For all of the recurring talk that I see in regards to pre-shave oils and creams, I’ve yet to ever see a truly definitive thread that explicitly states, “This is what your pre-shave routine should consist of and this is why.” There is typically talk of the pre-shave shower with possible inclusion of hair conditioner on the beard, but again, nothing that has impacted any one of us to a degree great enough to proclaim “I have found the answer and will share it with you now!”
Now I make no claims at being a wet shaving guru, but I do know my way around the bathroom fairly well, and I’d like to believe that I’m really starting to get the hang of this whole traditional wet shaving process. So while I won’t be so bold as to say that I have THE answer to your pre-shave dreams, I can honestly say that after 3 months of research and experimentation, I now know the how’s and why’s of A very, very good pre-shave routine that has upped my percentage of Alpha shaves by a considerable margin.
When I first progressed to the greatly anticipated stage in life in which daily shaving was actually needed, my pre-shave prep consisted of splashing my face with warm water for about 30 seconds and making my mother good and angry by using the good hand towels (the ones reserved for company) to clean up. As I progressed through the years, I graduated to holding a warm, moist towel to my face for a brief period and not using the good hand towels (beware the wrath of mom).
With my transition into traditional wet shaving, I managed to up my towel-time to the 2 minute range (at this time I was married with one child and couldn’t afford the niceties of “good hand towels”) and even toyed with some of the available pre-shave oils and creams. While I did notice some improvement from the increased towel-time and even a small change from the addition of Proraso’s pre-shave cream, I had not found anything so devastatingly great as to make me a true devotee to my routine.
In late August of this year (near the time of my brief absence from B&B), I began to really question and research things that would help my pre-shave routine to be equally as good as my new razors, brushes, and creams. I even went as far as to swear off any new purchases (gasp) until I got to the bottom of this issue. So without further ado, here are some of the interesting little factoids that I’ve managed to unearth.
I will take it as a given that we all have a decent grasp of the importance of water in relation to wet shaving. As the name of our fun little game would imply, hydration is the key to everything. More specifically, hydrated hairs are much easier to cut than dry ones (think about the difference in cutting into a succulent cut of well prepared beef versus cutting into that first pot roast that your wife ever cooked for you). Knowing this, it is now necessary to understand your hair a little bit better and to also understand the nature of the ingredients commonly found in some of our favorite products.
- The hair shaft, or part of the hair that actually protrudes from the skin, consists of 3 parts or layers. The inside two layers (which are not of great concern for our purposes) are called the cortex and the medulla. The outermost layer (which is of great importance to us in making sense of all this mess) is called the cuticle.
- The cuticle is a hard, shingle-like layer of overlapping cells (think of a stack of plastic drinking cups). It acts as a protective barrier for the soft inner structure and is hydrophobic or water resistant.
- The cuticle is the most resistant part of the hair and serves as the first line of defense against all forms of damage (like that which we inflict with a razor blade).
- Hair with cuticle damage will absorb liquids very quickly (excellent fact to remember).
- Moderately hot water will damage the cuticle and cause it to peel.
- When an alkaline solution is applied to hair, it causes the cuticle cells to swell and lift allowing water and chemicals easier passage to the inner layers.
Since there are several gents here who prescribe to the use of hair conditioner as a pre-shave treatment, I thought it would also be interesting to research what effects the conditioner may be having. The following list of ingredient types are commonly found in hair conditioners, the total makeup depends on the proposed functionality of the product:
- Moisturizers – These are used to hold moisture in the hair. Typically, moisturizers are humectants which serve to absorb water from the air and force it into the hair.
- Oils (EFAs – Essentially Fatty Acids) – these help your hair to become more soft and pliable. EFA’s mimic sebum which is the oil naturally produced by your body and released through your hair follicles.
- Surfactants – These are wetting agents that lower the surface tension of a liquid, allowing easier spreading, and they act as an emulsifier which facilitates the blending of unblendable substances (such as oil and water).
The Bad and The Ugly:
- Reconstructors – These are used to penetrate the hair and strengthen its structure.
- Acidifiers – They keep the pH around 2.5-3.5 which causes the somewhat scaly cuticle to tighten up.
- Detanglers, Thermal Protectors, Glossers – These act to again contribute to the acidic environment (tightening the cuticle) and to put a coating layer on the hair.
As you can see, depending on what exactly your hair conditioner contains, it very well could be making your job (shaving) much more difficult than is necessary.
Now, let’s take a look at some of our favorite shaving soaps/creams and see exactly what their ingredients would indicate about their performance. (The following list contains ingredients found in Taylor’s and Proraso’s formulas).
- Water – This one is simple enough.
- Stearic and/or Myristic Acids – these are saturated fatty acids commonly used to thicken or harden soap and also act as emulsifiers (to mix oils with water) and lubricants.
- Potassium Hydroxide and/or Sodium Hydroxide – these are both alkalis which aid in the saponification of oils and serve as cuticle solvents.
- Glycerin and/or Glycols – these serve as emollients, humectants, solvents, and lubricants.
- Fragrance Oils, Essential Oils, & Parfums – these act to give us the scents that we so enjoy.
- Other Plant Oils – these are typically included for the benefits that they supply for the skin. Common kinds include but are not limited to: coconut oil, eucalyptus leaf oil, olive oil, rose hip seed oil, etc.
- Parabens – these cover a large group of chemicals that are used as preservatives (keep products with natural ingredients from spoiling or losing their potency).
- Other – There exists a wide range of other ingredients whose activities vary, including but not limited to: antiseptic, anti-bacterial, cleansing, anesthetic, soothing, moisturizing, and cooling.
MAKING SENSE OF THE DATA
Getting back to our main goal, to best prepare our facial hair for shaving, we desire to achieve the greatest amount of saturation (water into the hair) in the absolutely quickest amount of time. To do this, we need to apply an alkaline solution (damage the cuticle), apply a humectant (encourages quicker and more efficient absorption of water), and apply warm/hot water (both damages the cuticle and hydrates the beard).
By the sounds of all this, you might begin to think that the lather you normally create for shaving could possible serve as a pretty good pre-shave prep and in thinking this, you would be absolutely correct.
WHAT TO DO – REVIEWING THE TECHNIQUES OF THE OLD MASTERS
While conducting the research necessary for this article, I lucked across some excerpts from an old barbers manual (yes, I am that pathetically obsessed that I read old barber’s manuals). In a summarized format, the information gleaned from the STANDARDIZED TEXTBOOK OF BARBERING states:
- Apply the lather to the face with a rotary movement of the brush with the first two fingers of the hand dipped into the bristles. The purpose of this is to control the bristles, thus avoiding getting soap in the patron’s nostrils, ears, and mouth. Obviously, the technique you use for lather application does not need to be this exact, and the method by which you hold your brush should be comfortable to you. The main goal here is to get the lather applied whilst stimulating the skin and hair follicles.
- After the beard portion of the face has been covered thoroughly with the lather, using the tips of the fingers and with a light rotary movement, proceed to work the lather into the beard. The amount of time required for rubbing the beard depends on its stiffness and density. I have a thick and coarse beard and thus spend about 2 minutes completing this phase. While your time will vary, this is both an important and highly enjoyable phase of the process so you should not rush it.
- Evenly wet a towel with hot (not uncomfortable) water and then wring it out. The towel should still remain wet, but not wet enough to allow for more than an occasional drip to escape (the degree of water left in the towel can vary to your personal liking).
- Place the towel so that it effectively covers the entire portion of the beard area that is to be shaved. Normally at this point, the barber would go about stropping and sterilizing his razor. I have found an effective time frame for towel application to be in the neighborhood of 3+ minutes. Don’t skimp on this as it will make the most telling difference in your final results. An added benefit of the heated towel is that it stimulates the flow of the sebaceous and sudoriferous glands in the skin, causing oils and sweat to come to the surface and give added lubrication for your razor.
- In removing the towel from the face, use it to wipe off any of the remaining lather. This act removes the dirt, hardened oil, and dead skin cells that you have loosed and are floating in the lather.
- At this point, you are now ready to re-lather and begin a truly luxurious shave (my words, not the manual’s).
Using this pre-shave routine has really brought about some drastic improvements in both the quality of my shaves and in my enjoyment of them. Additionally, this improvement has occurred during stage in my wet shaving experience level where drastic improvements are very hard to come by. These techniques should leave your beard so fully saturated that it will prove difficult to feel or hear your razor operate as it expertly severs each hair from your face.
Hopefully this information will prove to be useful to you and assist in bringing you the consistent gold standard that we all strive for. Additionally, it is my desire that through reading this document, you understand both the HOW and the WHY in relation to your pre-shave prep. Armed with this information, you should be able to make decisions regarding your prep and your product selections that will insure you are getting the best from both.
***DISCLAIMER - If any of you who are knowledgeable in the science related to this thread see a glaring inconsistency, please notify me immediately.***