When I was ten I shaved my legs for the first time. In defiance of the arbitrary mandate from my mother that I was not to do so until the eighth grade, I borrowed my older sister’s turquoise Sensor Excel and with a small bit of clandestine advice, I went to work. My mom noticed. I was grounded, taken to confession, and not allowed to shave my legs again until the summer before eighth grade. (Feel free to take a minute to contemplate the lingering affects of my Catholic childhood. Needless to say, any lasting scars were not from the nicks on my prepubescent legs.) People should do with their body hair whatever they want, whenever they want, however often they want, so please read this piece about my personal choices with that in mind.
For my part, this summer I started shaving my legs with my grandpa’s vintage safety razor and the only confession I’ll make is that I’m sorry I didn’t start using it sooner.
For the uninitiated, a safety razor is the predecessor to the cartridge and/or disposable razors that most people who shave use today. The general design involves a weighted metal handle with an apparatus on top where a thin razor blade can be held in place. Safety razors are so called because there’s a metal bar or comb between the razor blade and the skin, which acts as a barrier and helps make the skin taut as the blade gets drawn across it. This barrier makes these razors more safe and easier to use than the straight razors that came before them. For safety razor enthusiasts, the general wisdom is that safety razors offer a design that hasn’t needed much in the way of further improving. In their view, the multiple blades and plastic guards found on modern cartridge razors cause undue irritation in the form of bumps and ingrown hairs and that a closer, smoother, and all-around superior shave can be had with a far simpler tool. If it’s not already clear, I count myself among the enthusiasts.
I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with safety razors when I started using one. To revisit for a moment the site of my adolescent transgressions, two safety razors that belonged to my grandfathers lived on a shelf in the bathroom of my childhood home. I saw them as relics from a time and men long past and not as something to use on my legs (or anywhere). But when I spotted them still there during my last visit, I took them both down and decided to put one to the test: my Grandpa’s 1947 Gillette Super-Speed.
Before I could use my grandpa’s razor, I needed to clean it and so I took myself to the internet and lost an afternoon to YouTube. Turns out that what I’d assumed was rust, was only decades-old soap scum and nothing that couldn’t be scrubbed away with an old toothbrush and dish detergent.
To prepare for my first shave, I ordered a sample pack of double-edge razor blades selected especially for beginners and heeded the general advice offered to first-timers:
+ Hold the blade at a ~30 degree angle. No need to break out the protractor; this angle feels totally intuitive.
+ Let the weight of the razor do the work. Don’t apply any additional pressure.
+ Shave warm, wet, and exfoliated skin.
+ Use sufficient oil or cream to create a buffer and protect the skin.
If this makes it sound like the process is fussy or complicated, I promise it isn’t. Spending a few extra minutes of time alone in the tub without children felt like something I could count as both a blessing and a miracle, but I’ve also gotten more confident with every shave and no longer feel the need to spend quite so much time being careful. If you’re a visual learner, I found this video to be helpful to watch before my first shave. I ended up using olive oil instead of shaving soap or cream because it’s what I had handy.
Since I’m already writing a dissertation on personal grooming, I’ll just go ahead and bare all by also saying this: If you are a person who shaves your bikini line, you’ll be pleased to know that using a safety razor made for an actively better experience. Not only did I not cut myself, I didn’t end up itchy or irritated. I’m certain this is the first summer in many years when I haven’t finished by making more of a mess in my effort to just quickly “clean things up.” Also! An armpit update: After not shaving them for more than a year, shortly before I gave birth to Calder, I decided to shave my armpits in a last ditch effort to ease some of the itchiness I experienced at the end of my pregnancy. Like everything else I tried, it did nothing to ease the itch but in a strange postpartum twist, since then the hair under my arms has more or less stopped growing. It’s there, but only barely. To test the razor on my armpits I used oil and very short strokes in three directions (with the grain, against the grain, and across the grain) and got a totally clean shave, no irritation, and no nicks.
A few more things to know:
+ If you don’t happen to have your grandpa’s old razor hanging around, take heart. Vintage specimens abound and can be found fairly cheaply. You can sleuth for a vintage razor in old thrift stores or at tag sales or by searching “vintage safety razors” on eBay or Etsy. I’m obviously partial to the Gillette Super-Speed, but I have no experience with anything else, so take that for what it is.
+ If you go the vintage route and enjoy spending time listening to strangers on the internet, I was bizarrely captivated by the tutorials offered by the Razor Emporium on everything from razor history to cleaning vintage razors, to shaving legs.
+ Whether you go with a vintage safety razor or a brand new one, the great majority of safety razors and safety razor blades are compatible with one another. So far, I’ve tested three of the different blades that came in my beginner pack. I can’t say that I’ve noticed a huge difference between them, but I’m an enthusiast, not an expert, and perhaps I’ll become more discerning over time. Feel free to do your own sampling and report back.
+ If you decide to go the new route, these 9 best safety razors are recommended mostly for people with beards in mind, but you might decide to start your search there.
+ If you want to feel fancy and support a Black-owned business at the same time, Oui The People is the place to head. Their mild angle, gold-plated safety razors were designed with legs in mind and they’re made especially for Oui by a German manufacturer. Here’s more about the Oui price point and what makes them stand out from the crowd.
+ I’ve been using and really enjoying the Well Kept Shave Oil sent to me thanks to The Detox Market. I’ve also tried the Well Kept Shave Soap, which is lovely and smells good, though I didn’t notice much more of a lather than with any other bar soap I use. Also, if you’re looking for a relatively affordable but quite chic alternative to more classic safety razors, the Well Kept Safety Razors look awfully nice.
+ The head of a classic safety razor doesn’t pivot or twist the way cartridge razor heads do. A pivoting head is not something I’ve missed, personally, but for folks who do, Leaf Shave is a safety razor option that has a pivoting head and the option for multiple blades.
+ Safety razors are often touted as a zero-waste shave option because the stainless steel replacement blades can be 100% recycled. The caveat is that you can’t just toss the blades into the recycling bin. Old time-y medicine cabinets often had a slot in the back where folks could drop their spent blades for safe disposal between the wall joists. Without that option I’ve been stowing mine in a small glass jar in the medicine cabinet. You can also buy small metal “blade banks” to store used blades (fancy!), but either way, once you have a whole bunch saved, you’ll need to find a place like a scrap metal yard or sharps collection to safely recycle them.
What did I miss? Do you use a safety razor? Are you ready to start?
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