habit shift: safety razors.

July 30, 2020
safety razor | reading my tea leaves

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.

safety razor | reading my tea leaves

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.

safety razor | reading my tea leaves

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?

This post includes affiliate links for some of the products mentioned. Reading My Tea Leaves might earn a small commission on the goods purchased through those links.

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33 Comments

  • Reply Audrey July 30, 2020 at 11:46 am

    Thanks for this post! I’ve been slowly swapping zero-waste alternatives into my beauty routine and I’ve been pretty intimidated by a safety razor. I’ll definitely be going down this rabbit hole of resources now. Also, is it creepy that I’ve been curious if you left your armpit hair after your post on growing it out last year? 🙂

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  • Reply samantha July 30, 2020 at 12:36 pm

    What a great post. Thanks for your deep dive. It feels timely for me personally, as my safety razor from Albatross just arrived today. They have a Blade Take Back Program, which accepts their blades OR blades from other companies. I purchased the Albatross razor from Package Free Shop (for anyone reading this). More about how to send blades their way here: https://albatrossdesigns.it/pages/albatross-blade-take-back-program

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  • Reply Patricia July 30, 2020 at 12:43 pm

    Oh Lord, the memoirs of a Catholic girlhood — yep, I had that arbitrary shaving age but managed to get it knocked down to sometime in 7th grade, using a little vintage Oster electric ladies’ razor. (Also, oldest of 4 girls.)
    Confession — always meant wracking my childhood brain for what I warranted to be sufficient “sins” to confess
    But I too love a safety razor, grew up with a Dad who used just that along with his mug of shaving soap, and Old Spice aftershave. Still love the scent of Old Spice. And your instructions are spot on — after 20 years of using one, the only times I’ve cut myself is if I forget and apply pressure (or talk while I’m shaving — distraction = lose my concentration, you know? I know you know. )

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  • Reply Anne Gilchrist July 30, 2020 at 12:56 pm

    On the zero waste front, Albatross Shave Shop has a Blade Take Back Program. You can send ANY BRAND of used double edged shaving blades in and Albatross upcycles them into new products. Wins all around!
    https://albatrossdesigns.it/pages/albatross-blade-take-back-program

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  • Reply Cori Pierce July 30, 2020 at 12:58 pm

    Yes, love my safety razor. I purchased a razor and blades from Albatross designs. With each blade purchase they send a paper envelope to mail back used blades in and they will recycle them. I also have only used this brand but it has been great in the past year I’ve had it!

  • Reply Colleen July 30, 2020 at 1:01 pm

    Yes, thank you for this post! I also appreciate the person who commented on your instagram that they returned the Leaf razor and went back to safety. I have very sensitive skin and was thinking of going with the Leaf. I’m going to use these tips to give my safety razor another try.

    • Reply Alix July 30, 2020 at 2:26 pm

      Hi Colleen, I can vouch for the Leaf razor for sensitive skin. My partner uses it to shave his face, and while I haven’t removed any of my body hair in over a year, I have used it to shave my legs in the past and it’s perfect for those knobby bits around ankles and knees that are easy to cut. Very smooth shave using only Dr. Bronner’s for soap.

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      • Reply Colleen July 30, 2020 at 3:14 pm

        Thanks, Alex. I look more into this. I’m having trouble with ankles and knees and getting a rash.

  • Reply Jane July 30, 2020 at 1:41 pm

    Thanks, Erin! This was a really interesting post on a topic I’d not previously considered in any depth.

  • Reply Anna July 30, 2020 at 2:11 pm

    Hoorah! I just started using a safety razor this summer as well and I am a total enthusiast. No bumps! No rash! No nicks! No slumping my shoulders with shame as I afix a new plastic head to my plastic razor handle and attempt to silence the small voice in the back of my head that tells me that if I could only make peace with my leg hair I could stop destroying the planet!

    However, I’m deeply envious of your bikini line experience. I do find it *better* than a standard razor but it still gave me bumps and irritation. Perhaps it’s a hair texture issue.

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  • Reply Rita July 30, 2020 at 2:31 pm

    Brave ten year old you! I, on the other side, braved through school with my moustache that my mother told me not to wax (Pure laziness on her part not catholicism!) Until I was ready to leave home anyway, I’ve been scared to try a safety razor instead of a regular one but I’ll give it a try, although…they are scary!!!

  • Reply Megan July 30, 2020 at 5:46 pm

    Fun!! I LOVE my safety razor too. I started using it after my partner and I moved in together, he used one for his beard. He started using one for the affordability, after the $30 razor was purchased he was only spending about $5 a year on blades. I used his once and instantly made the switch. I go through phases of loving my natural hair growth and wanting to feel like a sleek dolphin, I’ve never had an issue even in the most technical of areas. Congratulations on your switch and I’m really glad you’re enjoying it 🙂

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  • Reply Liz July 30, 2020 at 5:54 pm

    ThankyouThankyouThankyou for this post! I’m 64 so i remember using safety razors, and the slot in the back of the medicine cabinet. But that was a lonnnng time ago. I had breast cancer 2 yrs ago and was warned about shaving – the risk of cuts and infection from lingering bacteria on disposable razors (inviting lymphedema). But ast it turned out my histamine intolerance now causes me to react to those ‘aloe’ strips on the disposable razors anyway. I have been trying to find an alternative. Thank you for reminding me of the good ol’ safety razor. 🙂

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    • Reply Rita Martins July 30, 2020 at 8:49 pm

      Wishing you a lot of health and happiness ❤️!

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  • Reply Brittany July 30, 2020 at 6:02 pm

    After a horrifying leg infection from swimming in contaminated water with shaving nicks on my legs I switched to a safety blade a few years ago and haven’t had a single razor burn since! They are the best!

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    • Reply Rita July 30, 2020 at 8:48 pm

      Never ever I thought how vulnerable one can be by a sharing accident but makes perfect sense! That’s one more story on how women can be fragilized by beauty standarts. I still shave my legs but just from time to time, if I don’t feel like I don’t, even now in Summer.

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    • Reply Jodi July 31, 2020 at 2:04 am

      I bought both me & my fella old fashioned safety razors about 5 years ago in a move toward less waste. Can I tell you that he still raves about his “perfect” shave nearly every time he shaves?! For anyone who thinks these shavers are scary, you have nothing to worry about. I never experienced any nicks.

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  • Reply Kate July 30, 2020 at 6:14 pm

    This post came at the exact right time for me! I don’t use anything else disposable in my life except my razor which I somehow just couldn’t quit. I recently ran out of blades and I can’t bring myself to buy any more disposable ones. Luckily I have an old timey shaving shop in my city so I’m going to pop there and get a safety razor! Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Reply Natalie July 30, 2020 at 6:19 pm

    Thank you for this. I have researched this before and chickened out, but this year I have grown increasingly annoyed with the crappy quality of all disposable razors. Not to mention the way my sensitive skin reacts to them and the horrible environmental impact. I’m feeling much more courageous to try this out now. Excited to dive into your recommendations! 🙂

    • Reply Karen July 31, 2020 at 3:19 am

      I have had all my excess body hair lasered off so no need to worry about shaving anymore. Definitely something to consider (though up front costs are not cheap it’s worth it in the end!)

  • Reply laura July 30, 2020 at 6:28 pm

    I always shave with oil too! Makes such a difference! I just use my cleansing oil on my legs. I’ll brave up and give the safety razor a whirl.

  • Reply Ling July 30, 2020 at 7:45 pm

    Yessss to doing what you want/when you want to your own body. I grew up being taught my body was not my own but my mother’s and it took becoming a mother to finally reclaim my body. RE zero waste front on safety razors: my husband found the Vikings Blade ‘cayenne hot’ for me for the fact that it comes plastic-free.

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  • Reply GF July 30, 2020 at 9:30 pm

    Thank you for this! I’ve had to give up shaving because I keep getting itchy rashes, but I think this might be a solid solution. I don’t mind the hair but sometimes I like to treat myself to nice silky smooth legs.

  • Reply Bailey July 30, 2020 at 9:35 pm

    This is so great! I’m not much of a shaver, but for the couple times a year I do feel moved to trim my legs/armpits/bikini line, I’ve taken to using a regular ol’ set of clippers, like the kind you’d use to give someone a buzz cut. It’s a great no-waste option, and trims your hair down short enough that it’s not really noticeable but not so short that your skin will get irritated or give you ingrown hairs (a big problem for me). Just another option for folks looking to ditch disposable razors!

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  • Reply Amber July 31, 2020 at 1:13 am

    I LOVE safety razors and am glad you do too. When I switched, I was a little frustrated that most of the information I could find was geared towards men. One thing I have learned is that I prefer blades that aren’t super sharp (no feathers for me). They will cut. But otherwise, I find the safety razor so much better for my sensitive and bump prone skin. I wish I could give up shaving, but the hair makes me feel so hot and sweaty. It’s a personal problem. But buying a pack of 100 blades for the price of 5 Mach3 disposable ones does make me feel a little better.

  • Reply emily July 31, 2020 at 9:46 am

    My husband has used a safety razor for a few years and I’ve been curious about using it to shave my legs/armpits. You inspired me to finally give it a try today! Worked great!

  • Reply Nina July 31, 2020 at 1:58 pm

    Just regarding the confession thing (sheesh) and in case you *have* watched Normal People (and Fleabag) but did *not* catch Irish Comic Relief: https://www.rte.ie/entertainment/2020/0626/1149930-normal-peoples-connell-marianne-have-divine-reunion/ (the video is embedded in the post)

  • Reply Robin July 31, 2020 at 6:39 pm

    “No need to break out the protractor”… I had a giggle when I read this, thanks!

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  • Reply Erin August 1, 2020 at 1:01 pm

    A note on Oui Shave: I bought my razor from them in their early days and was annoyed to later find out that it was a Merkur long handled safety razor that can be purchased for $30 vs. $75.

  • Reply Hope Lane August 1, 2020 at 11:25 pm

    This is great to know! I tried using a straight razor about a decade ago in order to go zero-waste,–it was not a success story. I’ll have to consider this.

    Also, during a brief foray into flipping apartments for a property management company in Chicago, I once took apart a wall in an apartment and found it full of discarded safety razor blades, I was astounded! A solution that is so very unlike us to make in 2020, but perfectly serviceable.

  • Reply MK August 5, 2020 at 5:46 pm

    I had the EXACT SAME EXPERIENCE basically except I stole my mom’s razor because I am the big sister. I was the last 7th grader with hairy legs and I was mortified so I did it without permission, got a horrible razor burn, as well as grounded. I ALSO then had to go to confession. I have sworn to my husband that no matter what we are not sending our daughter to Catholic school. The scars are too fresh!

  • Reply Sarah M August 13, 2020 at 11:01 am

    I switched to a safety razor last year and bought the Oui one because the rose gold is so pretty! It was a bit of an adjustment, so I went slow at first. But I’ve had very little trouble and very few cuts. I’ve never used any oil or shaving cream while shaving (it never made sense to me) and I’m still able to do that with this razor. I just keep my leg under the shower stream or under water in the tub, and proceed. No problems! I still need to get better about properly recycling the blades, though.

  • Reply Kelly August 15, 2020 at 12:02 pm

    I believe Bevel is also Black-owned! My husband uses a basic Weishi razor, but their shave creams and things are great for preventing ingrowns. This is our razor bank: https://www.amazon.com/West-Coast-Shaving-Razor-Blade/dp/B00QHVN00S/

    I mostly use clippers with a body hair attachment for my legs, a normal razor for my armpits, and a Sephora eyebrow razor for my bikini line. I have limited dexterity and numb hands, so this works for me to avoid serious cuts.

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