Using a traditional shaving soap is more arduous than new fangled creams, gels, and foams, but it’s also shaving as its most old school: rugged, manly, and skilful. It actually dates back a couple of centuries, long before David Beckham turned us all into well-moisturised metrosexuals, and is one of the original grooming essentials for men.
Usually produced as a small puck-like bar, shaving soaps are long-lasting – better value for money and often better quality than canned products – and demand some serious technique. Unlike shaving creams and gels, which come ready-hydrated and can be just slapped on (often straight from the can), shaving soap needs to be lathered with water, traditionally done with a badger-hair brush in a bowl, then brushed onto the face. This is grandad-approved grooming – shaving as a ritual as much as losing the five o’clock shadow. If you’re in a crippling rush to get to the office, it’s probably not for you.
As with all shaving products – whether we’re talking shaving creams, gels or foams – the point is to ‘cushion’ and lubricate: softening the hairs and protecting your skin. But shaving soaps offer extra hydration. The soap removes the natural oils from your hair and skin, allowing water to penetrate your hair and stop the razor from pulling on them as you shave.
“Soaps generally are considered to have a ‘slicker’ shave,” says Nick Gibbens, shaving expert from Bluebeards Revenge. “This is due to certain ingredients, such as tallow, lanolin, glycerin and bentonite clay that are added to the soap. This provides a smoother and gentler shave, especially for heavily bearded gents.”
Traditional shaving soaps are usually made from tallow, though there are vegan-friendly options made from vegetable oils. Tallow, rendered from beef fat, tends to produce a superior lather and creates a high percentage of oleic acid, which acts as an emollient and moisturiser. Be careful though – excess use can cause irritation.
You may also have heard about glycerin-based shaving soaps, but don’t get caught up fretting over tallow vs glycerin. A glycerin-based soap is technically a misnomer because it’s a by-product of soap-making. All soaps contain the stuff unless it’s been specifically removed – although extra glycerin is sometimes added later to make the soap clear.
Some purists will tell you the best shaving soaps are ‘triple-milled’, which means the ingredients have been mixed together three times. These soaps are usually harder and last even longer than your average product – in some cases lasting up to several months.
How To Make A Lather
Producing a good lather from your shaving soap is important and more difficult than you might expect, so we consulted the experts from The Shaving Shack explain how to create a perfect barbershop-grade mix.
- Add small amounts of water to the soap using a measuring teaspoon.
- Start with one teaspoon, begin lathering, and add another half-to-full teaspoon as needed until the lather reaches thick full peaks.
- If the soap is very hard, take it into a warm shower with you. This will give the soap time to absorb the water. After the shower, pour the water off the soap.
- Hold the brush upside down, so you the soap is above it, with the bristles facing up. The soap will drift down into the centre of the brush.
- Use mixing, churning and whipping actions to create the best lather then apply to your face with a look of smug, old-school satisfaction.
The Best Brands For Shaving Soap
Taylor Of Bond Street
If you’re shaving traditionally, then you might as well buy traditionally too. Taylor has been producing high-end grooming products since 1854, using botanical extracts to give its creams and soaps a touch of old-school English elegance. (The brand also has a London barber shop, where you can get a classic gentleman-like wet shave.)
Its trademark shaving soap has a sandalwood scent that gives it a manly edge, but it also fades nicely. It comes in a small wooden bowl for lathering, so for the price, this is about as good as you can get.
Truefitt & Hill
Another historic English barbering institution, Truefitt & Hill has been one of the world’s best barber shops and perfumers for more than 200 years. It’s officially the world’s oldest barber shop and a Royal Warrant holder to Prince Phillip.
Truefitt’s lavender soap isn’t exactly a contemporary scent, but it’s pure luxury and made from the finest ingredients. It also comes in a wooden bowl to make lathering hassle-free.
This classic Italian brand was founded in 1908 and is recognised around the world as a producer of quality, professional-level shaving products. From creams and foams to brushes, balms and burly scents, Proraso does the lot – and they’re all free of artificial oils and colours.
As part of the company’s ‘white’ product range (colour coded for gents with especially sensitive skin), this soap is formulated with oatmeal extract and green tea for low acidity, which soothes the skin and helps to calm any soreness.
Bluebeards Revenge has quickly established itself as the go-to (not to mention award-winning) brand for on-trend wet shaving – piratey products for young men who appreciate for the age-old craft.
This soap sticks to tradition. It’s actually Mitchell’s Wool Fat Shaving Soap, repackaged for a younger generation. Purists will already know Mitchell’s, which has been producing its trademark soap since the 1930s. The original recipe is still used today, and incorporates the natural lanolin content from sheep’s wool – which has been keeping farmers’ hands soft since the dawn of time – to help sensitive skin and complexions.
The Art Of Shaving
This brand is more than just a retailer of creams, soaps, and razors – it’s about shaving as a lifestyle choice, and has changed the perception of shaving from a daily chore to an act of gentlemanly luxury. Indeed, the Art of Shaving has perfected the, erm, art of shaving with a four-step philosophy that applies to all its products: prepare, lather, shave and moisturise.
If you’re still not sure, you can book a consultation with its master barbers to learn some tricks of the trade and get personalised tips on your technique. This soap is formulated with coconut and essential oils.
Wilkinson is best known for its disposable razors – exactly the kind of thing that the shaving traditionalists stand firmly against – but the company does a popular line of shaving soaps too. This affordable version is packed with moisturising agents, including coconut acid, creating a rich, creamy lather to prepare the skin and help the razor glide easily. The brand also produces a decent shaving brush for the full set.
Geo. F. Trumper
Geo. F. Trumper is a traditional upmarket barbers that dates back to the late 19th century. It not only sells high-end shaving products, but also cufflinks, collar stiffeners, flasks, pocket handkerchiefs, and other gentlemanly swag.
The brand produces a range of hard shaving soaps, which come in nine different varieties – from almond and extract of lime to violet and eucris – each designed to moisturise and lightly anoint the skin with its own scent.
This Sheffield-based brand has been creating wet-shaving accessories since 1988, and prides itself of high-quality products that are both contemporary and classic. Just as its razors are produced with expert craftsmanship, Edwin Jagger’s soaps have been made based on detailed research into the best natural and organically-produced ingredients.
This aloe vera soap is a paraben free and enhanced with plant extracts, with a scent that won’t overpower and is suitable for all skin types.
D.R. Harris And Co
Dating back to 1790, this is another old-timey London shop. But D.R. Harris and Co began life as an apothecary rather than a traditional barbers, selling lavender water and flower-based perfumes to well-off punters (D.R. Harris is appointed as chemist to the royal family, no less). It continues to make products by hand at its swanky St James Street premises today.
Its cedar and sandalwood soap is triple-milled to create a creamy lather for softening your facial hair, and takes its name from Marlborough essence: a warming, rugged, woody scent.
In business since 1777, this Olde English firm is primarily known as the ‘world’s finest brush’ makers, with a well-earned rep in the grooming industry for producing high-quality shaving brushes. A shaving brush, of course, would be nothing without something to lather up, so Kent also produces this tip-top shaving soap with an almost spicy scent, balancing patchouli, lavender, pine, clove, nutmeg, cedarwood, sandalwood, vanilla and musk.