For hundreds of years, the only way for a man to build a lather and apply it to his face was with a shaving soap. This classic part of a traditional shave lost much of its popularity around a century ago with the advent of shaving creams.
Shaving creams and gels may be more familiar to the modern shaver, but you’ll still find a troop of traditional shavers who are loyal to soaps.
Traditional shaving soaps build a rich, creamy lather that offers excellent lubrication and protection for your skin. Lather up in a bowl or directly onto your face with a shaving brush and always reapply the cream before you return to stubborn patches. Finish up by rinsing your face with cool water and applying a soothing aftershave.
So why the continued use of old-school shaving soap? And is it something you should be experimenting with…?
Read on to find out:
How to use a shaving soap
If all this talk of the advantages of shaving soaps has you fired up to try one out for yourself, then here are some simple guidelines to ensure your first experience isn’t your last:
Like any traditional shaving routine, you’ll want to start your shave by preparing your face and brush. Many men prefer to shave after a hot shower as the warmth and moisture clear the pores and soften the hairs.
If this isn’t to your liking, at least splash some warm water onto your face for a minute or so. Meanwhile, fill your sink or a small bowl with warm water and leave your brush in it to soak. This hydrates the bristles and makes it easier to build lather.
Whether you soak your shaving soap too depends upon the soap you’re using. A premium soap will have enough fat and glycerin to ensure a rich, creamy lather without much preparation beforehand. But you’ll hear traditional shaving enthusiasts talking about ‘blooming’ a soap before building a lather.
The process of blooming simply involves adding a thin layer of water to the top of the soap bar before applying the brush. This encourages the soap to yield more easily to the bristles of the shaving brush and is particularly helpful if the bar has become dried out since the last time you shaved with it.
There are three main methods of building lather from a soap: on your palm, in a bowl or directly onto the face. Which method you choose is a matter of personal preference, but lathering on your hand or face tends to be messier and more wasteful than using a bowl. Experiment with each style and see what suits you.
To begin with, pick up your brush from the bowl in which it’s been soaking and gently squeeze out the excess water. Then softly swirl the tips of the brush on the surface of the soap. As you do so, you’ll notice the hairs becoming lightly coated with soap.
Depending upon the method of lathering that you’ve chosen, you’ll then gradually build up a lather by making circular motions with the brush over your palm, into your bowl or directly onto your face.
The trick with building lather is to pay close attention to the consistency of the cream that’s developing. If there’s a high water-to-soap ratio, your lather will be thin and sloppy. In this case, swirl the brush a few more times in the soap to increase the concentration of the product.
If you notice the lather becoming too thick, just dab it briefly under the tap to add some water. The added moisture will make your lather more slick. At the end of the day, building the perfect lather is more art than science and you’ll get better with practice.
Once you’re happy with the thickness and volume of your lather (remember you don’t need too much to coat the whole face and neck), it’s time to apply the cream to your skin.
Before doing so, splash a little warm water onto your face in case it dried out while you were lathering. Then apply the brush to your face and neck using the same circular, swirling motions.
Around your lip and chin, you’ll find it more convenient to make a painting motion with the brush. Whenever possible, end each stroke of the brush with an upward motion. This will encourage the hairs to rise from the face and present more efficiently to the blade.
Do your best to apply an even coating to the whole of the area you intend to shave, but don’t be too concerned with the thickness of the layer. Ideally you should still be able to see longer whiskers poking through the lather. This will give you enough lubrication and protection, while still being able to see where you’re shaving.
Once you’ve completed your first pass at the beard, rinse with warm water and feel the surface of your face and neck. If you’re happy with the results, bravo! It’s time to move on. If not, simply reapply some cream from your brush before you make any further passes.
If by now the lather is starting to dry out, just dab the brush lightly under the tap so it can pick up a little more moisture. Just be sure never to take a blade to bare skin. This is likely to cause cuts and irritation.
Finally, finish off your shave by splashing cool water on your face and neck to remove the remnants of shaving cream and any hairs or debris that are lingering. Gently pat yourself dry with a clean towel and apply a soothing aftershave treatment that will calm the skin and replace lost moisture.
Shaving soap vs cream
In some ways, there isn’t much to separate a shaving soap from a cream. Both provide lubrication and protection to your face during a shave. But even so, there are a number of important differences between these two products. And these differences explain the continued popularity of soaps to the present day.
Spend any considerable time within the traditional shaving community and it won’t take you long to get a sense of the affection that is held for shaving soaps. Many guys who’ve been shaving this way for decades wouldn’t even think about switching to a cream or gel.
That’s partly because of the ingredients of a good-quality shaving soap. It’s fair to say that soaps have been made more or less the same way for thousands of years. For all that time, the manufacturing process has remained remarkably unchanged.
Soaps are made by boiling fats or oils with alkalis like sodium hydroxide. The best products nowadays are made with high levels of vegetable fat and glycerin. Glycerin (which also comes from vegetable fat) naturally draws moisture, and this creates a rich and intensively-hydrating soap.
The luxurious experience of shaving with a soap comes down to these two factors: the oil helps your blade to slide frictionlessly over your skin and the glycerin creates a nourishing cream that moisturizes and protects your face.
If there’s one thing you need to concede when it comes to shaving creams, it’s the convenience. A can of cream from your local drugstore will dispense with the same consistency time after time. However seriously you take your shaving, technique won’t play a role in the quality of the foam you get from these products.
With a shaving soap, on the other hand, you’ll really need to know how to get the best from your tools if you want a superlative experience. When you’re building lather with a traditional shaving soap, you’ll need to use a premium brush and know how to use it to whip up a lush, creamy foam.
It’s going to need more skill and effort than you may be used to, but once you’ve got your technique down you’re ready to enjoy the best shave of your life.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably serious enough about traditional wet-shaving to invest both time and money in it. There’s no need to break the bank, but if you’re used to picking up a three-buck can of Foamy with your groceries then you’ll need to aim a little higher.
At the very least, expect to fork out $20-30 for a high-quality shaving soap. If this strikes you as outrageous, just remember that you’ll only be scraping the thinnest layer of soap from the surface with each shave. It’s not unusual for a bar of shaving soap to last six months to a year even with daily use.
Out with Foamy, in with soap
Judging by most guy’s shopping carts, the humble can of Foamy is in no danger of going out of fashion. But if you’re looking for a little extra from your morning routine, splash out on a premium shaving soap and give your skin a treat.
Hi, I’m Theo, and I started Shaving Parlour to help men everywhere get the best shave of their lives. Check out my popular guides on Safety Razors, Shaving Cream, Shaving Brushes, Beard Oil, and more!