By: Richard Baguley
What do you get for your money? That’s the question everyone looking to buy a piece of tech asks themselves. It also happens to be the question this recurring feature will try to answer. Is it worth spending extra on high-end gear, or do you get what you need with cheaper models? Every month, we’ll look at some of the cheapest and most expensive products in a given category, testing each to see what their limits are and help you figure out when you can cheap it out, and when to plunk down some extra cash to get what you need.
Watch any post-apocalyptic film and you’ll notice a pattern: nobody shaves. From “The Road” to “World War Z,” as things fall apart, people get hairy. Shaving is probably one of the first things to get shoved aside when the niceties of civilization are torn away. Remove that façade of decency, it seems, and a scruffy, screaming face is staring back at you. Because who wants to live without disposable razors?
Like most daily rituals, the act of shaving one’s facial hair with a non-electrical, old-school razor has been impacted by technology. Some of the pricier varieties are miracles of engineering, with more blades than a flotilla of sea pirates. The bigger impact modern manufacturing has had on the lowly razor, however, has been on the price. They’re so cheap to produce, they have become disposable. But are these throwaway, mostly plastic hair-slicers really better than the heavier, long-lasting blades our low-tech ancestors used? I decided to find out by trying three razors: the cheapest modern disposable razor I could find, a classic safety razor, and a straight razor. I stayed away from motorized electrical shavers, as I wanted to make this test purely about the experience of guiding a blade slowly across the skin.
Although I was unable to engineer the downfall of civilization, I did try each type of razor for several weeks, giving myself enough time to adjust to each type, and work out the best way of using it. I discovered that this might be a case where modern and cheap is not better than old and more expensive.
THE DISPOSABLE RAZOR
The cheapest disposable razor I could find was from my local drugstore: $6.49 for a pack of 12 dual-blade, tilting head razors. That means each razor costs about 54 cents. That’s pretty cheap, but there is a reason: I found that these razors didn’t last for more than a single shave. After that, the blades started to drag and skip on the skin, leading to cuts and nicks. I wasn’t able to use these razors for more than a single shave without discomfort. So, realistically, that puts the cost here at about $0.54 a shave, and I ended up going through a pack of 12 razors in under a month.
Of course, there are more expensive options that last a little longer. When I used something like a Gilette Fusion razor, I could usually get 3 or 4 shaves per replacement head. But, with a pack of 4 replacement heads costing $16.79, it’s no cheaper, as that works out at about $1 a shave.
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THE SAFETY RAZOR
If you aren’t familiar with this type of razor, ask your grandfather. Patented in 1904by King Gillette, founder of the eponymous modern company, the safety razor is a razor “where the necessity of honing or stropping the blade is done away with, thus saving the annoyance and expense involved therein”, according to the original patent. This is the classic razor, with a rectangular metal head that holds a removable double-edged blade. It’s called a safety razor because the blade is held between two pieces of metal that protect the skin: you can’t do more than nick the flesh with it. Plus, like the modern disposable razor, the head holds the blade at the right angle to the skin, so it is easy to use. The blade is the disposable part: rather than throw the whole thing out, you remove the blade, which is just a thin sheet of metal.
The blades for these razors are very cheap: you can buy a pack of 100 assorted blades for about $20, and the razor costs anywhere between $30 and $300, depending on how fancy you are feeling. I used a Maggard Razors Starter Kit, which cost about $35.
The experience of using this type of razor was much like the modern disposable: I didn’t need to worry much about nicks and cuts. I found that it was easy to use and produced a closer, more comfortable shave than the disposable, though, with the weight of the razor head providing the right pressure on the skin. When you get it balanced in the hand, the razor glides over the skin without much effort, although it did require multiple passes to get a really smooth shave. With two blades, the disposable effectively did two passes at once, and I found myself doing multiple short passes with the safety razor to shave stubborn hairs. The safety razor’s larger head also makes it more difficult to do areas like the chin and under the nose, as the head stops the blade getting right under the nose.
I did find that I had to replace the blade on each shave again, though. Although you get two edges on each blade, I could feel the edge getting a little harder to move over the skin by the end of the shave, and I didn’t feel comfortable reusing the blade a second time—it would tug and drag on a couple of days growth. However, this hassle comes at a lower cost: with 100 blades for $20, each shave costs about 20 cents, and you aren’t throwing away as much each time, with just a couple of grams of metal going into the recycling.
THE STRAIGHT RAZOR
For this type of shave, ask your great-grandfather. In fact, you might still be able to use his straight razor—with proper care, a good blade becomes a family heirloom that can be used for generations. Here, you shave with a single exposed blade, which is shaped before each use by stropping it against a leather or ceramic surface. Stropping just refines an already sharp edge, so a blade will need the occasional re-honing to reshape the cutting surface, a job that’s best done by a professional.
And these have a real edge. A well-honed straight-edge razor will cut through your skin with zero effort. That’s kind of the point, though: a sharp edge slices through hairs and thus glides over the skin better than a blunt one. And a blade made from high-grade steel will hold this edge better than a cheap blade.
I used a straight razor shaving kit from Vintage Blades that cost about $230. That’s a lot of money up front, but the idea is that when used properly, it’ll last for years.
That’s easier said than done, though. Initially, the prospect of dragging this incredibly sharp edge over my skin wasn’t helped by my subconscious coming up with lyrics from “Sweeny Todd” when I tried. It’s hard to bring a sharp blade to my neck while the words “Come and visit your good friend Sweeney/You sir, too sir? Welcome to the grave,” roll around your head.
I got over this with time, although I never lost respect for the blade. Shaving with a straight razor requires new knowledge—learning the proper grip, finding the correct angle against the skin, managing curves. Learning these things takes time, and there are inevitably mistakes. The blade is sharp enough that you don’t always feel these, but it is definitely off-putting to suddenly realize that you have just cut you nose when you were trying to shave the lip. There is, after all, a reason why my kit came with a styptic pencil to stop the bleeding.
Your skin also has to adjust, as you are essentially scraping a layer off the top. My first few shaves produced a lot of redness and irritation that took some time to go, even when using a skin conditioner like Trumper’s Skin Food.
But with practice, straight-razor shaving becomes a ritual. It’s never quick, but stropping the blade, making a nice lather, brushing the foam onto the skin—it all has a pleasing routine to it that quicker shaving approaches don’t have. It’s like the way you make good coffee: attention to the details and routine produces a better result, and I found it an oddly calming way to start a busy day.
The result was the cleanest shave of all. I found that, with practice, it produced the smoothest shave of all the types I tried, and was the longest lasting: my skin still felt smooth and clean at the end of the day. And the cost is low—with no disposable parts and with only the occasional sharpening to worry about, each shave is less than a penny.
So which type of shaving was my favorite? That’s a tough one. The ritual of straight edge shaving is a good way to start the day, but it takes time, and rushing it is likely to mean I end up slicing something off. So, I’ll probably aspire to using the straight edge most of the time, but actually end up using the safety razor more often.
I do like the idea of having the razor as a family heirloom, though. One day, my descendent can look at my straight-edged razor and ponder how primitive we were as nanobots shave them in their deep-space bathrooms. Or perhaps they can still use my straight razor, stropped on the skin of a cow they caught that morning as they dodged the zombies that brought modern civilization to its knees. Either way, at least they’ll look just smashing.
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