I know what the snobs will say:
“Oh, don’t bother picking the best synthetic shaving brush. They all are a big no-no, so no matter what you choose it will be bad. You never get the same quality shave as with a badger”.
Truth be told, the snobs did have a point until recently. Indeed, synthetic shaving brushes have had a bad rep. They were often seen as products inferior to their badger and boar counterparts, purchased by those who prefer to save a buck at the expense of a quality shave.
The good news is that since the early 2000's the continuous improvement in cosmetic brushes has translated into significant improvements in shaving brushes. This is the story of how it happened.
A Brief History of the Synthetic Shaving Brush
In a series of articles the good guys at Sharpologist traced the history of the synthetic shaving brush. Here are some of the key milestones:
The birth of the synthetic shaving brush was predicated on two major historical events. Neither one has anything to do with shaving.
The first event was the discovery of synthetic fibers, known as Nylon, in 1935.
The second one was the World War II.
In 1941 Japan took full control of Manchuria and virtually eliminated the trade of natural fibers from Siberian horses and boars between Russia to China. These fibers were used for the manufacturing of anything from ropes to shaving brushes.
Regardless of the trade restrictions, the Chinese and the Japanese didn’t want the Russian horse and boar hair anyway. It was allegedly contaminated with anthrax and unsafe to use.
To solve the issue, the Japanese adopted the newly discovered synthetic fibers to manufacture various products including shaving brushes.
The first synthetic shaving brushes didn’t gain much popularity at first and for a good reason. The nylon fibers were harsh, cold and couldn’t retain water. They remained inferior to the natural fiber brushes and no one cared to improve them in the coming years for one specific reason: the invention of the canned shaving foam.
As shaving foams gained popularity, the use of shaving brushes declined. Throughout the following decades, improvements in the foaming features of shaving creams and the introduction of shaving gels put the final nail in the coffin of shaving brushes. Their use was mostly limited to die-hard European shaving aficionados and the few companies that served them. Those fellows, however, had little interest in using a synthetic shaving brush. They had the means and attitude to buy the highest quality natural fiber brushes.
Even though the synthetic shaving brush was almost forgotten, the evolution of the synthetic fibers continued.
The creation of the latex paint required synthetic fibers with better liquid holding properties; the popularity of the cosmetic brushes called for softer fibers that could apply makeup evenly.
These two developments had nothing to do with shaving, however, they are the reason for the return of the synthetic shaving brush in a grand way. When the popularity of traditional wet shaving picked up in the early 2000’s, the state of the synthetic fibers was ripe for use by some of the first synthetic brush manufacturers.
Despite the progress of synthetic fibers, these brushes still had some shortcomings. They still didn’t hold heat like the the natural fiber brushes and formed an odd donut shape in the middle when used. Nevertheless, they were centuries ahead of the original creations in the 1940s.
Four Generations of Synthetic Brushes
Sharpologist classifies the synthetic shaving brushes into four generations:
Generation 1: 1940;s - 1990's
These are the brushes made with the original nylon fibers developed in the 1930's. Lathering up your soap with them is like using fishing net.
Generation 2: 2000-2005
These brushes utilized the advanced synthetic fibers used in the makeup brushes. Even though they were softer than the Generation 1 brushes, they still lacked in performance. More notably, the Generation 2 brushes formed “donut holes” when wet - not a desirable feature.
Generation 3: 2005 - 2010
The synthetic brushes released between mid 2000's to 2010 built on the advancement of their predecessors. They still featured nylon fibers used in cosmetic brushes, however, the hairs
were thinner, which allowed for more of them to be packed in a knot. The Generation 3 brushes got closer in look and performance to a natural hair brush.
Generation 4: 2010 and Onward
Softness of the fibers improved. The brushes in Generation 4 have even more tapered tips, which improves lather application. These synthetic brushes (Muhle Silvertip Fibre, Frank Shaving Pur-Tech) are considered to use state-of-the-art fibers and their performance is very close to that of the natural hair brushes.
Just like any product, however, the synthetic shaving brushes have their good and bad sides. Before we get to picking which one is the best, let’s explore the good and the bad of the synthetic shaving brush.
Andrew from the Real Shave identifies several upsides of using a synthetic shaving brush. Here are some of them I find particularly important:
One inevitable downside of the natural hair brushes is that they may cause allergic reactions in some of us. Animal hair is known to trigger allergic responses in some people, which range from sneezing, to rashes, to difficulty breathing.
If this is the case with you, the only choice you have is to use a synthetic brush. Synthetic brushes are made from synthetic fibers, which are hypoallergenic.
I remember my first badger brush. It reeked of wet dog...or rather a wet badger. I loved the fact that I was using “the real thing” but at times the wet animal smell was just too foul.
Just like any avid wet shaver will tell you, with time the bad odour disappears but until then, pinch your nose.
Synthetic brushes don’t have a smell. If you find the animal smell unbearable, go for a synthetic brush.
In case you had any doubts, badger hair manufacturers don’t dispatch nymphs to skip behind wild badgers and collect their loose hairs. They catch the poor buggers and kill them for their fur.
No doubt, there are humane ways to harvest badger hair but in any conceivable scenario (except one), the badger is in some form exposed to a stressful human interaction. The only time it is not is if it is dead.
Just because things were one way before doesn’t mean they have to stay that way forever. If the excuse before was lack of good quality synthetic brushes, with the advancement of synthetic brushes, this is not an excuse to condone cruelty anymore.
Even the best synthetic shaving brush has its downsides. Here are some negatives people bring up.
The stiffness of the synthetic bristles is the default criticism of synthetic shaving brushes.
Indeed, brushes made with poor quality fibers can be stiff and even irritating to the skin. Since the 2000's the technological advances in fiber technology have made the new generation shaving brushes extremely smooth. Some of the high-end offerings (Muhle, Edwin Jagger) have the same softness as badger’s silvertip hair.
Some shaving experts point out that synthetic brushes do not have the same warmth retention properties as natural brushes. The argument goes that since a synthetic brush cannot keep the warmth of the lather, then your shave is not as good.
I understand the argument in theory. In my experience, however, I haven’t noticed any significant difference in warmth retention. I suspect synthetic brushes with poor fiber quality may not be as good at retaining warmth but this is not the case with the mid and high-end brushes I’ve used.
To get a good lather going your brush needs to capture sufficient amount of water in between its bristles. What helps the bristles retain water is a naturally occurring shaft in each hair. Synthetic brushes made with poor fibers may not have such a shaft and, hence, may not be as good at retaining water.
Shafts aside, many shaving aficionados argue that natural bristles are just better at retaining water. While they are generally correct, some of the new synthetic brushes don’t fall short in water retention than their natural badger tip brethren.
The Donut Hole
Some brushes form a circular hole in the centre of the knot when loaded with lather. This is often called a donut hole. It occurs when the fibers of the brush stick together. If the knot of the brush is not very thick (i.e. it doesn’t hold many fibers), a donut hole can also form.
Brushes with donut holes don’t form good lather and make it hard to apply on the face. As a result your shaving experience may suffer.
The early generations of shaving brushes were notorious for forming donut holes. The improvement of the fibers and density in the newer high quality synthetic brushes has taken care of the donut hole issue for the most part.
The Best Synthetic Shaving Brush: Which One to Choose
Price often signals quality when it comes shaving brushes. Overall, the higher the price is, the higher the quality of the brush is. There are some exceptions to this rule. The three synthetic shaving brushes below come at different prices and are all of comparable quality.
We tested dozens of synthetic brushes and the three below topped our list on performance. Since using a shaving brush is personal, we didn’t want to choose the best brushes simply based on our experience.
We consulted with what other wet shavers had to say about our top choices. We factored customer feedback in our score and arrived at the final results.
Parker Synthetic Bristle Shaving Brush
Parker offers good quality shaving products at a reasonable price. Their Synthetic Bristle Shaving Brush is no exception. For $22 on Amazon you get a brush with premium synthetic bristles tied in a 20mm brush knot.
When testing the softness of the bristles, the fibers of the Parker’s brush are comparable to those of a quality badger silvertip brush. Where we felt the difference is in the water retention. Nevertheless, we got good quality lather using both a shaving soap and shaving cream.
The Parker Synthetic Bristle brush comes with a blue resin handle. It feels weighty in the hand and looks great on the bathroom counter. The bristles are dyed to resemble the look of badger silvertip, which completes the expensive look.
Parker advertises its Synthetic Bristle Shaving Brush as vegan. Such claims wouldn’t sway me in my purchase decision because all synthetic shaving brushes are vegan by definition.
Overall, the Parker Synthetic Bristle Shaving Brush gets solid 4 stars. Even though it formed good lather, we found it not quite satisfying.
Rating: 4 stars
Where to buy: Amazon
Muhle Modern Black Fibre Synthetic Shaving Brush
If style and design matters as much as performance, look no further than Muhle. The German company has built its reputation on high quality beautifully designed products. The Modern Black Fibre Synthetic brush delivers quality and looks in one.
The softness of the fibres are comparable to those of a badger silvertip brush. They form a 21mm knot, which easily formed thick lather from both - a shaving cream and hard soap.
We found the water retention of the Muhle brush to be slightly better than Parker’s.
The Muhle Modern Black brush has a smaller handle than most brushes and may fit awkwardly in the standard brush stands. The gorgeous looks of the stained red ashwood, however, makes up for any size deficiencies.
Rating: 4.5 stars
Where to buy: Fendrihan
Edwin Jagger Synthetic Silvertip Fibre Handmade English Shaving Brush
Edwin Jagger is the English response to Muhle. Quality and design are the distinguishing features of their products. Their synthetic shaving brush offering is no different.
The synthetic fibres get extremely close to the softness of our benchmark badger silvertip brush.
The water retention here is excellent and we couldn’t find a significant difference in performance between this brush and the badger silvertip one.
The knot of the Edwin Jagger brush is 22mm and the ivory handle provides perfect counterbalance.
Of all brushes we tested, I enjoyed Edwin Jagger the most. The dense knot, classic look and comfortable feel in my hand made me fall in love with this brush. My wallet, on the other hand, hated me. The Edwin Jagger Synthetic Silvertip brush set me back $112 - the most I’ve paid for a synthetic shaving brush.
Rating: 5 stars
Where to buy: Fendrihan
Frank Shaving Pur-Tech Synthetic Hair Shaving Brush
Frank Shaving may not be a heavy-hitter as the other companies on this list, however, its Pur-Tech brush punches above its weight. Its bristles are soft- maybe even too soft - which makes them perfect for shavers with sensitive skin.
Pur-Tech features a densely-packed knot (21mm), which helps work up high quality lather. One downside we experienced with Pur-Tech was its water retention. The brush held a good amount of water, which was dripping at times. If this is the brush of your choice, make sure you shake off any excess water.
Pur-Tech dries fast, which makes it the perfect travel companion.
Rating: 5 stars
Where to buy: Amazon