The Truth the Big Shaving Companies Don’t Want You to Know
As all men (and women) know, shaving is a serious business. After all, you’re taking a razor sharp piece of metal to your skin, opening up the possibility of cuts, nicks, scrapes and weeping wounds if you’re not careful.
However, when I say shaving is a serious business, I’m talking about something else altogether. Ever since King Camp Gillette invented the world’s first double blade safety razor at the start of the 20th century, razor manufacturers have been fighting against one another to dominate what has grown to be well over a $15 billion a year business—all while seemingly paying no mind to the wishes of their customers, let alone the science behind getting a close shave.
Sure, Schick, Gillette and the others all have multi-million dollar laboratories where they design and test their latest and greatest products. They also employ teams of scientists who are paid to tell you that yes, definitely, without a doubt, a 3, 4 or 5 blade razor gives a closer shave and minimizes irritation when compared to a single blade razor. Their claim is normally that the increased number of blades cuts down on the pressure you need to apply to shave the hair closely and as a result, reduces the amount of irritation.
The razor companies and their experts have been so successful in marketing their products and dictating trends in the shaving industry that very few non-biased, scientific studies have ever been done on shaving. Generally there are three landmark shaving studies that are cited, all of which point to the fact that wet shaving is the way to go and will surely decrease the amount of irritation more than using a cartridge razor.
The first groundbreaking shaving study was performed in 1937, but humans have been shaving for a heck of a lot longer than that. This article and accompanying infographic breaks down the results and revelations of these independent scientific studies on shaving and how these findings support traditional wet shaving with a single blade razor (i.e. safety razor or straight razor).
“Factors Involved in Satisfactory Shaving”- 1937
Written by Lester Hollander and Elbridge J. Casselman and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “Factors Involved in Satisfactory Shaving” was the first groundbreaking study on shaving to be performed. I mean these guys looked at everything, from what hair is made of to how long it takes to soak up water, the rate and angle that facial hair grows at and how much skin is removed when shaving amongst many other things.
All told, the paper basically discusses exactly how to get a good shave, including the angle you should hold the razor, how much prep time is needed and how to reduce irritation, ingrown hairs, razor bumps and other common issues. However, the paper is quite technical and scientific (and no longer available for free), so I’ll spare you the pain and simply sum up some of the most important results as they pertain to wet shaving. Keep in mind that while the study was performed using a safety razor (disposable and cartridge razors hadn’t been invented yet), most of the findings pertain to shaving in general—no matter what type of razor you use.
- Hairs soften up and stretch when they soak up water. It generally takes around 3 minutes for facial hair to become fully soaked when submerged in warm water.
- Facial hairs generally grow very quickly immediately after shaving, but the rate gradually reduces with time.
- Hairs virtually never grow straight out from the face. Most hairs grow at an angle between 30 and 60 degrees. This is why shaving brushes are important, as they pull the hairs up away from the face and make them stand at a straighter angle.
- When shaving, we remove almost the same amount of skin as hair, which is why we experience so much irritation.
- Washing the face to gently scrub away dirt and dead skin can reduce the amount of irritation. It reduces both the amount of skin scraped away by the razor and decreases the chances of the razor catching and dragging across the skin. This is why one should use a quality shaving brush as well which helps exfoliate the skin before shaving.
- The fewer strokes you take the less skin you scrape away and the less irritation you experience.
- To further reduce irritation and the chance of ingrown hairs, use stiffer lather and only shave every other day.
In general, the two scientists performed quite an exhaustive study that told us many truths about shaving. Unfortunately, they only looked at the tensile or stretching strength of hair. If you’ve ever heard that facial hair is stronger than copper wire, that myth comes from this study. Copper wire may break before hair when stretched, but in terms of shear or cutting strength, copper is far stronger than hair. Try slicing through a copper wire with your razor if you don’t believe me.
“Observations on the Cutting of Beard Hair”- 1976
Donald Reim and Martin Reiger were the first to seriously study the cutting strength of beard hair and they published their results in the aptly named “Observations on the Cutting of Beard Hair” in 1976. This study is much more technical than the first, so again, just the most important observations.
- Like the earlier study, this one noted that it generally takes beard hair 2-3 minutes to fully hydrate in room temperature water.
- When fully hydrated, the amount of force needed to cut the hair is greatly reduced.
- When a hair is sliced with a sharp razor, no bending or pulling occurs.
The last two are definitely the most important things to take away from this study. The first directly relates to wet shaving, as it shows that taking a shower or wrapping a warm, wet towel around your face for a few minutes will lessen the amount of force necessary to shave off your facial hairs. This means you’ll have to apply less pressure on the razor and thus experience less irritation.
The second factor directly relates to multiple blade razors. One of the razor companies’ biggest claims about multiple blade razors is that single blade razors cause the hairs to lay flat, whereas with multiple blades, the first blade both slices off the hair and also pulls it further out to allow the second blade to cut it closer, followed by the third and so on. However, this study showed that no pulling occurs when the hair is cut, which totally destroys the claim that cartridge razors are built on. Check out our article on safety razor vs cartridge for a thorough comparison.
“Cutting Characteristics of Beard Hair”- 2007
An even more thorough study on the cutting strength of beard hair was conducted by a team of scientists in 2007. They didn’t find much new, except to back up some of the previous findings with more concrete numbers. In this study, the authors stated that moisture reduced the cutting strength of hair by at least 30%, showing how important wet shaving is.
The Final Score: Wet Shaving Wins
So let’s see what we’ve learned here. Exfoliation helps to minimize razor burn and irritation.
Water helps soften facial hairs, making them easier to cut.
Multiple blades can’t grab and pull the hair, that is, unless the blades aren’t entirely sharp. A single sharp blade, such as a safety or straight razor, on the other hand can slice the hair off close to the face in one swoop.
The more times a razor blade touches your face, the more irritation you’ll experience. Therefore, more blades equals more irritation, not less.
After looking at the science behind shaving, it really should be obvious that wet shaving is the only way to shave. Science says no other way makes sense—no matter what the billion dollar razor manufacturers say to the contrary. Check out our other infographic on the many other benefits of traditional wet shaving.
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Ben Rose is the founder and senior editor at Prim&Prep, the definitive guide to male grooming. He is a wet shaving expert and body grooming aficionado. His work has been featured on many other prominent publications including Good Men Project, Addicted to Success, Steven Aitchison, and Sharpologist.