razors are likewise disposed of each year.
Anyway, if you’re still aboard, how about a little potted history of the ‘wet’ razor? (I won’t trouble myself here with what for me was always pretty useless, shaving with an electric razor.) In the days before the MT RZR5DS, in fact a long time before, hair would be pulled out using two shells. Unfortunately no TV commercials for that method seem to remain. This somewhat time consuming method (the best a caveman can get, perhaps?) was, around 3000 BC usurped by copper razors. (That’ll be razors with a copper blade, not cut-throats issued to policemen.) The razor that we’ve come to call a ‘cut-throat’, more accurately a straight razor, was first made, from steel in Sheffield in 1680 and exported to Scandinavia and Russia. This product was duly copied and spread to France, and soon they were being used across the world. In fact at first the English gentleman-about-town wasn’t at all interested, until he saw those French johnnies looking all sleek and buffed. Soon it was the most popular method – it certainly had to beat using two shells hands down, that’s for certain. And so it was for nearly two hundred years. But as it was mainly the preserve of the Barber – straight razors require a degree of skill to hone and strop in order to keep the edge on the blade, (otherwise you may as well shave with a lolly stick) – by the late Eighteenth Century the practice was ripe for challenge.
That challenge came in the mid-to-late 1800’s. The first attempt at putting a guard on a straight razor was by a Frenchman called Perret in 1762. In 1847 William Henson patented a razor with a handle at right angles to the cutting blade, and a ‘comb tooth guard’ for protection of the skin. A further embellishment came with the Kampfe Brothers’ razors in New York in 1880, which moved the design closer to the safety razor we know today.
But the big innovation came in 1901. The razor with the fixed blade was fundamentally altered by a patent filed that year for a thin, light double edged blade which could be used with the razor, then in due course discarded and replaced by a new one. This invention, by removing the need for stropping and honing, freed men from the barber, thus allowing them to shave in the comfort of their own home. This invention would not only change the complete nature of men’s grooming, but would also capitalise on a business model that in the 1970’s would again change the face of shaving, if you’ll excuse the pun. And would also have dire consequences for the environment. The name of the inventor? King Camp Gillette…
Gillette’s invention of the double edged blade, whilst liberating men from the reliance on barber shops, brought an opportunity to improve on the Kampfe Brothers’ design and introduce a blade that, while not initially cheap, could be thrown away and replaced, thus offering a profit margin on a huge, regular, basis. Gillette had apparently got the idea when, while working as a salesman for a crown cork business, he saw the bottle caps he sold thrown away when the bottles were opened; this gave him an idea for a product that could be used then discarded in favour of a new one many times over, by many people.
He and his associates, or more accurately his associates, developed the design and manufacture of the blades themselves until the thin, sharp steel blades could be mass-produced. Production started in 1903, and that year they sold 51 razors and 168 blades. But thanks to low prices, efficient automated production, and clever advertising, this soon blossomed – the following year they sold nearly 91,000 razors, and almost 124,000 blades! By 1908 they’d established factories in the USA, Canada, Britain, France and Germany. And the United States’ entry into World War 1 in 1917 gave them an edge (sorry) over their competitors when they got the contract to supply razors and blades to the servicemen being shipped overseas. In this way, they secured a whole raft of customers who would stay loyal long after the War ended.
Gillette’s patents expired in 1921, and it’s not exactly clear whether it was Gillette or their competitors who introduced the famous ‘razor and blades’ business model, now long used by printer manufacturers. This was based on the idea of selling a product cheaply, then making fortunes on the consumables subsequently required. Gillette’s razors and blades weren’t initially cheap, until their competitors capitalised on the freedom from patents. But soon it became possible to buy a razor at a low price, and then purchase affordable blades by the thousand. And for many years, that’s exactly what my grandfathers, and my Dad did. Just like yours.
Much later in the century, Gillette would be at the forefront as this model was squeezed for every cent, when they amongst others used it to full extent with cartridge razors. For example, it’s now possible to buy a Mach 3 razor for around £5, and cartridges at around £1.50 each. This highly profitable business was working so well for the manufacturers, who tended to group around a few big names – Gillette, of course, and Wilkinson Sword; BiC, and in the USA, names like Schick and Personna. But then came Dollar Shave Club.
Founded in 2011, Dollar Shave Club challenged the idea that you could buy a razor handle cheap, then be drawn in to buying multi-bladed cartridges for a price that gave the makers their mother lode. DSC introduced a subscription model – buy the razor and your first set of blades from them, which would be part of a sweet introductory deal, maybe including shave gel, moisturiser, and other men’s toiletries. These would soon arrive on your mat, and be followed at monthly, bi-monthly or even quarterly intervals by the number of cartridges you required. Add other products as you wanted – it’s easily done online. Change or stop your subscription at your own leisure. Of course the beauty of the system is that once you’ve decided on your razor, (a number of options were available) and how often you needed replacement cartridges, the money disappeared like magic from your bank account, and the same magic conjured up a postman at the door to deliver the goods.
After years of buying disposable razors, then razors and cartridges, paying perhaps £75 each year plus shaving gels, I was attracted by this method. I examined the products and prices on offer at DSC and a competitor, Harry’s, and went for DSC. Buying the ‘Executive’ handle, and the matching 6-bladed cartridges, it was costing me around £100 a year. Of course I could add shave butter, cologne, scrub – even ‘post-shave dew’, whatever the hell that is. And I was pretty happy: after all, I could stop my subscriptions at any time, hassle-free. And that was true – when I did want to end it, I just did so via the website. I could (and did) change the frequency of my deliveries, and all in all it was an easy way to buy shave products.
The original idea that DSC had was soon challenged by another American brand, but this time with an appealing, blokey name – Harry’s. I mean, this Harry, he must be one of the chaps, right? And therefore his shaving stuff must be ideal for me? And then the likes of Gillette and Wilkinson Sword got in the act by introducing their own subscription models alongside the standalone products. So thousands of men are now taking advantage of more blades, more convenience, less effort, no trips to the store; in exchange for more cost, and more waste going into landfill. Win-win for mankind, (because this can’t be laid at the door of women,) and lose-lose for the earth. But who cares about the Earth when you can get shaving stuff without getting off your backside?
My cynicism (noticed it?) rose higher when I discovered that DSC don’t make razors or cartridges. They come from the South Korean manufacturer Dorco. I actually bought some razors and cartridges from Dorco when they were on offer, and guess what – they’re identical! And before anyone disparages the products because of their origin, you should know that some of the best razor blades (I mean proper razor blades, not cartridges – in my book cartridges are NOT razor blades…) can be found in the Far East, in Korea, Vietnam, China, and for sharpness, the daddy of them all, Feather blades, in Japan.
So a few months back I began to reconsider my options. I was starting to build up a supply of cartridges anyway, as I was only shaving three times a week, and just being tonsorially scruffy on other days. I decided to pause my subscription to DSC, and then maybe examine what this Harry fella had on offer.
Then SHAZAM! One day in the bathroom, as I took my DSC Executive razor, and loaded it with a new magazine to join battle with the Stubble gang, the Shaving Genie appeared from a cloud of talc with a blinding flash and gently explained the error of my ways; how I was hurting the planet, and ultimately future generations, by swallowing the commercial hype. How there was another path, which would lead to shaving Nirvana for me, and a better future for the planet and mankind. In a sense, I could be a saviour of future generations – all I had to do was submit to the Way. Not that I could see or understand him – I was temporarily blinded by the flash and choking from all that fucking talc.
Of course, that’s all nonsense. I just wanted to write SHAZAM and that other baloney followed. The truth is a little more mundane. At the time I was mulling over giving up on DSC, and my mind was open to seeking alternatives, I happened, by pure chance around a month ago, on that YouTube video about ‘Wet Shaving’. That’s right, ‘proper shaving’ with a razor, a blade, and a soapy face, (no sarky remarks please.)
I was curious enough to want to watch more, and soon found myself in the mad and marvellous world of DE Shaving. That, my friends, means ‘Double Edge’. Which is the blade developed over a century ago by King C. Gillette and friends. And I was hooked.
The joy of this wonderful new universe is that it’s immense, showing the huge upsurge in interest in traditional, DE shaving in the last ten years. Concerns about the environment have lead thousands of men to seek out a completely different shaving method. So what’s the attraction?
Well, for my part, I won’t pretend that I was driven at first by the eco angle; that came later. But as I looked into it, I found that DE Razors are available from as little as £10, (and as much as £100’s!) and good quality blades can be had for less than eight pence each. So using one blade each week means a full year’s shaving could be mine for less than £20! Even adding in, say, another £10 for sticks of shaving soap, it was obvious that this is a way to shave whilst potentially saving a fortune, as well as not contributing all that plastic to landfill. Win/win for man and planet!
Of course, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone makes those savings. Buying more expensive razors, a variety of soaps, brushes, a bowl, all add to the initial cost. But the upside is that the consumables last a lot longer, and once the investment in bits of kit are made, the yearly cost is much cheaper.
And what about the quality of the shave? Because that’s what this is all about! Well, my DE experience began with my first Razor, a Parker 98R. Parker are a well established company from India, with a good range of razors at affordable prices. I chose the 98R because it’s one of the heavier razors, at 121 grams, with a longer handle. I felt that the extra weight would help, since one of the principles of DE shaving is to apply little pressure, letting the razor blade do the work. £21 saw it winging its way to me; and with a box of blades known as ‘Bluebeard’s Revenge’ would give me my start. I needed something to make lather with, so chose an Italian soap called Proraso, got an inexpensive cheap and bowl, and after learning the technique via YouTube, set about my first attempt.
The first thing I learnt, very quickly, is the importance of technique. In fact I soon came to understand that to achieve a better shave than I was used to and actually enjoy shaving, rather than it being a chore and part of a shower routine, there are several things that need attention.
The correct technique is a vital component. A single blade razor will shave the whiskers closer and more efficiently than any number of blades. In my experience, the edge on a razor blade is potentially sharper than those on cartridges for a start; and the lightness of cartridge razors mean you need to press harder against the skin to achieve a close result, which in turn irritates the skin and causes redness and razor burn. Dermatologists have suggested that shaving with a single blade is actually better for the skin, and more efficient, than a multi-blade system, although dermatologists linked to razor companies disagree, naturally enough. So starting with a DE razor needed attention to a new technique, and to one which was a little slower, more patient and actually more enjoyable than the alternative. This is to hold the razor with a very light pressure against the skin, and with the blade at around 30° to the face. Then to shave with the grain of the hairs first, and against or across if subsequent passes are necessary. Keeping a light pressure means that at the correct angle, the blade will cut the bristles cleanly and smoothly, and not the skin. However when I started, I was quite prepared for nicks and cuts, even though I’d long ago stopped suffering them when using a cartridge in the shower. (Which was why I started shaving in the shower in the first place, many years ago – it was better to wash the blood away!) So once the skin is prepped, I start to shave, taking my time, and paying attention to stretching the skin, and feeling the correct pressure on my face.
As far as the pre-shave is concerned, I also quickly learned the importance of preparing your face before the shave. (And head, if like me you shave both.) The skin should be hydrated before shaving – that’s why barbers wrap hot towels around you before a shave. I do this by showering directly before shaving, and also by exfoliating the beard and head while I’m in there. Then when I leave the shower, I towel dry, except the area I’m going to shave, wet the face again if necessary with warm water, and apply a pre-shave cream – my favourite is Proraso. Then using the shaving soap, and a bowl if desired (I do, but it’s not vital!) I take the brush and develop a slick, creamy lather, and apply to my face/head trying to ensure that the lather gets worked into the bristles.
I’ll give it two, or three, passes with the razor, lathering up between each, doing my face first, then a couple of passes to my head. My first attempt was surprisingly good – I got a few nicks, but nothing too bloody! However I did have a bit of razor burn and soreness for the next couple of days.
That was on a Monday; so I left my next attempt until the Friday, to give my skin time to recover. But when Friday came, I didn’t allow enough for the fact that I was still very new to this method. In fact, I was probably too cocky for my own good. By now, I’d taken delivery of another razor, the Parker 96R Daytona, what’s known as a ‘butterfly’ or ‘twist-to-open’ type. And I wanted to try the new blades I’d bought, Astra Superior Platinums. So this shave, instead of improving on the first, was three times worse! I also didn’t allow for the fact that my skin wasn’t yet used to the Double Edged blade, nor that I still hadn’t worked out the correct angle, or got used to the appropriate pressure. The result? It looked like I’d gone to a knife fight, without a knife. It took me thirty minutes to shave, and another thirty to stop the blood flowing, mainly from my head. (If anyone reading this has never shaved their heads before, it’ll be difficult to appreciate how many undulations and curves the human head actually has!) I’ve shaved my head regularly now for over thirty years – I used to cut myself at first, but for most of that time it’s been completely blood free. Not today though! It was like being seventeen again, with toilet paper being called into action on a different body part to usual!
Anyway, I wasn’t to be deterred. So on the Monday, it was back to the 98R, with the Astra blade now on it’s second outing, and this time with Proraso pre-shave from La Barbiera, with which I was now equipped. The easy way would have been to return to my stock of cartridges, and forget about ‘proper’ wet shaving. But hell, I’d bought the equipment, done the research, and I was determined I’d crack it. And I’d only tried it twice!
The effort was worthwhile, I’m happy to say. I was rewarded with a much closer, smoother shave – only one head cut, none to my face, and no razor burn or soreness. Since then I’ve shaved every day or every two days, with ever improving results – no bleeding to speak of, no cuts, no abrasion at all. And two days ago, I had what was probably the best shave I’ve ever enjoyed, since the day I started shaving as a teenager. Using a blade called Perma-Sharp – made in St Petersburg, Russia, in a factory owned by Gillette – my skin was left smoother, cleaner, and more comfortable than I’d thought possible. Even twelve hours later, there was no irritation, no redness, and no discernible regrets of stubble. Now I’m not expecting that level of comfort each time, but since I know what’s possible, that’s what I’ll strive for. And it brings me to a third element of a successful shave. After preparing the beard properly, and shaving with the right equipment and technique, the post-shave attention is equally important. Any small nicks can be treated easily with styptic. And then I rinse my face and head in cold water, to close the pores; then I rub over all the shaved skin with a block of Alum. Potassium Alum is a Sulfate; an astringent and an antiseptic, and it constricts the blood vessels and helps renew the skin after shaving. Then I apply after-shave, to settle the skin further. I have used Nivea Balm, but not usually.
It takes me around thirty minutes to have a good wet shave, and I appreciate that not everyone has the luxury of time – if you’re hurrying to get ready for work, it may not fit into your routine. I don’t have that problem; but I think that if I had to get to work in the morning, I’d be tempted to get up a bit earlier if it meant enjoying such a good level of comfort on my face throughout the day. And that’s really why so many men, me included, have taken to it. Not only do you get a great shave, you get to feel good, and smell superb. It doesn’t have to cost any more than you’re prepared to pay, but why pay the same or more for a sub-standard shave (I thought my cartridge shaves were fine until now!), with the added downside of creating more waste for the environment.
And the other important element is to find the right combination of razor and blade. Razors themselves are of varying design and operation, with ‘open-comb’, ‘closed comb’ ‘slant head’ – for instance the closed comb design has a safety bar to give your skin greater protection from the blade. Then they can open differently to allow the blade to befitted – three-piece, two-piece, butterfly; there’s adjustable razors, which allow the blade gap and thereby the performance characteristics to be changed as you shave; and they can all be rated in terms of efficiency by being ranked from ‘mild’ to ‘aggressive’ with varying degrees in between. Blades are also rated as either ‘aggressive’ (bloody sharp) to ‘smooth’ (mild), again in degrees. So combining an aggressive razor, say a Muhle R41 with an aggressive blade, say a Feather Hi-Stainless, would give a very smooth shave on a tough beard, and in less ‘passes’, meaning less irritation. But on a light beard, or on sensitive skin, or worst case scenario, a light whiskered beginner who hasn’t yet got his technique down, it would be like giving an AK47 to a homicidal psychopath in a busy street. After he’s drunk three bottles of whisky. Whereas that same beginner would benefit from a milder razor such as the Feather All Stainless, a mild razor from the makers of fearsome blades and medical grade cutters, teamed with, say a kinder blade such as a Derby. Because the great variable is that each individual’s skin and beard is different, and that’s what makes the question ‘what’s the best razor/blade for me?’ impossible to definitively answer. For me, I prefer a medium razor, with a sharper blade, and I’m finding that three shaves per blade is best for my skin. The low cost of blades generally means that pushing them beyond their limit isn’t worth the loss of performance and the likelihood of razor burn, irritation and nicks. Some shavers only use one blade then discard it, others try/manage to get up to ten shaves out of each blade. Three does for me, thanks.
And it isn’t just men who are getting into this, either. There’s an increasing number of ladies who are ditching their disposables, cartridges and Venus razors in favour of DE razors and blades. After all, there’s nothing exclusive to men about it. And there’s so much choice in weights, styles, designs etc. that any desire can be catered for. A more environmentally-conscious conscience and a better understanding of the harm plastic products are doing seem to be the drivers for a lot of these new recruits.Of course, most ladies (aren’t I being polite?) are shaving their legs and underarms; yet many are also doing what’s euphemistically described as the ‘bikini area’; and some even do their faces this way to get rid of those fine hairs. In fact, it seems that none other than Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe used DE razors for that purpose, since those little hairs would show under close-ups. If it was good enough for them, why not anyone else? And some razors are very nice looking. Anyway, why should it be just the blokes who get all the fun?
This resurgence in interest in DE shaving has created a bit of a dilemma for the big shaving/grooming companies – they’d love to capitalise on it, but to do so would be to draw attention away from their cash cow of subscription offerings based exclusively on cartridge razors. As a result, there appeared a gap in the market, filled by a surge in products – razors, soaps, creams, after-shave, post-shave, and so on – from what are known as ‘artisan’ makers. This offers a range and level of exclusivity that goes way beyond the corporate manufacturers.
There are hundreds of videos on YouTube about wet shaving techniques and products; these are a great resource for anyone wanting to find out more about DE shaving. Two of my favourites are Kensurfs, from California, and Kevy Shaves, done just over the border by a Scot. Likewise, shaving forums abound on the internet, but be warned – some of these (mostly) men are extremely passionate, almost to the point of obsession, about the hobby. Shaving, shaving stuff, and collecting razors, new and vintage, and all manner of shaving accoutrements are increasingly popular. Don’t go down that particular rabbit hole until you’re sure!
And for products from razors and blades to soaps and brushes, and far more besides, there are plenty of retailers on the internet. One of my absolute faves is a company local to me, who sell via their own website and also on eBay. They are called ‘La Barbiera’, and as they’re in Bishop Auckland, I’m more than happy to support a local business, and one who gives such great customer service, to which I can testify from personal experience. They’re at https://labarbiera.co.uk and are well worth a browse. Check out their website, and also their stuff on eBay. I’ve also bought from the English Shaving Company, without problem but La Barbiera are always my first call.
So, I hope you’ve found something interesting in this story of how I ditched the cartridge and learnt to shave like my Dad. If you do decide to give it a go, do your research, don’t be scared, don’t spend a fortune at first, and don’t give up! And reward yourself with some ‘you time’! You’ll be glad you did!