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Safety Razors: How to Join the Three-Cent Shave Club
Switch to safety razors for fun and, well, not profit exactly
It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that the trendiness of beards over the past fifteen or so years has its roots in the absurdly high price of razor cartridges. Those ever-more-complex little blocks of disposable plastic and sharpness have grown in cost to the point where a shave with the latest and bladiest can run close to a dollar a morning and led to the kind of retail-shelf-space war usually only seen between clashing snack-food companies.
Especially when that ridiculous cost can be neatly avoided – and by using something that gives you a shave that’s cleaner, closer, and less irritating than anything that the R&D millions of the big names can assemble.
It may sound like a One Weird Trick link in a banner ad—a better shave for pennies a week!—but it’s real, it’s readily available, and it’s the kind of thing that’s been around long enough to fall out of fashion and be rediscovered. That one not-so-weird trick is to shave the way your grandfather shaved: using a safety razor with a single double-edged blade.
All the multi-blade advertising in the world can’t make up for the fact that safety razors just work better; they get directly at the hair without mushing it down under a plastic-and-lube-strip block or attacking your epidermis. Other than the fantastic results there’s nothing really different about shaving with one, although going slow and steady helps and it’s fair to give yourself a week or so to let your face and shaving hand get used to the new process.
The received wisdom about modern shaving is that the companies give away the handle and make all the profit on the blades. (This is often literally the case. I got a Gillette Mach 3 in the mail out of nowhere once.) With safety razors, the rational opposite is true: spend money on a good handle and take your pick of effective, low-cost blades.
Safety razor handles were basically perfected over a hundred years ago and have barely changed with time; if you can find the Gillette Super Speed that your grandfather actually did use, go for it. I’m currently using a Parker 96R, which features a butterfly opening—twist the handle and the top opens up like a drawbridge, which is both convenient and endearing in its toylike way. Someday soon when I’m feeling up for it I’ll get a Merkur 23c, made in Germany’s cutlery capital of Solingen, if for no other reason than my appreciation for German cutlery.
For the first time with the blades, start with a good sampler pack and work your way through until you find one or a few that really work with your face. Some notes on well-known brands: Wilkinson Sword still makes a laudable effort to be on the rack at major drugstore chains. Feather blades, made in Japan by a company that also produces surgical scalpels, are famously super-sharp. Astras are made in the US and seem to last a little longer than average.
And once you get through that selection process, well: A stack of a hundred Astras costs $7. Figure three shaves per blade—two if you insist on max sharpness—and that’s about three cents a day. And yes, that stack will last you about a year (maybe more if your post-pandemic grooming habits don’t extend to strict daily shaves).
Most of the other brands in that sampler pack cost about the same when buying in bulk. The most expensive by a longshot of the popular single blades are the Feathers, which weigh in at $38 for a hundred. That $38 at CVS won’t stretch to three four-packs of my old Mach 3 refills.
There are those who insist on using a new blade every day; do that and you’re still coming out way ahead on the expense front. That said, in my experience razor blades are kinda like chili in that they’re better on the second day and I usually pre-empt excess drag by changing them after the third shave.
And the results of this reckoning? On my best day with a Mach 3 I may have almost approached the apple-peel smoothness I now get without thinking on an average morning. The last fraction of a millimeter that was always left behind before is now shorn. On top of that, I have to use far less shaving cream to induce irritation.
Five blades exist for the others, not you. Sometimes the old ways are still the best ways.
Best Practices for Safety Shaving, Plus a Few Nice Accessory Ideas
In the same way that a turntable or film camera works great by itself but benefits from being the main part of a system, use of a safety razor politely suggests a collection of support accessories. Not needing to spend ridiculous money on blades also means that your budget now has room to indulge in a few upgrades that will make your morning ritual that much more interesting (and open up an entertaining new offensive in the constant battle for sinktop space with your significant other).
Step one: lose the can. Safety razors don’t clog on thicker, more satisfying shaving soaps like those made by Proraso, which has been mixing shaving creams and facial balms in Italy since 1908. They have a range of formulas, from one for sensitive skin to a shea-butter-laced beard buster, but their Refreshing and Toning blend—loaded up with glycerin, eucalyptus, and menthol—hits the ideal for most men. If you prefer to buy domestic with a side of transcendentalism, Dr. Bronner’s has included all-natural hyper-conscious shaving soap in different flavors with their recent product-line expansion so you can mix-and-match with your preferred castille-soap fragrance.
You can certainly lather up your suds between your hands, but using a shaving brush both makes for better application—it tends to prop up your whiskers instead of pushing them down, plus it feels nice to use—and means that less of that lather gets rinsed down the drain before it gets on your face. The people who know these things insist that badger hair is the best choice for shaving brushes, so something like Perfecto’s 100% badger-hair brush fits the bill perfectly. Those that lean vegan or who don’t want to risk having their dreams haunted by denuded badgers will be glad to know that very effective brushes with synthetic bristles like one of the GBS shaving brushes exist.
A proper shaving cup is a natural match for the brush. An antique mug or teacup may make for a charming shaving soap receptacle, but you probably don’t want something fragile knocking around in your bathroom (especially if you’re going to be using it before you’ve had coffee). A stainless-steel bowl like a brushed-finish Cumberbatch can be warmed to make your lather just that much more effective and appealing and will be around until the Sun goes supernova. If you prefer something more dramatic, a handmade ox-horn dish might just be the last necessary accent for your modernist bathroom. (Or it might just look totally bad-ass. And how often do you get to do something with ox horn, anyway?)
Once you’ve got all this together you might as well have a way to organize everything. A simple stand like a Perfecto chrome stand or Miusco stand (with soap bowl!) will hold your razor and brush in one place and keep them off the sinktop, letting them dry naturally and extending the life of the brush bristles.
Even though safety razors drastically reduce irritation, a bit of after-shave care never hurts. Nancy Sinatra once said that one of her abiding memories of her dad was the smell of witch hazel as he was getting cleaned up and ready (and probably using a safety razor) for a show. Finish your old-school shave with an appropriate old-school tonic like Thayers, which also blends in a bit of aloe but leaves out skin-drying alcohol.