Putting the "Wet" in Wet Shaving

Today was a weird one. My skin has undergone the seasonal change, when I would begin growing a winter beard. I didn't feel like shaving yesterday! Not that I wasn't concerned, critically assessing the stubble at bedtime. Somehow it didn't insult the follicles to rub. The hair was better integrated with the skin; it felt more... hard. And yet not dried out, on the inside. The bristle wasn't too scratchy to the touch, either, thanks to the DF-813 and Rapira.

The feeling continued in the morning, such that it influenced my shave selections most extremely: a yellow hand soap for lather, and the Weishi 9306-H to hold my blade. With a few weepers, plus a little soreness in that spot under my chin, I survived; shaven closely enough, I presume, to go another two days.

This culminates a long run of not very pampering shaves. I let my Stirling run out some weeks ago, and didn't refill, rotating between Williams and Arko, mostly. I still have my KMF-VDH croap, as well as the liquid from which it was made, but that seldom beckons. My glycerin frankensoap, even less so.

Water is hard

Three and a half years ago, I grabbed a puck of Williams and stuck it in a coffee mug... and burned the living hell out of my face. Like my beard had gone through an industrial dishwashing machine, a uniform pink patch of erythema, it looked and felt like the problem was chemical, more than physical. I had been working on applying "no pressure" for some time, like everyone said to do, so I blamed the soap, thinking of it as a tablet of unreacted lye. I dissolved all of it before reaching that judgment, at least. I thought hard water was not interacting well with the cheap soap, after hearing others explain their problems that way. Van der Hagen and Petal Pusher Fancies were my next two pucks, and I thought them each better in quality, respectively.

But there they sit, melted with other things, while I'm hitting the cheap stuff all the time now. How can I reconcile that early experience? Part of it was certainly learning the qualities of good lather, and how to make it. But today's handsoap "lather" wasn't that impressive, and it worked alright. My blading has come a long way, too, I could say.

Yet there is another factor, one more piece of mindfulness to snatch from the jaws of commercialism. It came to the fore whenever I mowed the lawn this summer. Those shaves where it seemed I couldn't hurt myself if I wanted to. Something in the skin. Possibly urea?

Is moisturizer good?

Translucent glycerin shaving soaps did not agree with me, providing my first setback on the soap learning curve and insight into how I might discriminate without having to buy them all. Meanwhile, I was learning about my skin for the first time (at over 40 years of age): how I had the "oily" type, with plenty, indeed excess, natural moisturization. Apparently, there can be too much of a good thing in "wet" shaving. It really did feel like the hygroscopic substance was exploding my skin.

Whereas, my preferred Stirling soap used salt as an ingredient, which separates glycerin in an aqueous phase during manufacture. So I read, at least -- and only to a degree, of course. Stirling is plenty moisturizing, and all artisan soaps contain glycerin. Balance is required. People with dry skin seem to love straight up glycerin shaving soaps.

Use Ivory Soap

These words were etched into some early Gillette razors, and given away to promote the soap. An informative advertisement disclosed the trick: lather on your face, but rinse, then reapply lather before shaving.

Why would that matter? If you don't, the lather quickly breaks down and/or dries up. True, Ivory is a slightly different product nowadays. People who make their own laundry soap say some excess glycerine has been re-introduced, which is evident as filmy deposits on the laundry. But that should be in the shaver's favor.

I tried amending my Ivory lather with shaving oil and baking soda, palm lathering. Better, but nothing to write home about, I gave it up, noting how utterly drained of life my skin became. Numb, actually. But it provided a reference point, near which soaps like Arko and Williams lie. Both are often compared to Ivory, and both benefit from pre-rinsing in the Ivory manner. Moreso than richer, more conditioning lathers, at least.

Water Mindfulness

I think it's a case of not seeing the forest, for the trees. I've always worried about soap ingredients reacting with my skin, when the primary technical concern should have been the osmotic pressure with which they imbue the water. Hydrating the hair, people well know, makes a shave much better. Hydrating the lather, also recognized. I'm cognizant of what aftershave does, alcohol or alum displacing water so that I can get some oil back into my skin. Now, finally, I think I can appreciate the chemical dynamics at work in my skin during the shave itself.

Face lathering puts a concentrated soap solution on your skin. That pulls water from both the epidermis, with its dead outer layer, and the sensitive dermis, where the follicles grow. Oh, it'll get wet, even macerated, in time. Just not as... inflated. You need both parts fully hydrated, so that the blade takes fewer layers in exfoliation, and the root is deeply sheltered from blade contact. But by the time you hydrate the lather, it is quite airy and less able to pass water back to the skin. A blade can easily bottom out in skin that has been left in this dehydrated state.

Scooping lather back into your brush and rinsing wastes a small amount of soap, but balances the water content in the skin. At least do a full rinse after the first, reduction pass, before the blade makes full contact. A less messy approach is to apply a soaked washcloth, providing a concentration gradient down which product may flow. I "back off" many aftershaves this way. It also supplies water sufficient to replenish the skin matix by osmosis.

Which soap is really best?

It seems I can shave with anything now. Maybe cheap is the way to go. I may even successfully restrict the glycerin in my least-preferred soap from over-penetrating, by bowl lathering and using an occlusive preshave. I've already cleared it for when my skin is artificially dried out, after swimming in chlorine.

But a perfectly balanced, richly conditioning shaving soap will always be a luxury worth paying for. It affords the most mindful wet shaver a modicum of ease, and the less perceptive, some latitude. I just wish it were easier to choose the right one at the start.

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