A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Shaving seminar: (a) With the grain or against it? (b) Hot water or cold?

August 5, 2003

Dear Straight Dope:

Are you supposed to shave AGAINST the grain, or WITH the grain? The latest Gillette Mach3 Turbo is advertised to work well BOTH ways, but doesn't say which way people were shaving before.  I have always shaved against the grain because I feel it gives me a closer shave, but it does give worse razor rash than with the grain. Am I the only one shaving against the grain, or is everybody else doing it that way too? Which way provides the superior shave and why? Thank you for your help with this most prickly of questions.

Dear Straight Dope:

When shaving facial hair, is it better to rinse your razor with hot water or cold water? A friend maintains that one must use cold water in the tropics to hinder bacterial problems on newly scraped skin. Does cold water tighten pores? Is that a good thing?

I get accused of giving very long answers, so here's a short one. Shaving against the direction of hair growth gives a closer shave, but has two drawbacks:

  1. It's a good way to donate blood, and
  2. You run a high risk of cutting off a hair below skin level, causing an ingrown hair--the whisker grows into the surrounding tissue instead of out of the pore, resulting in inflammation and possible infection.

To avoid these problems, shave "with the grain" (that is, in the direction your hair grows.) Each person's facial hair has its own growth pattern. If you are unsure of the direction of your beard, let it grow for a day or two and you'll see it.

Professional barbers, by the way, usually first shave with the grain, and then re-shave going sideways. I asked Cecil if there was enough money in the Straight Dope Research & Entertainment Fund for me to go to a barber so I could report back firsthand, but no dice.

That was the short answer, and those of you with short attention spans can now click elsewhere. For those who care, here's some additional information about shaving.

A male face has between 10,000 and 30,000 whiskers, with the average somewhere around 15,000 to 16,000. How they know this I don't know. I wouldn't like the job of counting and averaging.

Facial hair grows about 15/1000ths of an inch each day, or almost 6 inches a year. Shaving removes about 65 mg of whiskers daily, per male (on average). If you prefer, that's about a pound every 16 years. In the U.S., sales of razors (as distinct from blades, replacement cartridges, etc.) is around $90 million annually, of which about a third is for electric razors. . More than half of wet-shave razors that are sold are disposables.  Total sales of replacement blades is in excess of $900 million, which is why the razor blade companies sometimes give away the razor. Who cares about the razor? They want to get you hooked on the blades.

So, how do you get a "perfect shave" if you don't go to a barber? I checked about half a dozen books in the library about male grooming, and they all pretty much said the same thing.

WET SHAVE WITH A BLADE

The consensus is that a wet shave is a closer shave. Take your time. You want your skin to be happy afterwards.

(1) Wash. Soften your beard by washing your face with warm water and mild soap. Don't use water that's too hot, that could cause complexion flare-ups. Give yourself a mild face massage by gently rubbing the soap into the skin. Rinse with warm water, to open the pores. When whiskers are soaked, they absorb the water, becoming swollen and weaker, which decreases their resistance to the blade.

(2) Moisturize. There's a whole range of shaving creams, shaving soaps, foams, gels, etc., to moisturize your skin. The shaving cream lubricates your face, so that the razor will glide smoothly across the surface. Shaving cream also locks the moisture into the whiskers, keeping them soft while at the same time holding them upright, primed for the knife. Leave the shaving cream on your face for at least a minute before you begin cutting, so that the beard is as soft and wet as possible. I know, sounds like foreplay. Shaving is one of those experiences that works on multiple levels. 

(3) Back to reality. Cut. Which blade? You have choices between single, twin-edged, triple-edged or even quadruple-edged. (See Cecil's report on single vs. twin blades.) The act of shaving actually pulls your whiskers up slightly from the skin, so that a second blade about 60/1000ths of an inch behind the first blade can indeed cut the whisker again before it has a chance to recede. Thus, in theory, multiple edges give a closer shave. However, most men can't tell the difference between a double and single blade shave.

Be sure the blade is sharp. You're not just cutting off hair, you're also scraping off a tiny layer of skin when you shave. A dull blade is more traumatic to the skin, making your face feel scratchy and look blotchy. Change the blade somewhere between every two and every seven shaves, depending on the toughness of your beard. Two weeks is too long to go without changing blades. Regardless of the number of shaves, if the blade is dulled, ditch it.

Rinse your blade under hot water before you begin to shave and after every few swipes. This removes the accumulated shaving cream, whiskers, and skin goop. For a really close shave, remoisten the section you just shaved, by spreading a thin layer of lather from another area of your face, and then swiping that area again. Keep everything moist. (Note: The use of hot water here is to help lubricate, has nothing to do with "killing bacteria.")

Shave with the grain, as noted above. To repeat: Shaving against the grain will give you a closer shave, but risks cuts and ingrown hairs.

Start at the sideburns. End up at the chin and upper lip--the hair is denser there, and you're allowing the shaving cream to soften those hairs a little longer. Pulling your skin taut may give a slightly closer shave, but if you've prepared correctly, that will be minimal.

Don't overshave. Too much shaving will cause skin irritation and rashes.

Rinse the blade thoroughly before you put it away. (The water temperature isn't going to have any impact on bacteria; you're rinsing the blade to get rid of hairs, shaving cream, oils, and gunk, not to kill bacteria. You'd need to boil the razor for that.) Do NOT wipe the blade with a tissue or towel--that will just dull it faster.

(4) You've not only shaved away whiskers, you've exfoliated, i.e., removed dead skin cells by scraping off a layer of skin. That means your skin is left vulnerable after shaving. To protect your skin and look your best:

  • Splash warm water on your face after the shave, thoroughly rinsing away all residue
  • Now turn the water temperature down to cool and splash some more. This helps close the pores, sealing in the moisture.
  • Pat, don't rub, your face dry with a towel. Rubbing dry skin is bad, patting dry skin is good.
  • Apply a thin coat of moisturizer to the entire face and neck. This locks in the moisture and soothes the skin.
  • If you want to use aftershave or cologne, apply it lightly after the moisturizer is dry. The less the better, but it's not necessary. The moisturizer is a sufficient ending to a shave without need for later embellishment.

ELECTRIC SHAVES

Unlike blades, electric razors work by shearing the whiskers--the facial hair enters the perforated metal head(s) of the razor and is cut by the moving blades positioned inside. This tends to create ragged or sharp edges. If a hair happens to curve back toward the face, it can cause irritation, such as ingrown hairs. Basically, the electric razor is harsher on your skin than a blade. Electric razors are OK for emergencies, travel, or when you're in a hurry. But you'll get a better shave that's kinder to your skin with a blade.

For an electric razor, you want the hairs to be as dry and stiff and possible before you begin, so they are easier to shear once they've gotten inside the heads. This is exactly the opposite of the way you want your beard for a blade. In this case, do NOT start by washing your face. You could prep with a preshave lotion, these are alcohol-based products that dry up the oils and greases on your skin and make the whiskers stand straight up. They evaporate quickly, but may also contain additives that help lubricate your face.

If you have dry skin, don't bother with a preshave lotion--it will dry you even more.

There is some evidence that the rotary head design gives a more comfortable shave, but there is disagreement. Be sure to keep the electric razor clean, using that cute little brush after every shave. Replace the blades at the first sign of dullness.

Be gentle with the electric razor--don't grind the heads into your face. Let the razor do the work. Run the shaver over your face in the direction of the hair growth (with the grain) to get a smoother shave. After shaving, if the preshave lotion is still there, it'll feel greasy--rinse your face with warm water, then cool water, and then pat dry and apply a moisturizer to smooth the skin.

OTHER APPROACHES

You don't like shaving? Well, there are other things you can try. None of them really reflects the Guy Way, but science obliges us to consider every alternative:

  • Plucking.  This takes a lot of patience and a great deal of masochism. With a good pair of tweezers, you can pluck hairs one at a time, but they will grow back and you can damage the hair follicle. However, you might want to tweeze eyebrows, ears, and around moles. You might numb the area first by holding an ice cube on the skin for a minute or two.
  • Electrolysis.  Generally used for small areas of particularly annoying and visible hair. Women often use it to remove potential moustaches. Hair will usually grow back, although after several treatments, it may give up. Electrolysis is expensive and can permanently damage the skin. Check out professional references.
  • Laser removal.  Follicles are permanently destroyed, although it may take several sessions, and it's way expensive. This should only be done by professionals.

None of the above good enough for you, Mr. Picky? You've got one last choice: Let it grow. If it worked for Abraham Lincoln, it can work for you.

Resources:

Your local public library has lots of books about grooming for men. I found the following  helpful, but there are tons out there:

Marquand, Ed, Beyond Soap, Water, and Comb: A Man's Guide to Good Grooming, 1998

Esquire magazine, "Man at His Best," 1985

Roberson, George, Men's Hair, 1985

Boyles, Denns, A Man's Life, 1996

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