Alright, gentlemen, it’s time to choose a razor, and you have a lot of options. At the extremes of the razor spectrum, you have the straight razor and the cartridge razor.
The straight razor, or cutthroat, is a single blade that you have to maintain with a stone and strop, and while the curved handle you see on most cutthroats is actually a refined ergonomic design, the blade itself is simplicity at its finest.
It’s a blade, a sword for your face never needs to be replaced, and that’s all there is to it. At the other end of the spectrum is the cartridge, more plastic than steel, multi-blade, designed to last only a few shaves, loaded down with gimmicks to keep even the most careless shaver from bleeding, sometimes at the cost of closeness or while stretching your skin raw.
Is there a middle ground somewhere?
Absolutely. Both as a matter of design history and the shaving experience, the safety razor lies dead center in the spectrum. And with just a little care, the safety razor can give you the best of all worlds, combining the closeness and frugality of a cutthroat with the convenience and safety of a cartridge.
A safety razor is a great, classic choice for those who want to start wet shaving. But just saying “I’m going to use a safety razor” doesn’t mean all your choices have been made.
There are a lot of safety razors, and there is a lot you need to know about safety razors to make the right choice.
Some safety razors are best for beginners, some for more experienced people, and some are great for things like traveling, plus your choice may come down to personal reasons too.
You may not know exactly which safety razor is right for you at this moment, but hopefully with the help of our in-depth review on all things safety razors you can make an informed choice.
Let’s get right into it!
What Is A Safety Razor?
A safety razor is simply a razor with a removable blade sandwiched between two pieces of the razor’s head, which forms a guard, typically a comb or straight safety bar type. Because this safety bar gets in between the blade and your skin during the shave at most angles, it prevents any nick from going deeper than the exposed edge.
Most history-minded shavers associate the safety razor with a man named King C. Gillette, a name almost every man recognizes today. Gillette didn’t design the safety razor.
When he started his fledgling company, safety bar razor designs had been around for decades, but those designs were built with the expectation that a man would remove the (very thick) razor blade and sharpen it, just like a cutthroat razor.
King’s innovation was the disposable blade, a thin and inexpensive piece of pre-sharpened steel that could be tossed after a few shaves and replaced. The business model was revolutionary, and it’s still in use today: practically give away the razors, then make a handsome fortune selling the blades.
Several million razors issued to US Army soldiers during World War One, which they were allowed to keep after the war ended, helped the business along as well.
The modern Gillette company is obviously still doing this using cartridge-based “shaving systems” that swivel, flex, lube-strip, and vibrate like a smartphone in a movie theater. And they cost a lot of money. B
ut as for Gillette’s original dual-edged design, market economics has won the day: they are readily available, easily interchangeable between many different brands thanks to the standardized size, and dirt cheap.
There are some types like the Schick Injector and Gem which use single-sided blades, but for the most part, the double edge Gillette-style blade dominates, and we will continue to use it as our reference.
The Parts Of A Safety Razor
A double-edge safety razor is made up of three primary parts:
- The blade
The blade is what cuts your facial hair. It is housed in the head of the razor, and the most common design has two cutting surfaces, giving razors that use them the DE name (for double edge).
Many different brands are out there, and each has a personality, from the gentle Derby to the hyper-sharp Feather, with many in between.
Cost is low: buy in large quantity and you can buy a five-pack of many good brands for about a dollar.
Most blades last 5-6 shaves, meaning you can likely shave spending less than $1 a month on them.
- The handle
The handle of the safety razor is where you hold it while in use.
There are many different designs, with long handles giving better control, but short handles helping to keep new shavers from putting too much pressure on the razors and causing nicks.
- The head
This is the top of the safety razor and it is the part where the blade is located, that being between the base of the head and the cap.
The head is also where the bar is, the bar being the safety item which keeps you from slicing up your face.
This bar can be either straight or slanted, the slanted type usually providing for a slightly closer shave.
The Benefits Of Using A Safety Razor
There are many different benefits that come along with using a safety razor as opposed to either a straight razor or a conventional cartridge razor that is found in the common supermarket.
One of the great parts about safety razors is that they are very versatile because there aren’t too many blade sizes to choose from, and the basic Gillette-style design is not proprietary.
Most safety razors use the same design. So if you have 2 different safety razors, chances are that the blades from one will fit into the other.
It is worth noting the blade from one razor may be too aggressive or not aggressive enough when put in another safety razor.
- The Best Shave
One of the best things about safety razors is that they provide a much closer shave than your average cartridge razor.
With cartridge razors you often have to pass over the same spot more than once to get rid of stubble, but not with a safety razor because one pass is often more than enough to get the job done.
- Great For Sensitive Skin
Since safety razors are very sharp, provide for a close shave, and also utilize the wet shaving technique, it makes them great for sensitive skin, and they tend to create far less skin irritation than your average cartridge razor.
Those who tend to get shaving bumps, take note.
- Interchangeable Blades
This is, as a matter of convenience, the innovation that made the safety razor what it is.
Thanks to the design of safety razors the blades can be easily replaced by opening up the cutting head.
- Good For The Environment
Safety razors are great because they are by far the most environmentally friendly way to shave, especially when compared to cartridge razors.
Safety razors are made completely of metal and thus have no plastic parts which are made out of toxic and polluting fossil fuels. The steel blades can be recycled and simply use less material and less energy in production.
- Saving Money
Perhaps one of the greatest benefits to using a safety razor is the fact that you will end up saving a lot of money in the long run. Today’s conventional razors have blades that always need to be replaced, and these cartridges, such as Gillette Fusion cartridges can cost up to 40 dollars per replacement pack. A safety razor may be a bit more expensive in the beginning, but when you consider that the blades cost so much less, it becomes obvious that they are big money savers.
- Easily Maintained
Safety razors have very simple designs with little moving parts, and that makes maintenance as well as cleaning them very easy and simple.
If you’re not rough with it and clean it often enough you won’t have any problems with these razors.
- The Safety Aspect
Compared to a straight razor, the safety razor is far more forgiving, and little mistakes generally don’t have big consequences. They reward a mindful shaver but don’t send a careless one to the hospital.
- High Quality
Safety razors are based on the turn of the century designs, before the idea of planned obsolescence and high plastic content. Thus they last forever. Name brand blades from Shark, Gillette, Feather, Astra, and others tend to be well-made, too. Many people collect old safety razors because they still give you great shaves even after 50 years.
- Time Saved
Safety razors are much quicker than using a straight razor. As a matter of striking the right balance between the speed and the closeness of your shave, they tend to beat out cartridge razors as well, especially after you become well practiced at getting the angle right.
- Great Feel
Most double edge razors also have a nice heft to them, with solid weight and good balance.
Much of this depends on your selection and your preferences: a Gillette Travel Tech has a short handle, which some shavers (like me) enjoy because you can’t put too much leverage on it and pressure a nick into your skin. Other designs have a long handle, which gives more control.
There is a safety razor out there you will find comfortable, rest assured.
If all of the benefits to using a safety razor are still unclear to you or you would like to know more, you can always check the video below regarding the basics and benefits of wet shaving with a safety razor.
What You Need To Use A Safety Razor
Using a safety razor during a wet shave is pretty simple and straight forward because all you need to get the job done is shaving cream, a bowl, and a shaving brush, plus of course the razor itself.
Simply lather your face with shaving cream and go about your preparation as you would with a cutthroat shave.
On another side note, it may be easier to shave with the grain, however for a close a cut as possible you will want to shave against the grain.
For a full tutorial on how to use a safety razor, you can check out the helpful YouTube video below.
Different Types Of Razor Construction
There are a few different types of safety razors that you can choose from for your daily shave.
The main difference between various models of safety razors lies in their overall construction as well as the type of headpiece used; they are all very similar with slight variations.
All safety razors are very convenient to use because they provide for a great shave, are disposable, and best of all they protect the vital arteries from those nasty cuts too.
Let’s talk about the different types of safety razors out there, first starting with the different types of construction.
- The One Piece Design
The “silo” or “butterfly” type one piece safety razor is the most straightforward and simplest design out there. The whole razor consists of one piece from top to bottom that is all connected, and blade swaps require no disassembly.
The one piece safety razor has 2 hinged plates in the cutting head where the blade goes. These hinged plates use a knob that, when you twist it, opens the head and allows you to take out the razor then replace it.
Often you don’t even need to touch the blade, just turn the razor upside down to drop the blade out, then push the replacement blade out of a quick-change magazine directly onto the head and close up the head with another twist.
The Gillette Super Speed line from the 1950’s is the most iconic of one piece razors, the red handle version being the more aggressive and the blue handle version being more forgiving.
Cleaning these razors is critical to keeping it working smoothly, but because they don’t come apart, cleaning is also less convenient than on any other design.
- The Two Piece Design
The two piece razor has two separate parts that can completely detach from each other.
Unscrew, the knob at the end of it and the top of the head, separates from the rest of the razor, allowing the user to drop a blade onto the bracket of the top piece.
Then you just screw that top piece back into the razor and off you go.
Some people really like this design as opposed to the one-piece version because the head is somewhat easier to clean, but on the other hand, there is more to keep track of since it comes in multiple pieces.
Like the one piece, it is very important to clean these thoroughly between shaves to keep them working smoothly.
Many people who wet shave also prefer this type of safety razor design because there are almost no adjustments required to get the blade secured firmly into place.
With the two piece design, you need to be careful not to over tighten the screws because they will wear out, strip, warp, and eventually become useless.
- The Three Piece Design
The three piece safety razor design isn’t much different than the two piece version.
The three-piece also has a cutting head that detaches from the base of the head, but instead of twisting a knob on the bottom, you twist the entire handle, which then separates the handle, top head, and bottom head pieces.
Replacing the blade is as simple as unscrewing the cutting head from the base and inserting new blades.
Many people really like the three piece design because being able to take it all apart makes it very convenient and very easy to clean.
These were, at one time, the most common type of safety razor, with the pre-WW1 Gillette “old type” or Empire evolving into the many different versions of the Gillette Tech.
Today, Edwin Jagger and many others make a wide variety of high-quality models in every price range.
Like the others, this type of razor needs to be cleaned in between shaves. Also with the three piece design, you should be careful when re-assembling it because aligning all of the pieces properly can be a bit of a challenge.
Misalignment when assembling or the over tightening of the screw knob can result in irreparable damage.
Re-assembling it with a blade inside is somewhat more difficult as well, although still quite easy with minimal practice.
If our description wasn't clear enough, here's a fantastic youtube video which perfectly describes the difference between safety razor designs.
Different Types Of Head Pieces
Apart from having different designs regarding their construction, there are also differences in the type of head that various safety razors have, mostly having to do with the safety bar.
The different types of heads can be found on any of the construction designs that we discussed in the previous section.
Let’s go over the different head designs to give you a better idea of all of the options out there
- The Straight Bar Design
This is the most common and most popular type of safety razor head design.
It simply consists of one straight safety bar meant to protect the skin and face from unwanted cuts. Since they are straight and level, they are also the easiest to clean.
This design is a great all around version of the safety razor.
- The Slant Bar Design
The slant looks funky like someone took a straight bar razor and twisted the head in a vise so that it’s tilted on a slight angle.
Remember old pictures of the French guillotine, how the blade was slanted at an angle?
Physics tells us that an angled blade cuts through more easily, and this logic extends to the slant razor.
So a slant razor needs less pressure to cut and can give an easier shave with less irritation.
Choosing a slant as your first razor is not always advisable. If you have a very light touch, they are excellent, but if you’re coming over from cartridge razors, the incredible ease of cutting can result in some nicks.
Most men need to use a different, more forgiving razor first.
But for those who have some experience and good control, a slant can make your shave easier on your skin.
- The Open Comb Design
This type of safety razor head comes with a bar that has small teeth on it, much like a hair comb.
This serves the purpose of combing the hair and getting it neatly into place just before the razor passes over it, thus making it slightly easier to shave that with a straight or tilted bar.
On the other hand, hair does tend to get stuck in between the teeth of the open comb design and therefore requires cleaning more often than the other designs.
- The Adjustable Head Design
This is a slightly more advanced version when compared to the other three safety razor heads.
The adjustable head includes an extra moving piece that lets you use a screw knob to make small adjustments to the bar to increase or decrease the space in between the safety bar and the blade itself.
This is convenient because it allows you to get a closer shave when desired and it also lets you get into tight places with ease.
On the flipside of things, this type of head design requires more care and maintenance as hair often gets in between the blade and the bar.
It also requires more care regarding assembly and cannot be over tightened or else you risk breaking the screwing mechanism and the blade.
All these different choices don’t really make the decision any easier when it’s time to buy. You could get caught up in sheer beauty – hello, Merkur Futur! – Or you could decide you want the convenience of a silo-type design, or you could look for a certain price point. Lots of factors at play here, aren’t there? Here’s a list you can use to build your perfect razor.
- The Handle
Something to look out for is the handle. You want a handle that fits your hand nicely and has a good grip section to give you a firm hold on it.
A good grip will stop the razor from slipping and from cutting your face.
This is somewhat a trial and error thing because each person has different hands and different preferences, but a steel razor with a knurled handle is a good bet.
- The Material
Another thing that you should look out for when buying a safety razor is the material that it’s made of.
Obviously, solid metal gives the best durability, although not all metals are created equal; excessively lightweight stainless steels from China will strip and break more easily than a more expensive high-quality steel razor.
Many safety razors have rubber on the handle to provide a better grip when wet shaving, especially in the shower.
- The Price
Of course, the price of the razor makes a difference. We wouldn’t usually recommend a cheaper model because you get what you pay for, but using a cheaper safety razor isn’t nearly as risky as using a cheaper straight razor.
So if you are inexperienced and aren’t quite sure of what you want, a cheaper model might be better, in case you buy one that doesn’t quite suit your needs.
If you’re ready for a bit of a commitment, then the more expensive razors are absolutely worth it.
- The Head Size
One thing that you should always look out for is the size of the cutting head. If you have areas under the nose that are a tight fit, you will want a razor with a smaller head, or if you have a smooth face, a bigger head makes for a faster shave.
It is also worth noting that the weight of the head greatly affects the shave because with a safety razor it’s all about using the weight to shave instead of dragging and pressing the blades on your face; the heavier it is, the more work the razor will do for you.
- The Design
We covered designs earlier, and when you’re looking to buy, you should pay attention to the maintenance demands, ease of use, and expense associated with each.
You can choose between a one piece, two pieces, or three piece construction, and a straight, slant, open comb, or adjustable head.
Choosing the right safety razor that suits your needs and your style isn’t something that we can measure and bring to an exact science.
But if you have never used one before, your best bet is to use the guide above as a checklist, get a good idea of what you need to start with, and choose between a few razors that meet the criterion.
There are a lot of razors to choose from and your odds of finding a great one for you increase when you can pare the options down a bit.
We can give a couple of examples. For the true beginner, the most popular recommendation is Merkur’s 34C HD, a truly excellent two-piece design with a fairly short handle and a less aggressive, more protective head angle than most. If you prefer a longer handle, take a good look at Edwin Jagger razors.
If you want a vintage razor, and you have a reasonable budget, the Gillette Adjustable works wonders. Look for the “fat boy” type.
All this depends on you, on your preferences, your experience level, your hair and face type, and your budget.
The beauty of the safety razor is the variety. The choices are endless. If you like your shavers pretty and pricey, the Kronos R1 makes a wonderful pick. If you like to keep it simple and cheap, many razors from Parker can satisfy.
There are a lot of designs out there, and when you’re looking, research always helps, but if you just like the way a certain razor looks and don’t have any overriding reason not to try it, take a chance.
There is excellence everywhere, in new and old, heavy and light, cheap and expensive, in all shapes and sizes.
Between straight razor and cartridge razor, there’s something for everyone, a balance that will keep you shaving happily for many years.
If you’re on the fence, give a safety razor a try.