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What's a Safety Razor, and Should I Be Using One?

Here’s everything you need to know.

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Two safety razors on wood Photo: West Coast Shaving

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Buying new razor blades just might be the world’s least satisfying shopping experience. The women’s section for razors in the drugstore is a Barbie’s Dream House of hair removal, all soft pastels and cheap plastic; the blades are literally named after flowers, hugs, and yes, the goddess of love. For the promise of snagging a man instead of the skin on your knee, you’ll lay down several dollars for each cartridge, which adds up pretty quickly if you want to stay hair-free on the regular.

So what’s a grown-ass professional woman to do? I don’t need a sparkly pink magic wand to cut the fuzz off my armpits, nor do I want to pay exorbitant sums to re-up the insult. The answer: Steal from the guys — or, to be more accurate, their grandaddies.

For some time, I’ve wondered if those old-timey razors — technically known as “safety razors,” which have recently come back into fashion in male grooming — might be the ticket for me. First appearing in the 1800s, safety razors got their name for being more consumer-friendly than the terrifying straight razors used in professional barber shops (you know, the ones that look like street weapons). They’re sleeker than drugstore cartridge razors, and the replacement blades are more environmentally friendly, not to mention dirt cheap — anywhere from a basic $0.12 to an ultra premium $0.40 each.

Step out of the narrow domain of lady’s razors, however, and you’re in a vast, strange new world. Amazon has 924 results for safety razors, ranging from $20 to $180. Holy shit. There are closed comb, open comb, adjustable, and butterfly styles, whatever that means. And that’s before you even consider what blades to buy or whether you need one of those little chrome stands and Downton Abbey–type shaving brushes.

There are a number of online shaving purveyors, too, like the fairly well-known Art of Shaving, the vintage-inspired Razor Emporium, and the female-oriented Oui Shave, which offers a trim selection of three razors and natural shaving oils. To help me cut through the noise, I called up Kevin Kish of West Coast Shaving, which carries a wide range of reputable brands and styles, from a no-frills $18 razor to a $260 model with a stand — and most importantly, offers sampler blade packs specifically for women, a nice touch for novices. Turns out, things are a lot more simple than they seemed.

The Razor

“Women’s body hair is not as thick as a man’s facial hair. For women, I’d say you want to go with the closed comb,” says Kish. “It has a solid bar across the top. It’s a little safer, as opposed to an open comb that exposes more of the blade.” This is probably a good point to mention that I haven’t gotten one nick while using safety razors — they’re called “safety” for a reason. “We recommend a longer handle for women because you’re stretching,” he adds. “You could use a short handle, but the longer one is more comfortable and easy to use.” As for the little razor stands, you don’t need one; their function is to dry the shaving brushes upside down.

I tried out three different closed-comb, long-handled safety razors: a silver West Coast Shaving Classic Collection Razor 78S ($22), the German-made Merkur 28C ($30), and a baby blue Edwin Jagger DE Safety Razor with an extra long handle made in Sheffield, England ($42). “The biggest difference transitioning from cartridge to a safety razor is you want a 30- to 40-degree angle,” says Kish. “Don’t apply pressure; guide the razor down your leg. Once you get it down, you can shave pretty fast.”

I didn’t even find it took that long; I was cruising on my first shave. After a few weeks of playing around with the three razors, I found I liked the Edwin Jagger DE model the best. One of the other models felt noticeably heavy, even though the Jagger was almost the same weight. Its smooth handle — as opposed to the ridged handles on the other two — also felt more comfortable. Not to mention it comes in very chic black and ivory hues.

Packs of razor blades Photo: West Coast Shaving

The Blades

Just like cartridge razors, how often you replace the blade varies from person to person, and can be anywhere from five to 10 shaves. “If it’s not cutting as smoothly, change it out,” says Kish. He sent me WCS’s Lady’s Choice sample pack of five different blades ($10.50 for 25). To swap in a blade, you just unscrew the two head plates from the handle, set the blade in between them, and screw it back together. It sounds bloody dangerous, but the blades are flimsy-thin and anything but scary. In fact, some of the blades in my sample pack barely cut through my forest-thick leg hair (thanks, Dad, for those Eastern European Jewish genes). The beauty of a sample pack is that I found the two that worked for my skin and hair.

Shaving Creams, Soaps, and Oils

Much to my relief, Kish told me you don’t need a special shaving cream or soap with a brush. You could use your regular shaving cream or even an oil, like coconut or sweet almond. Much of the appeal of these fancier shaving lubricants for safety razor fans is the more “civilized” experience. Now, I have enough goddamn rituals in my upkeep routine, between various stints of facial cleansing methods and mixing masks in little ceramic bowls. Still, for research’s sake, I tried out a few shaving soaps with a synthetic shaving brush ($15), which creates a light foam when you wet it and swirl it on the soap (as opposed to canister shaving creams, which are loaded up with synthetic chemicals). I was surprised to find that using the brush was actually enjoyable, like an adult craft project painting foam on my legs, instead of a tedious chore. Dare I say it made shaving... fun?

A safety razor set with a brush Photo: West Coast Shaving

Preventing Irritation

Safety razor enthusiasts like to say that they get less irritation and ingrown hairs because they’re not dragging up to five blades over their skin at a time. Dr. Jeanette Graf, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, doesn’t buy that it’s because a safety razor is superior to the new five-blade cartridges. “It’s about the kind of skin you have and whether you have thicker, coarser hair,” she said. “The most important thing is to get the area moisturized to soften the hair and use a post-shave product.” She recommends putting something like a hair conditioner (coconut oil worked better for me) on at the beginning of a shower and Tend Skin ($22 for 8 oz.) after. That all aside, I have to wonder if safety razor users are getting less irritation because they’re replacing their blades more often than those buying the more expensive cartridge razors.

That’s the rub with cartridge razors: They’re cheap at the outset, hooking you in like a drug dealer with free product. After that, it’s going to cost you. My Edwin Jagger DE razor, a mid-priced model, is $42, compared to the $9 drugstore counterpart that includes two replacement blades. But if you calculate its cost with a pack of 100 of my favorite blades, my safety razor is $68.

The equivalent for a drugstore razor and 100 cartridges? $397.50, almost five times as much. Over the years, that gap widens — you could actually buy the most expensive safety razor while still saving money with a 100-pack of blades. Now that I’m thinking about it, I might just get one of those fancy little razor stands. At least I know I can afford one now that I’m not buying cartridge razor refills.