It was around my 23rd birthday when I realized I have only one face and that I better start taking care of it. The revelation came after my roommate's Gillette Fusion HydraGel had left me so red and stinging that I thought I might need skin transplant.
Since then, I've bought numerous shaving creams - some better than others - and got the reputation among my friends that I know how to pick the best shaving cream for wet shaving.
I think this reputation was mostly based on a couple of lucky-guesses for people skillfully bad at shaving, rather than an actual insider knowledge.
Not to knock myself down too much, however, during my journey in wet shaving, I've noticed several ingredients and features that the best shaving creams have in common.
I want to share with you how to pick the best shaving cream for wet shaving by looking out for three basic things: good lather, consistent performance and good scent. You find these three features in a shaving cream and you've got a winner on your hands.
Shaving Creams vs. Soaps, Foams, and Gels
Go to any drug store and you'll be bombarded with tons of cans, tubes, and jars of shaving concoctions that promise you the smoothest shave of your life. Generally speaking, however, there are only four types of shaving lubricants: shaving creams, soaps, foams and gels. Here's a quick guide what each one of them is about:
They didn't come into existence until World War I when soldiers in the trenches needed a mess-free and easy-to-use shaving product. Today, shaving creams are probably the most popular option for any guy and for a good reason - the can be easily transported and you don't need to fuss too much with them.
Whether they come in a tube or a jar, all you need to lather up a shaving cream is a bit of water and your fingers. Some shaving creams will make you work hard by requiring a brush to get a good lather but this is more of an exception than the rule.
They are the predecessors of the shaving creams. Most shaving soaps are exactly that - soaps. What makes them different than the bar of soap you use on your body is that they have higher concentration of potassium hydroxide, which makes them more soluble in water.
Shaving soaps usually come in a bowl or, if you want to go on the cheap, you can buy just the bar. You still will need a bowl to foam up the soap in.
Shaving soaps require a shaving brush to get them working. They are a little more finicky and harder to use on the go, which makes them less popular than the shaving creams.
The shaving foams are lathered up shaving cream, which comes in a can. You squirt out a dollop and you gently spread it on your face. Of the shaving options you have here they are probably the worst for the following reasons:
- Because they fluffy, the shaving foams may create air pockets between the lather and your skin, which may cause uneven shaving and nicks;
- Shaving foams usually stay on the surface of your face and their skin-nurturing and lubricating properties do not penetrate your skin and beard to prep it for the razor;
- Since you don't have to rub them in, when you use shaving foams, you skip the step of massaging your face and beard before your shave;
- The aerosol can shaving foams come in is contains chemicals, which do not belong on your face.
To sum it up, shaving foams are there for the suckers to you use but since now you know better, they are off-limits for you.
Shaving Gels and Lotions
In terms of age, shaving gels are the newest shaving lubricants on the market. If shaving soaps go back centuries and shaving creams are about 100 years old, shaving gels are just turning puberty.
Shaving gels are usually transparent and meant to be applied just with your fingers. They don't lather up, which makes them great if you want to contour a beard and need maximum visibility.
I'm a guy with a medium beard thickness and shaving gels never worked for me. I find, however, that guys with rare or patchy beard seem to be getting great results.
How Shaving Creams Work
The main purpose of shaving creams is to provide lubrication and a layer of insulation between your skin and the razor. The best shaving creams for wet shaving achieve this by forming a lather when mixed with water. The process of lathering up your shaving cream is known as saponification.
Mark from Sharpologist explains that saponification is a chemical reaction, where triglycerides from fatty acids (usually from vegetable sources) interact with a base (usually lye) and water to form lather. The actual process is forming soap is a bit more involved but I'll leave the details for the Chemistry buffs.
What Makes a Shaving Cream Great
The best shaving cream is the one that consistently gives you a smooth shave and protects your face from the razor. Even though the kind of cream you choose is a matter of personal preference, there are three characteristics the best shaving creams for wet shaving have in common:
Whether you use your fingers or a badger brush, some of the great shaving creams around form rich and luxurious lather without much effort. One of my go-to brands is Castle Forbes. Their shaving creams are loaded with essential oils, aloe vera and coconut oil, which help moisturize the skin and provide for a smooth glide of the razor.
The main ingredients responsible for adding richness to your cream's lather are stearic acid and myristic acid. They are naturally occurring fatty acids commonly used in soaps to add texture and cleansing properties. Coconut acid and glycerin are also commonly used to give slickness to the shaving cream.
The potassium hydroxide (lye) is the agent responsible for lather properties of your shaving cream. Because shaving creams and soaps require more lather than just a regular bar of soap, chemists usually add more potassium hydroxide.
When buy a shaving cream look for a rich and slick texture. When you rub the cream in between your fingers, you want them to glide against each other. A cream that feels rich and greasy and has a pearly look to it will usually lather up very well and its lather will form a solid barrier between the razor and your skin.
Think of lathering up your shaving cream as a chemical reaction. The main ingredients that react are the components of the cream and water. If you mix the same cream with the same water in the same way, you should be getting the same performance every time. This is no brainer.
Sometimes, however, when you travel abroad you may notice that your shaving cream doesn't perform as well as at home. The likely culprit here is water.
Depending on its source, water may have different mineral composition. In some regions it may have higher major-ion concentrations, while in others, these concentrations may be lower. Along the east and west costs of the US, for example, the softest water is in New England, the South-Atlantic Gulf-States and the Pacific North-West. The hardest water is found in Texas, New Mexico and Southern California (source: USGS).
The bottom line of this water business is that, in general, hard water requires more soap to get the job done than soft water. Good shaving creams would have more or less consistent performance across wide variety of water hardness. If, however, you happen to live in London or Manchester - places notorious for their extremely hard water - just add more shaving cream.
Part of a great shaving experience is emerging in the aroma of the shaving cream lather caressing your face. A calming lavender or invigorating lime can do miracles for your mood, especially early in the morning, while fighting a hangover.
All great shaving creams come with a great scent, even if this scent is the subtle soapy aroma of its natural ingredients.
I like shaving creams that smell of citrus. The scent of limes and lemons lift up my mood in the morning and make me feel fresh. Some people opt for a lavender-based cream because it calms them down and helps them relax.
The best shaving creams for wet shaving derive their scent from essential oils. The most popular aromas are lavender, citrus (lemon or lime), rose and sandalwood. The good quality shaving creams would usually use natural essential oils from each plant.
The only exception is the sandalwood. The tree has been severely over-harvested and the price of the real oil is so high that any shaving cream under several hundred would likely use an imitation. A popular replacement of the real sandalwood oil is amyris oil. Amyris is the third cousin of the Mysore sandalwood and does a decent job recreating the aroma.
Nowadays, new brands have been releasing shaving creams with unusual scents, e.g. burning leaves, machine oil, etc. These may be a great option but before you buy one, think whether you'd want to smell like burning leaves every morning for the next two months.