While the rugged bearded look may still be in style, you may be one of the many men who prefer a clean shaven face.
Before carefully swiping the razor blade across your skin, you’ll likely prepare by applying some shaving cream onto your wispy beard hairs.
Maybe the only thing you know about shaving cream is that it hurts like hell if you don’t use it, but do you know how shaving cream actually works?
Either way, chances are that if you are part of the 67% of the male American population that regularly has to reach for a can or a tube to lather your face, you’ve probably wondered at some point, “What does shaving cream do? Do I really even need it?”
The Origin Story of Shaving Cream
Of course, the process of shaving has been around forever, but shaving cream has only existed for the last 100 years. Until the early 1800s, men would simply place a standard bar of soap in a cup of water and stir it to a lather with a badger brush.
Then, in 1840, Vroom and Fowler’s Walnut Oil Military Shaving Soap created a concentrated, tablet form of soap that created more foam. For the first time, soap was marketed specifically for shaving use.
However, the American public remained unconvinced of the need to change their traditional soap-and-brush shaving methods. So the two companies began powerhouse advertising campaigns relying on humor and sex to change public perception.
Barbasol became well-known for its catchy radio jingle and risque print advertisements that frequently portrayed scantily clad women with the recurring message, “Your chances are better with Barbasol.” Burma-Shave set up quirky and poetically humorous roadside signs, most notably along Route 66, to peddle their goods. Their campaigns, spread across a series of signs, would communicate messages such as, “The wolf is shaved so neat and trim, Red Riding Hood is chasing him” or “Henry the Eighth sure had trouble. Short term wives. Long term stubble.”
In 1949 shaving cream evolved again when the first can of pressurized shaving foam was an instant success, offering a thick lather at the mere press of a button. By 1965, shaving foam in an aerosol can accounted for 65% of shaving products sold in the U.S. In the 70s and 80s, as aerosols became well-known as pollutants, the tide began to turn against aerosol cans.
Today many users have begun to make their way back to traditional methods through the use of shaving soap and shaving cream.
Do You Really Need Shaving Cream?
While you could dry shave (shave without the use of shaving cream), there’s plenty of reasons why you shouldn’t, and “it’ll hurt like hell” certainly isn’t the least of these. Your beard hairs are tough and wiry, but the skin on your face is soft and supple. Failing to protect your skin as you tackle these tough hairs means dealing with itchiness, redness and an increased risk of ingrown hair.
Leen Bergmann, co-founder of Schorem Barbershop and Reuzel, put it this way: “Think of shaving cream as lube for your razor. Without shaving cream, there’s going to be a lot of (uncomfortable) friction between your razor and your skin, which is going to cause irritation, ingrown hairs and actually prevents you from getting the best shave possible.”
Why You Should Use Shaving Cream
To understand why shaving cream is a necessary component of the shaving process, it’s important to study what shaving cream actually does.
It Moisturizes Your Beard Hair
Shaving cream helps to hydrate your facial hair during a shave, which makes those tough, copper-wire hairs softer and easier to cut. The less force you have to use, the more comfortable your shave (and post-shave) will be.
Ron Robinson, cosmetic chemist for BeautyStat.com, and resident beauty expert for Allure magazine and Refinery29, warned that if you do not apply shaving cream, the hair will be more difficult to shave, causing a tug and pull on your skin. You could even shave off the surface of your skin, leading to more pain and irritation.
It Lubricates Your Skin
“I wasn’t kidding about the lube analogy,” Bergmann said. “You want to create a surface that the razor can seamlessly glide over to prevent cuts and razor burn.”
Classified as an emollient, shaving cream’s thin layer of protection between the razor and your skin ensures less friction. This quality minimizes the risk of razor burn and prevents your razor from skipping or chopping across your skin. Ouch!
It Helps You Keep Track
As you shave off a line of shaving cream, you are able to stay aware of the parts of your face that are shaved and unshaved. This visual aid means fewer missed spots, as well as less little lines of hair you only catch later when you are out in public.
It Leaves Your Skin Feeling Refreshed
According to Bergmann, the best shaving cream also has ingredients to help soothe the skin. Shaving is an irritating process for the skin, so calming it down during and after a shave is important.
How Does Shaving Cream Work?
Learning about shaving cream is a bit like taking high school chemistry again. Robinson reminded me that, although shaving products can take many forms (creams, foams, gels, oils), most contain the same common ingredients:
- surfactants: provide foam and cushion
- emollients: lubricate and condition the skin
- humectants: to keep skin moisturized
- water: serves as the solvent (a liquid in which other substances dissolve)
Complex molecules known as surfactants are ones that have the special ability of being able to hold on to both oil and water. Each of these molecules has two parts: a hydrophilic (water-loving) head that generates lather, and a hydrophobic (water-hating/oil-loving) tail that allows the lather to last longer.
If you were to stroll through the shaving cream aisle at the supermarket, you would find these recurring ingredients in most shaving creams:
- stearic acid: the most common hydrophobic tail
- triethanolamine: the most common hydrophilic head
- glycerin: a vegetable derived, natural humectant that also works as an emollient
Both Bergmann and Robinson agree that, when choosing a shaving cream, you should avoid skin irritants like:
Knowing what to avoid and what to look for makes it easier to choose quality shaving cream. Bergmann advised that soothing ingredients — such as witch hazel and aloe vera, as well as moisturizing agents like sorbitol — are what you want to look for.
Shaving Cream, Shaving Foam, Shaving Gel or Shaving Soap: Which is Better?
In the world of shaving, there are a number of different products available to you. Sometimes it can be hard to know which is the best one. Let’s look at the differences between shaving cream and its most common alternatives.
Shaving Cream vs. Shaving Foam: Air
In general, shaving cream does not come in a can; shaving foam does. Aerosol cans of shaving cream are actually shaving foam, and they contain a large amount of air.
Although the air in the container makes the lather thick and pillowy, that addition of air can actually make shaving more difficult. You have to apply more pressure to the razor, increasing the chances of razor burn.
Shaving Cream vs. Shaving Gel: Lather
While shaving cream is worked into a lather, shave gel is thick and used as is. It is often recommended for men with sensitive skin, as it is the most lubricating of the options available. It usually has a moisturizing base of aloe vera and Vitamin E.
Some men find shave gel to be too thick, and it can clog your razor. While some specialty gels create a lather, shaving gel is generally not intended to. It is applied like a thick lotion and simply shaved off.
Shaving Cream vs. Shaving Soap: Time and Effort
Shaving cream already contains water, but shaving soap requires the addition of water to work into a lather. While a shaving brush is optional (but recommended below) for shaving cream, for shaving soap it is essential.
The lather from shaving soap is slick, allowing for a smoother razor glide, and it is a cheaper option due to the fact that it will last longer. You can use one shaving soap daily over several months.
Robinson believes in choosing shaving products based on your individual preference. If you have dry skin or sensitive skin, it’s also important to factor in your skin type while choosing products. Nonetheless, he insisted on focusing on quality.
“Look for the form you are most comfortable using,” he said. “And look for ingredients that will help make your shave as comfortable as possible. I like aloe vera and oatmeal, as they help to soothe and comfort skin.”
But for Bergmann, there’s a clear choice in what to avoid.
“Don’t use soap to shave — it’s not nearly moisturizing or lubricating enough, he said. “Gel vs. cream is just a matter of preference — gels you typically have to manipulate to get a good lather, while creams arrive ready to go, so my preference is cream.”
Tips to Get Your Best Shave Yet
Shower First (or Splash Your Face With Warm Water)
The warm water will soften your hair and open your pores. Be sure to exfoliate your face as well.
Choose a Good Shaving Cream
As with nearly anything, when it comes to shaving cream, the less chemicals, the better. Because synthetic chemicals are cheaper and easier to manufacture, they are in most mainstream shaving creams, but they’ll dry out the skin.
Choose a shaving cream that uses high-quality, natural ingredients, like aloe vera, and avoid synthetic fragrances, sodium lauryl sulfates and alcohol at all cost. These types of ingredients will dehydrate the skin, decreasing its natural oils and causing it to flake.
Use a Shaving Brush
A shaving brush doesn’t just look cool. It will lift your whiskers, making it easier to get a clean cut. Patting on shaving cream means matting your hair follicles down. Using a brush will not only help lift up the hairs on your face, but it will also gently exfoliate your skin if you didn’t do it in the shower.
Select a Good Razor
Of course, none of this matters if you’re still trying to use a dull blade to get close shave. Use a quality razor that is properly weighted and balanced.
Soak Your Shaving Brush
While in the shower, soak your brush in warm water, or do it for at least 3-5 minutes if you didn’t shower first. This method will soften the bristles of the brush and help you get a thick, warm lather for the best shaving experience.
Remember, using real shaving cream (usually from a tube) isn’t the same as using foam from a can. A little goes a long way, so stick to a dime-sized amount squeezed directly onto the bristles.
Lather your face in a circular motion, and cover completely every spot you intend to shave, leaving no skin visible beneath it. To lather your face well, it should take you at least a solid minute. Take your time.
When shaving with a safety razor, be sure to go in the opposite direction of your hair growth. No matter what product you buy, the goal is for the experience to be pleasant and safe.
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