Basic shaving can be quick and easy. Just pick up a razor and drag it across your face until the stubble’s gone. A really good shave, on the other hand, requires a little more effort and know-how.
Even if you've been shaving for years, you might learn something, from dermatologists and a barber who’s been shaving men for decades, about what you need to do to get the best shave possible.
Time Is of the Essence
Don’t rush through a shave. That’s a good way to abuse your face. Instead, spend the necessary time prepping your skin for the razor.
Start by washing your face. Facial cleansers work best because they help soften the protein in the hair, says Jeffrey Benabio, MD, a dermatologist with Kaiser Permanente in San Diego. Harsh soaps, on the other hand, wash away hair-softening oils. Leave the cleanser on your face for one minute before you rinse.
Next, lather up with shaving cream or gel. (Benabio says it doesn’t matter which, but choose one labeled "for sensitive skin" if you need it.) Then let it sit for 2 to 3 minutes. You can comb your hair or brush your teeth to pass the time.
"That’s an important step," Benabio says. "That really softens the hair and makes a one-pass shave possible."
Dermatologist Adam Penstein, MD, agrees.
"The longer you let it sit, the better, although spending the time is not always practical," says Penstein, chief of dermatology at North Shore-LIJ Health System in Lake Success, N.Y.
Don't rely on your fingers to lather your shaving cream. Get a brush.
"A good brush really pushes the cream into the hair and makes it much easier to shave," says Penstein.
Benabio recommends using a badger hair brush for its ability to lift the hairs and really coat them with cream.
When it comes to razors, both Benabio and Penstein say there's no need to fool with multiblade razors. A single blade will work fine, though Benabio favors a double-bladed razor for his shaves. The important thing to keep mind, they say, is that the blade you use must be sharp. Discard it if you see a nick in the blade; otherwise, if you shave most days, change blades every week or two.
How often you must change blades is another good reason to stick with inexpensive single blades rather than three- or five-blade razors, which can be quite costly. The more expensive the blade, the less likely you may be to change them as often as you should.
As for straight razors, Penstein advises leaving those to the pros. "They're much harder to handle and to keep even," he says, "and they're not as safe."
Barber Charles Kirkpatrick says straight razors are a lot harder to use and that it's easy to get hurt with one.
"Some people say it's daring to use it, but I love the word safety, myself," says Kirkpatrick, an executive officer with Barbers International and owner of a barber shop in Arkadelphia, Ark.
Hot and Cold
Another key to a good shave is keeping the skin hot and moist. A great way to do this, Penstein says, is to shave in the shower or just after you get out. At the barbershop, Kirkpatrick piles on hot, moisturized towels to prep the skin and then again during the shave to keep the hairs soft.
One big advantage Kirkpatrick says the pros have over home shavers is the ability to warm their shaving lather. You can buy kits to do this, but Kirkpatrick says they tend to clog when not used often.
Follow your shave with a cold water rinse. "Cold water reduces inflammation. It's like putting a cold compress onto an injury," Penstein says.
Go With the Grain
Penstein and Benabio both recommend shaving with the grain -- that is, in the direction your hair is growing. Though you may get a closer shave if you go against it, you make razor burn or ingrown hairs more likely.
Softening the hair first, as described above, should allow you a close, comfortable shave in one with-the-grain pass. That's ideal, Penstein says.
"The more time you go over an area, the more irritation you'll get," he says.
If you have thick hair, Benabio says, it's particularly important to go with the grain.
Occasionally, Let Someone Else Do the Work
More men are getting professional shaves, a change from recent decades, Kirkpatrick says.
A typical pro shave, he says, lasts 12 to 25 minutes. All you do is lie back and relax.
"The time depends on how many hot towels you want to use and if you get a facial massage to go with it," Kirkpatrick says. "Once in a while, you need a professional job."