The Best Manual Razor for Most People
Gillette’s Mach3 Sensitive Power Razor is not technically the best a man can get, but it’s more than good enough for most men’s faces because it saves you time and money, or both, compared with anything that provides a closer shave. It performs comparably to the latest and greatest offerings, but can be had for about half the price. You can get a closer shave from a safety razor, but it’ll take you three times as long (and that’s only if you’re well practiced). Or, you can get a cheaper shave from competing cartridge systems, but it won’t be as pleasant.
Trust me, I spent 200 hours researching, testing, and writing about these razors, including trying out 100 of them and consulting a pack of barbers, to make my way to this pick. Of the 30 professional hair cutters I asked, more than half recommended the Mach3. And among the finalists, it was the overall favorite of our 10-man testing panel.
One big surprise: Though we initially saw it as a gimmick, most of our testers really liked the vibrating feature of the Mach3 Sensitive Power Razor. As unexpected as this was, our panel ultimately felt the vibrating handle added a smooth glide that made shaves more comfortable, just as Gillette claims (more on vibrating razors in a bit), which helped bump it into the spot for our top pick.
Vibrating or not, the more-than-a-decade-old Mach3 is tried-and-true technology, and it garners the highest user ratings—even higher than the company’s newer, more bells-and-whistles-loaded Fusion line—on Gillette’s own website. By going with the powered Sensitive handle, you can choose whether you find the vibration to be helpful or not. Besides, at $8 (battery included), it’s only a couple bucks more than the normal or Turbo Mach3, and can accept Turbo and regular cartridges as well. And the price for these cartridges is right: about $20 for an eight pack, which is $10 less than buying the same amount of Fusion ProGlides.
Our main pick is the Sensitive handle, mostly because it does everything and fits all of the varying Mach3 cartridges and, against all odds, our panel loved the vibrations. Since the Sensitive handle pretty much handles everything, we feel there’s no reason to go for a normal Mach3 handle.
Instead, save your experimentation for cartridges. If you want to save a few bucks, it makes sense to purchase the normal Mach3 blades, which are about 30 percent cheaper depending on where you buy them and how many you get. They don’t have an antifriction coating like the Sensitive version does, but you might not be able to tell the difference. Again, that’s for you and your face to decide.
Disposables can be handy for traveling, because they’re lighter and you don’t have to worry about losing them. If you like to travel light, or you want to keep a disposable at the gym or at work, BiC’s Hybrid Advance 4 is technically a cartridge razor, but it’s actually a disposable since you can’t buy the stand-alone cartridges without a handle. For about $9, you get a handle and five blades, which is a pretty good deal. It offered a close shave comparable to more expensive Gillette models for most of our testers and was one of my personal favorites in testing. It also has an easy-to-grip, ergonomic handle.
But disposable razors in general aren’t great for the environment, because they take up so much more landfill space than small cartridges. So it’s good to avoid them if possible. That said, the BiC partially mitigates negative environmental impacts by giving you five cartridges per handle instead of a one and done deal (if only BiC offered razor recycling in the US, as it does in Europe).
If you’re prone to razor bumps or ingrown hairs, or if you just want the closest shave possible and have time to spare, a double-edge1 safety razor might be your best route, and we have some notes and suggestions on this below (we are planning a dedicated guide to these in the future).
But old-school shaving is a time-consuming process, filling up about 15 minutes on the short end from start to finish. That’s a lot longer than most people are willing to spend on just a single grooming task in the morning, but many proponents of this method of shaving come to value the ritual aspect of this approach as much as the quality of the shave. It’s also the most environmentally friendly option since you’re replacing only a single, tiny, recyclable razor blade every week or so as opposed to a whole, landfill-clogging plastic and metal apparatus.
Overall, these picks should cover the vast majority of facial shaving needs. But the truth is, it’s really difficult to know if a razor is gonna work for you until you’ve actually used it. In fact, the more I tested and talked to testers about razors, the more I came to understand that shaving is an idiosyncratic and highly personal ritual, with factors like skin type, lifestyle, ethnicity, budget, and plain old habit playing huge roles in what razor a person chooses and how he uses it. But after more than 200 hours of researching, testing, and writing, I’ve come to appreciate how the custom of shaving has evolved to the place it is today, and how to understand, evaluate, and use the modern products that are the result of that evolution.
In researching this guide, I wanted to figure out how we got to where we are in terms of shaving implements and practices. In doing so, I discovered that the popularization of shaving had as much to do with things like religion, war, and science as it did with fashion. And while my research confirmed that modern cartridge razors were indeed born out of a desire to secure profits, it turns out there’s also a technical advantage to having multiple blades. I go into this and a lot more in a (not so) brief history on shaving. But if you just want to skip to the picks, please click here (your loss).
Table of contents
- What do I know about razors?
- A (not so) brief history on shaving
- How we picked what to test
- How we tested
- Our pick
- Who else likes it?
- Flaws but not dealbreakers
- A disposable pick
- If you have time: a safety razor pick
- What about women’s razors?
- What about the Gillette Fusion ProGlide?
- Competition: cartridges
- Competition: disposables
- What to look forward to
- Wrapping it up
What do I know about razors?
My own background in shaving spans several major shifts in the custom. I’m 50 years old, which means that I started back when traditional implements—double-edge razors, the kind with the heavy metal handle and thin, fully exposed, two-sided blades—were just beginning to wane after nearly a century of dominance. The era of modern shaving, characterized by stacked blades in plastic-encased, pricy cartridges, was just beginning.
My interest in shaving went from personal to professional in the late 1980s, as I started my career as a journalist, covering the shaving sector for a weekly business magazine during a time when Gillette’s profits were faltering and the company’s desperate attempts to maintain market share had created a race-to-the-bottom commodification of its razors, with most men picking the company’s low-end Good News disposable over pricier offerings.
Then-Gillette CEO John Symonds was determined to reverse the trend. Telling shareholders that disposables had caused the company to “lose status in the minds of consumers,” he tasked Gillette researchers to come up with a revolutionary new razor—or at least one that could be marketed as such. During the summer of 1989, Gillette’s PR people surrounded the company with a veil of secrecy similar to the one imposed by Apple during the Steve Jobs era. An 8-foot concrete wall guarded the company’s Boston research facility from prying eyes. Finding out what the “new razor” would actually be became a contest for journalists covering the company, myself among them.
The idea that the small publication that employed me could beat The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal led me to spend long hours trying to break into Fortress Gillette. On a hot summer evening in early August, I walked to the New York Public Library’s main branch and began to search through patents. It wasn’t easy back then—everything was on paper—but the librarians helped me narrow my focus to ones filed by the razor maker. After five days of searching, I found it. US Patent 4,785,534, granted to Gillette in November 1988, described a double-blade cartridge supported by independently moving springs. A source close to Gillette confirmed that this was the new razor, and on August 14, 1989, we published an article called “Gillette’s $100 Million Secret.” The new razor—called the Sensor—was introduced six weeks later with the tagline “The Best a Man Can Get.” The scoop got me a raise at my next salary review and earned the enmity of the razor company—five years later, when I’d moved on to edit a cycling publication and was working on an article about male bike riders and leg shaving, Gillette’s PR people refused to talk to me. But that was then.
My reporting style is a bit less macho now, but in the time since the Sensor unveil, I’ve never stopped thinking about razors and shaving. Like many, I’m enticed by claimed technological advances, but frustrated by the increasing cost of buying replacement cartridges. At one point, I’d moved toward old-school shaving, but with the birth of my first child in 2010, I just don’t have the time to spare with a careful, retro shave. Instead, I wanted to find the best modern shave at a price that didn’t seem outrageous.
While writing and researching this guide, I’ve spent the past two months in razorland, and I have to say, it is a fascinating and weird place, filled with claims, counterclaims, hype, and history. I’ve carried around bags of razors—antique, obsolete, disposable, and new—on a road trip that stretched from Los Angeles to New England and back again, passing products on to a cohort of friends, colleagues, professional barbers, and other random hairy beasts.
While personal experiences with these picks played a big part in leading me to them, the fact that everyone I spoke to shaves differently—different products, different techniques, even different attitudes—made me want to understand the bigger picture: what exactly shaving is, and how the modern shave came to be. So before I get into more detail about what you want to shave with, it might be helpful to explain something more basic. Why bother? Why shave at all?
A (not so) brief history on shaving
The idea that men should remove their whiskers is one that has been around for a long time, but it also definitely goes in and out of fashion. In the United States, for example, we’ve gone through roughly three eras of facial hair. You can see this most clearly in portraits of US presidents. The first 14 American chief executives were clean-shaven. Abraham Lincoln was the first president to grow a beard, and the story is that he did so upon the urging of a little girl, who wrote: “You would look a great deal better for your face is so thin.” (That sounds like an apocryphal story, but the girl was named Grace Bedell, and her letter is on display in the Detroit Public Library.) Nine of the next ten presidents to follow Lincoln wore some kind of facial hair. President number 28, Woodrow Wilson—who held office during World War I—began a line of clean-shaven chief executives that continues to this day. The first great war, in fact, acts as a dividing line between shaving trends, and marks the beginning of Gillette’s ascendance via a confluence of technology, marketing, and tragedy (more on that in a bit).
When you read histories of shaving, the earliest versions of the practice are often dated back to prehistoric times, when hunter-gatherers smoothed their faces with the edges of clam shells or honed obsidian. The first to institutionalize shaving were likely ancient Egyptians; archaeologists have unearthed fine-edged copper discs that were the first manufactured razors. The Egyptian elite likely had a ritualistic reason for removing hair, since they shaved their entire bodies, but the technology—according to a history published on Modern Gent—was then adopted by ancient Greek and Roman soldiers, who kept their faces smooth for a more pragmatic reason: In the close-quarters combat of those days, an opponent could snatch your beard, draw you near, and run you through.
As is often the case, military traditions were brought home and became custom. Shaving became a way to distinguish one culture from another. The Romans, especially, saw their smooth faces as evidence of superiority, referring to their hirsute opponents as “barbarians,” from the Latin word barbe, which means beard, and from which we derive today’s “barber.” The use of facial hair—or the lack of it—to distinguish and demonize cultures other than one’s own continued as early Christians sought to separate themselves from Jews and even others of their own faith; in 1054, when the Roman Catholic Church split from the Eastern Orthodox church, Western European clergy began shaving as a way to show what side they were on. When Peter the Great—czar of Russia from 1682 to 1721—sought to modernize his country, he went against Orthodox church teachings through financial coercion; noblemen who kept their facial hair were taxed.
Beards returned to fashion in Europe in the 19th century, following the Napoleonic Wars. British and French soldiers both considered facial hair to be an intimidating factor against opponents, with wild beards and sideburns widely described—though the origin of the phrase is unknown—as “appurtenances of terror.” The beard era of the late 19th century got pretty ugly, and I’m not (just) talking about Chester Allen Arthur’s grotesque muttonchops, an instance of facial topiary so extensive that rumors claiming the 21st president had secreted an entire kidney pie within his sprawling undergrowth spread throughout Washington, DC. In 1861, a US publication called The Medical and Surgical Reporter asked of shavers: “When you feel your cheeks and chin with the hand, after every vestige of manliness in the face has been hacked out almost by the root, do you not feel as if the cheek did not belong to yourself?” Using a razor was even considered immoral by some. In 1847, esteemed British religious scholar/kook William Henry Henslowe published a 15-page pamphlet titled “Beard Shaving and the Common Use of the Razor: An Unnatural, Irrational, Unmanly, Ungodly and Fatal Fashion Among Christians,” in which he directly compared men who didn’t shave to transvestites, continuing, in verse: “So spake the arch-traitor and ever since then/The Razor disgraces and mutilates men; The Pagan; the Persian; the Jew; and the Turk, Are they who most manfully spurn the vile work.” (You can read Henslowe’s entire opus here.)
But the backdrop of the pro-beard movement was a pull in the opposite direction: Technology was advancing, making shaving easier and safer. That was bound to make it more popular, too.
Though some men shaved themselves, the job of removing hair from faces was, through most of history, left to barbers. In the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman eras, that job was defined pretty much the way it is today—as somebody who provides grooming services. But in the Middle Ages, the practice of bloodletting—draining the body’s vital fluids in order to eradicate “ill humors,” which were believed to be the cause of disease—became popular. Since traditional surgeons at the time, mostly monks, were forbidden to cut into the flesh (the body was considered holy) barbers—who knew their way around sharp tools—were the logical choice. In addition to trimming hair and beards, the barber of the Middle Ages would cheerfully siphon blood for any patient who needed a pick-me-up. The service became so popular that local shops would advertise by placing freshly filled bowls of gory fluid on their windowsills. When that practice was banned in 1307, a symbolic shorthand was adopted: a red-and-white pole to represent the clean rags that would soon be streaked with crimson following a procedure.
The Enlightenment that began in the late 17th century reestablished the separation between grooming and medicine, and by the 1750s, most barbers in Europe and the Americas were statutorily limited to the duties they still perform in the modern era. (Well, sort of. Today, you can determine what somebody in the tonsorial profession does by the category they’re assigned on their state license. In California, for example, a cosmetologist is allowed to cut, style, and color hair, and may also perform manicures, pedicures, and waxing. An esthetician can give facials, or apply makeup, and can remove hair with tweezers, chemicals, or wax, but not scissors or a razor. Like cosmetologists, licensed barbers can cut and style hair, but unlike all the other categories, barbers —and only barbers—can shave).
Though most states still require barbers to pass a shaving test, the truth is that very few barbers offer shaves these days. That’s due to an evolution that winds up with today’s five- and six-blade razors, but began with a product the most ardent shave hobbyists still exalt today: the straight, or “cutthroat,” razor.
The idea that a man could shave himself took hold around the same time barbers and surgeons were parting ways. It is likely that some shavers came to understand that special skills weren’t needed to remove facial hair the way such skills might have been needed to evict a demon from one’s gall bladder via a few pints of blood drainage. At the same time, metallurgic processes advanced far enough that relatively inexpensive blades could be purchased and maintained for home use, according to British medical scholar Alun Withey, who has traced advertising for DIY razors as far back as 1740. In 1762, a French knife maker named Jean-Jacques Perret published a book called “La Pogonotomie—ou l’art d’apprendre a se raser soi-meme” (“Pogonotomie, or the Art of Shaving One’s Self”). The term “pogonotomie” comes from the Greek word πώγων, or pogos, meaning “beard”; so, in English, “pogonotomy” means “to remove a beard,” while pogonotrophy means “to grow one.”
The advent of self-shaving also led to the advent of shaving products, especially creams and lotions—then called “shaving pastes”—designed to smooth the razor’s movement across the face. Razors got cheaper and better, but a basic problem remained: A straight razor was hard to use, potentially dangerous, and required a lot of maintenance. Such devices needed to be stropped and honed. (What’s the difference? Stropping doesn’t involve removing metal; instead, it smooths the edge of the razor after it has been worn down during use. Honing actually reshapes the edge after it has dulled.)
As soon as people started shaving at home, entrepreneurs began experimenting with simpler, cheaper, safer ways to do so. In 1847, William Henson—who’d tried and failed four years earlier to build a steam-powered airplane—was issued a patent for a more quotidian device: a so-called hoe-shaped razor that featured a “cutting blade … at right angles to the handle.” It was the first razor to adopt the T-shaped profile that characterizes all modern shaving utensils.
But the Henson razor still used an exposed, permanent blade. In 1880, brothers Frederick and Otto Kampf introduced a product they called—using the term for the first time—a “safety razor.” It added a metal guard to Henson’s compact head, reducing nicks and cuts while guiding beard hairs toward the cutting edge. The Kampfs’ Star razor still required honing and stropping, but that process was made easier by a simple accessory that accomplished the job. Kampfs’ American Safety Razor company sold 5 million Star shavers by 1900, and the company still exists as today’s Personna, the generic and house-brand division of Schick/Wilkinson (those two powerhouse shave companies also date back to the early era of shaving; they merged in 1992).
As popular as home shaving was becoming, the modern shaving era was still a few years away. Stropping and honing a blade—whether on a straight razor or a Star safety razor—was still a time-consuming process. Worse, you could ruin a razor by doing it wrong, and a badly maintained blade could cut your face to pieces. Only after a patented invention by a failed messiah, and a particularly gruesome military advance, would the modern era of shaving take hold.
King Camp Gillette didn’t know much about razors. In 1894, at age 39, he’d self-published The Human Drift, a book that called for all Americans—the country’s population was 60 million at the time—to move to a single, utopian mega-city, which he dubbed (sorry, Superman) Metropolis. But it was Gillette’s day job that led him to come up with a solution to the shaving problem: The native Chicagoan was working for a company called Crown Cork & Seal, which had invented another revolutionary product—the bottle cap (the company still exists and manufacturers about 20 percent of the world’s glass container closures). Gillette, according to biographer Russell B. Adams, was inspired by the convenience of Crown’s product, and wondered if he could apply a similar business model to shaving.
Creating a disposable blade turned out to be a huge problem. Cutting edges generally need to be stiff in order to slice cleanly. This is especially true if the edge is to be applied to flesh. But stiff meant a lot of material and expense. Gillette’s brainstorm was to make the blades thin and flexible and move the support for the blade into the razor handle. “Mr. Gillette’s efforts,” wrote the appropriately named William Emery Nickerson, an engineer who served as Gillette’s partner and was the early razor company’s equivalent to a chief technical officer, “were directed mainly toward the making of blades sufficiently cheap to realize the ‘no honing’ and ‘no stropping’ principle. What he really did,” Nickerson continued, “was to transfer from the blade to the separable holder the rigidity necessary for shaving, leaving in the blade itself merely enough substance to take a cutting edge.” [Italics added].
In 1903, Gillette and Nickerson sold 51 razors and 14 packs of 12 blades. The next year, razor sales topped 90,000, with 120,000 blades sold. By 1905, over a quarter million of the $5 Gillette handles were sold—along with 1.2 million blades.
The traditional thinking is that it was convenience—and Gillette’s business model of selling handles cheaply, locking the user into a proprietary blade forever (a model now used successfully by ink-jet printer makers)—that led to the company’s ascendancy. From the business point of view, this turns out to be a legend; one debunked by Randal C. Picker, a professor of commercial law at the University of Chicago. In a 2010 paper called “The Razors-and-Blades Myth,” Picker points out that the original price point of the Gillette Safety Razor was $5—the equivalent of $140 today. If there was “lock-in,” Picker argues, it wasn’t that the handle was cheap, but that it was expensive; a shaver wouldn’t be inclined to switch if he’d already invested a considerable sum on the base product. It turned out not to be the mundane bloodshed of a few nicks and cuts, but true tragedy: Gillette would win the razor wars because of war.
World War I brought unprecedented technology to the battlefield. Aircraft were used for the first time. New weaponry, including tanks and flame-throwers, gave combatants true potential for large-scale carnage. At the same time, the war was steeped in tradition, bringing more than 65 million soldiers to the battlefield in brutal, bloody, close-quarters conflict. Ten million soldiers died.
Military restrictions against beards had been relaxed since the Napoleonic Wars. Now, such edicts returned, thanks to the most terrifying technological advance of World War I: the use of poison gas as a weapon. Chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas were the first true weapons of mass destruction, and along with a helmet, a gas mask became standard equipment for any soldier at the front (including my grandfather, Morris Koeppel, an Austrian Jew who was drafted to fight on the German side and was exposed to gas during those battles, leaving his respiratory system scarred for the rest of his life).
It was the gas mask—and not marketing genius—that turned the Gillette razor into the world’s favorite. The company’s in-house Blade newsletter, during the war years, was filled with letters from employees who were stationed overseas. Johnnie Hurley, a Gillette worker from Boston who was serving in France, put it bluntly: “Every soldier ‘over here’ carries a Gillette Safety Razor in his kit. We have to shave almost every day, on account of gas. When a fellow is not clean shaven the gas mask does not fit good, and he is usually out of luck.”
Soldiers bring home new habits, and when young men returned home from the war, they continued to shave—often with the military-spec Gillette handles they were issued. It isn’t a coincidence that Woodrow Wilson was clean shaven. And you got there with a Gillette razor, which, Ralph Bergengren wrote in 1919’s The Perfect Gentleman, was a “characteristically modern invention to combine speed and convenience.”
In a cosmopolitan, technological world, Gillette no longer needed to persuade men to shave—that was a given. It simply needed to prove that Gillette was the best choice for shaving.
Unfortunately for Gillette, rivals—who, like today, promised better, cheaper shaves—began to appear to take advantage of the new American habit. Initially, those competitors were stymied by Gillette’s patented head pattern—the cutouts that allow a double-edge blade to fit a particular handle—which meant that only Gillette could manufacture “compatible” blades. But patents lasted only 17 years in the early 20th century, and by 1921, anybody with the technical skill could make blades that fit the Gillette handle. Throughout the 1920s, Gillette fought back competition by introducing new blade formats and lowering prices. Though Gillette managed to put many competitors out of business (sometimes by buying them), the commodification of shaving continued to vex the company through the 1960s, especially after Britain’s Wilkinson Sword introduced a stainless steel, Teflon-coated blade, a product that was measurably superior to Gillette’s carbon steel products (Gillette had experimented with stainless blades, but didn’t feel they were necessary, possibly because they lasted too long compared with rust-prone carbon steel blades. Today, most razor blades are made of antifriction-coated stainless).
Gillette was in a dilemma. Part of the problem was that it was making really nice handles—ones that lasted virtually forever. I’m still using a gorgeous 1969 Gillette Slim Adjustable that my Dad bought after he completed his military service. It features a rotating knob that moves the blade closer or farther from the skin (a measurement known to shaving aficionados as “aggressiveness”), and a very cool butterfly-shaped, twist-to-open head that locks the blade down for maximum stiffness. In order to de-commoditize their business, Gillette executives were increasingly looking toward patentable, cartridge-based designs—Wilkinson had introduced a blade affixed to a plastic shell in 1971—that would lock users into proprietary shaving “systems.” The company opened a pair of research centers—one in Boston and another in Reading, England—that still exist today. The first product to come from those labs was the Techmatic, which used a slim, cartridge-like head, but employed a continuous strip of blades that a shaver could unroll as the working edge dulled. It was, as one participant on the Badger & Blade shaving forum reminisced, probably “the world’s worst razor.” The band didn’t stay flat, leading to cuts as the uneven blade coursed over the face.
The lab’s next product was more successful. Codenamed Rex, it was developed in Britain by a team headed by Dr. Norman Welsh. In the mid-1960s, Welsh—using a fiber optic-camera—had taken the first microscopic pictures of a razor in action, observing that, as a 1972 New Scientist article recounted, “[When] a razor blade cuts a bristle, it also pulls the hair out of its follicle.” What if, Welsh reasoned, the hair could stay pulled out—it typically retracted in about one-eighth of a second—so that it could be cut closer? This was the phenomenon Welsh dubbed—with questionable scientific validity, but absolute marketing genius—as “hysteresis.”2
Gillette had an idea, but not a product. The company knew that some men were shaving this way on their own, loading a pair of double-edge blades on top of each other into a traditional razor head to create a twin blade razor. The big problem—and the one that took seven years to solve—was how to stack the blades in a cartridge that would allow the pulling and cutting to take place and at the same time, yet let the trimmed whisker and spent shaving cream pass through the space between the blades.
The answer came in 1971, when Gillette’s researchers developed perforated steel strips, cut into thin, narrow wafers. Manufacturing those blades—especially sharpening them—was, according to one engineer quoted in Russell Adam’s Gillette biography, “like sharpening lace,” but it worked. “With its two single-edged blades … gripped in parallel by a plastic cartridge, it was unlike anything shavers had seen before,” wrote Adams (Gillette didn’t note that multiblade razors can lead to more razor bumps, since the pulled hair can curl back into the skin as it regrows; to this day, shavers with coarse, tightly curled hair—especially those of African descent—will find that a multiblade razor may not be the best choice).
All that was left was to name it. Candidates included the groovy Dimension II and the pragmatic Face Saver. In the end, an acronym was chosen: The Twin Razor and Cartridge—or Trac II—was backed by a huge advertising campaign, was a hit. The age of traditional shaving was over.
I remember my first twin blade razor. It was Gillette’s Atra, the successor to the Trac II. The company had resuscitated the name from a failed 1960s project that had been launched thousands of miles away. The name—another acronym—stood for “Australian Test Razor.” The Atra was a Trac II with a pivoting head, and they were delivered, by the thousands, to incoming college students across America, in sealed cardboard tubes with colorful logos on them. Compared to my Dad’s old double edge, the Atra was a revelation: beard removal became fast and easy, and cuts were rare. But Atra blades were expensive, so after the samples wore out, I switched to another new Gillette product—the blue-handled Good News razors, a disposable and cheap version of the Trac II.
Gillette had invented the Good News razor as a way to provide a budget product that was also exclusive. It was so successful that it almost destroyed the company. By the late 1980s, when I began covering the shaving giant, such cheap razors had come to account for more than half of the US market. But there was little profit in disposables, and Gillette found itself undercut by BiC—a French company that sold pens and lighters and that brought single-blade shaving back into vogue, at least for cheapskates, with its Creamsicle-themed white and orange razor.
That’s where shaving was when I began covering the market—and Gillette was determined to change things. As important as the new razor was, in retrospect, the more symbolic move was the new slogan, “The Best a Man Can Get,” introduced as way to make shaving seem like a luxurious, pleasurable ritual, rather than a commodity-driven chore.
Is the now-familiar catchphrase true? The Sensor was a twin-blade razor, and it worked well. Millions of men switched from disposables to cartridge systems, beginning the escalation that leads to the sticker shock many consumers report they experience when buying refill blades for modern shavers. Underlying this is a fundamental supposition that “the best,” as Gillette says, is a moving target, that improved razors are eternally on the horizon, and that the decades-long succession of new products from Gillette and its competitors represent true progress. Primary among these assumptions is the notion that more blades—no matter how many more—are better.
But adding blades has felt a bit like a scam from the very beginning. In October 1975, a few months after the Trac II appeared, the very first episode of Saturday Night Live questioned the concept with a fake advertisement for the “Triple Track” razor, whose tagline was: “Because you’ll believe anything.” Three decades later, when Gillette’s top-of-the-line razor was the Mach3, The Onion correctly predicted Gillette’s future direction with an article headlined “Fuck Everything—We’re Doing Five Blades.” Within two years, the shaving giant did just that.
How we picked what to test
So that’s where we are today: a world in which the vast majority of American men are shaving with cartridge razors with an ever-increasing number of blades. But we still have to figure out if these “advancements” actually offer any tangible gains in shave quality.
As one would expect, Gillette does a lot of research on this subject, but most of it is proprietary. Occasionally, though, Gillette scientists publish in legitimate academic journals.
One recent article from the company’s United Kingdom labs appeared in the British Journal of Dermatology in 2012. The opening paragraph of “Insights Into Shaving and Its Impact on Skin” immediately notes the basic bargain of modern shaving: Sharper shaves closer, but too sharp can be painful. That’s because your whiskers are the toughest hairs on your body, with roughly the same stiffness as copper wire. But those hairs grow out of one of your body’s softest parts: facial skin. The researchers found that facial hair is about 1,000 times stiffer than that skin, noting that “the physiology of the male beard reveals that it can be likened to tough fibres embedded in a soft jelly-like matrix. This discrepancy in the relative properties of skin and hair results in a significant challenge when attempting to manipulate hairs for optimal, safe removal during shaving.”
In other words, work with a razor that’s too sharp, and you’ll shred away skin. Work with one that’s dull, and you’ll pull your hair as much as you cut it, resulting in irritation and razor burn.
These characteristics, the researcher wrote, “confound efforts to engage and cut hairs close to the skin surface.”
The researchers also looked at shaving technique. Observing hundreds of shaves, the researchers found that hair removal methods varied wildly. The slowest razor users employed 700 strokes over 17 minutes; the speediest in the test group completed the job with 30 strokes in 30 seconds. The amount of force exerted by different shavers also varied greatly, with some shavers pressing eight times harder than others.
Perhaps because Gillette funded the paper, the researchers found a handy solution to shaving’s complexity: “Hair mobility can be exploited to provide a measurable improvement in closeness, and this has formed the basis for multi-blade razor strategies for many years.”
It isn’t surprising that Gillette concluded that hysteresis works. But there are caveats: Blades have to be the proper thickness, researchers found. They have to be spaced properly, to clear debris and to prevent skin from bulging into the spaces between blades. There’s no question that Gillette—more than Schick/Wilkinson, and far more than the generic razor makers—does more serious research about shaving than anyone else. But does knowing more about shaving mean better razors?
How we tested
At this point, the only way to find out if any one razor was better than another was to actually do some testing. Unfortunately, testing all these products is a bit of a nightmare, because there are so many, and so many are either indistinguishable or interchangeable, or both.
Over this past summer, I purchased more than 100 kinds of razors, from the cheapest generic disposables to the most expensive modern, multiblade cartridges, and analyzed the latest and greatest subscription plan offerings: Gillette, Schick, Dollar Shave, Harry’s, BiC, all the generic store-brands, powered and unpowered handles, two-, three-, four-, five-, and even six-bladed versions, old-fashioned safety razors … I left no stone unturned.
I tested with a simple goal: What razor shaves best—meaning the closest and fastest—and is it worth the money? I wanted to find out if five blades are better than three (or two, four, or more) and if so, whether it was better enough to justify the extra expense. I especially wanted to distinguish between different blades across the same product lines. Where was the “glide” in Gillette’s Fusion ProGlide, whose blades are compatible with “ordinary” Fusion handles? Could you actually feel it? Additionally, since I was taking a 9,000-mile road trip this summer, I stopped in small towns and asked 30 barbers across the country what they shaved with.
One big question I wanted to answer was whether to use a so-called power razor. These are handles—offered by Gillette and Schick—that add vibration. At first glance, this seemed like an entirely bogus “feature,” more likely prompted by the fact that both of the biggest razor companies are in the battery business: Gillette’s parent company, Proctor & Gamble, owns Duracell—though it is currently in the process of spinning that company off; it has promised to maintain alliances like the Gillette tie-in—while Schick, Wilkinson, and Personna are owned by Energizer.
My cynical view of the power razors was bolstered by documents produced by the razor makers themselves as part of a legal battle between Gillette and Schick that began in 2005. When Gillette came out with its first battery-powered razor—the M3 Power (now rebranded as the Mach3 Sensitive)—it claimed in advertising that the vibrating razor head offered “micropulses [to] raise hair up and away from skin,” a sort of advanced version of hysteresis.
In the lawsuit brought by Schick, Gillette admitted that the claims were “somewhat exaggerated.” The court disagreed, concluding the assertion was “greatly exaggerated.” The razor company then offered an alternate theory: that the oscillations of the power cartridge freed whiskers from sebum—glandular secretions—and dead skin that “trapped” the hair.
That idea was mocked by Schick’s expert witness, a professor of dermatology at Yale, who said that the idea of “trapped” hair was something he’d never seen, leading the court to conclude that Gillette’s claim was pretty much bogus. In the end, the case was decided out of court—Gillette and Schick settled, both agreeing not to ding each other too much in the future over the veracity of their claims.
These days, Gillette claims that the power systems offer little more than “soothing micropulses [that] help reduce friction and increase razor glide.” In my testing, I guess the pulses felt okay, but they didn’t lead to an appreciable difference in speed, comfort, or post-shave irritation. But I was surprised to learn that several of our testers really loved the vibration. And since a vibrating handle still works without vibration, and since blades within a system are interchangeable, it doesn’t hurt to buy a razor that buzzes and use it power free if you prefer (but leave the battery in; you’ll want the extra weight it supplies).
I started testing by trying each razor, using the same prep—shaving in the shower with a non-aerosol cream. Razors that irritated, cut, or pulled were immediately eliminated. I then tried to narrow razors into categories, testing similar products against each other—triple blades against triple blades; five-blade units against their counterparts. Those tests yielded a category winner, which was bracketed against the top shavers in other categories. I sourced Razors from my local CVS and Walmart, and also tried products from the disruption-seeking subscription razor brands—Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s, both of which claim to offer a high-quality shave at a lower price through direct sales. I also tested outliers—weird razors, double-edge razors, and vintage razors.
In analyzing these results, I considered not only the quality and closeness of the shave, but also the value. If a razor is a bit better, but a lot more expensive, it’s probably not worth your time. Similarly, if you can spend five minutes to get a shave that’s only slightly inferior than one that takes 20 minutes, most people will opt for the extra 15 minutes of sleep in the morning.
At this point, a few finalists emerged from the pack: Gillette’s Mach3 and Fusion ProGlide lines, as well as a dark horse candidate from BiC called the Hybrid Advance 4. Other razors had either inferior blades or handles, or both in most cases. So I then took these three finalists to a 10-man testing panel made up of my colleagues here at The Sweethome and Wirecutter, each with different facial hair and skin types to get a better idea of what truly fit the needs of most people. The results were nearly unanimous:
|Name||Hair Type||First Choice||Second Choice||Third Choice|
|Dan||Coarse, curly, heavy, fast-growing||Mach3 Sensitive||Fusion ProGlide Power||BiC Hybrid 4|
|Michael||Thick, straight, sparse||BiC Hybrid 4||Mach3 Sensitive||Fusion ProGlide Power|
|Liam||Full beard, thicker and denser than average, straight||Mach3 Sensitive||BiC Hybrid 3||Fusion ProGlide Power|
|Nick||Full beard (coarse, curly)||Mach3 Sensitive||Fusion ProGlide Power||BiC Hybrid 4|
|Amadou||Coarse, curly||Mach 3 Sensitive||Fusion ProGlide Power||BiC Hybrid 4|
|Brent||Average, straight||Mach 3 Sensitive||Fusion ProGlide Power||BiC Hybrid 4|
|Cesar||Coarse, wavy||Mach3 Sensitive||Fusion ProGlide Power||BiC Hybrid 4|
|Tim||Medium thickness, slightly curly, full beard, fairly soft, not very dense, slow growing||Mach3 Sensitive (by far)||Fusion ProGlide Power||BiC Hybrid 4|
|Nathan||Medium density, straight, medium coarseness, strong downward grain||Mach3 Sensitive||BiC Hybrid 4||Fusion ProGlide Power|
Our pick, the best razor for most people
After shaving with all of the newest razors from all of the major personal hygiene brands, as well as all of the classics, generics, and disposables, and buzz-worthy startup subscription offerings, we think Gillette’s Mach3 is the razor we’d recommend for most faces. It performs well compared with its peers, but can be had for about half the price. Though you can get a closer shave from a safety razor or a cheaper shave from certain competitors, neither experience will be as pleasant.
It isn’t hard to get the impression that Gillette is constantly trying to invent bogus reasons to sell you upgraded, transformed, and dubiously better—but certainly pricier—shaving products. But as far as we’re concerned, they can go on doing that so long as they keep selling the Mach3. Gillette’s legacy top-of-the-line product from the late ’90s is still available, affordable, and better overall at balancing performance, speed, and price than any of its competitors.
As for which specific model to get, for a handle, we recommend the powered Gillette Mach3 Sensitive handle (the one with the Mountain Dew paint job) because it gives you the option of trying out the powered vibration feature. If you like it, like many of our testers did, that’s great! If you don’t, you’re only out a couple of bucks. Either way, the powered handle is compatible with all of the Mach3 cartridges, so you’re not limited to one specific type.
As for the cartridges, there are three Mach3 cartridge types—standard, Turbo, and Sensitive—all of which work on any Mach3 handle. On its website3, Gillette ranks the standard and the Turbo as having a lower “blade quality” (2/3 dots) than the Sensitive product (3/3 dots), though it doesn’t state what that means. If you compare the marketing materials, you’ll note that the Sensitive has a “Power Glide” coating and spring-loaded blades, as opposed to the Turbo’s “High-Definition Coating” and non-spring-loaded blades (though we’re not sure what the difference really is and they cost the same per cartridge). One of the big questions I had was whether there was a difference between the power-compatible blades and the non-power blades other than price—the standard Mach3 blades cost about 20 cents less per cartridge. In the end, I found that they all provide a great shave because they all feature the same basic design.
I liked the Mach3 because it combines nearly all of the attributes needed for a quick, high-quality shave, and our testing panel agreed. All 10 testers reported that the Mach3 got their faces nicely shorn, quickly, with little to no skin irritation or cuts. The triple-blade cartridges shave smoothly and safely—none of our staff testers reported nicks and cuts with the Mach3.
Much of the Mach3’s performance advantage comes from having less in a world of more. First off, it’s smaller and thus more agile than newer competitors. Gillette has tried to make its larger Fusion line more maneuverable with the new Flexball handles, but that’s like putting race tires on an SUV. Sure it will handle better than before, but other things equal, a small sports car will be better in the corners. Another benefit of having only three blades is that they’re spread wider apart. This means that spent shaving cream and cut whiskers clear the razor head more easily when rinsed between strokes—unlike the Fusion Proglide, which packs 5 blades densely into a only slightly larger head. A clear razor means an effective razor.
The handles are substantial and easy to hold compared to other models like the Personna razors, sold under that brand name and as the house brand at CVS, Rite-Aid, and Walmart; the Personna razors use odd, toothbrush-like shaping to provide grip that feels a bit unnatural and just isn’t all that grippy. Gilette’s Mach3 handles are more traditional and rounded, with a solid heft that makes them easier to maneuver along your face. Most testers agreed that it helped provide extra control by reducing the effects of shaky hands. This is especially noticeable when you compare it to disposable razors, which weigh less than replaceable models, even if they use the same blade head (Gillette’s Mach3 sensitive disposable weighs 16 grams; the non-disposable Mach3 Turbo weighs 36 grams).
Another feature our testers liked was the vibrating head of the green-and-white Mach3 Sensitive Power razor. Panel tester and Wirecutter audio reviewer Brent Butterworth, put it this way: “This one was my favorite. I assumed the battery thing was a gimmick, but it’s wonderful. Because of the vibration, you can just drag the blade any which way across your face and it doesn’t snag, doesn’t scrape, always moves smoothly.
“The blade moves very easily in the mechanism and has a 50-degree range of motion so it adapts well to your face. I prefer the narrow 11.9-millimeter top-to-bottom dimension of the three-blade design to the thicker four- and five-blade designs because it’s easier to shave in tight places, such as between your upper lip and nose.”
Finally, there’s the fact that they’re just a good value. All of our testers also agreed that the price of the Mach3 cartridges—usually less than $3, compared with $5 per cartridge for Gillette’s five-blade Fusion—was a big deciding factor.
Shavers who want the most technically advanced cartridge razor available right now will be pleased with the five-bladed Fusion ProGlide, which is perhaps just a hair better than the Mach3 in every way. In our view, though, any thin strand of superiority does not justify a near-100 percent premium on cartridge prices. Gillette claims that the system pays for itself because the cartridges last longer, but in head to head tests against the Mach3, I found them both to be noticeably dull after about a week of daily use (how long a blade lasts is the most subjective thing in a subjective category. Some folks report as much as thirty days usage from their cartridges).
Who else likes it?
Among my own friends, the Mach3 was an overwhelming favorite: More men used the Mach3 than all other razors put together. Barbers liked it, too. Though most of the professional hairstylists I spoke to tended to prefer a double-edge or disposable twin-blade razor—possibly because they’re trained in shaving, usually with straight razors—the Mach3 was vastly preferred among the barbers who did use a “modern” razor. Only one of the seven barbers who used a cartridge system used something other than a Mach3—and that was because the Gillette Fusion he shaved with “came in the mail” as a free sample.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Nearly every tester whose existing shaving ritual centered around an old-fashioned safety razor (all non-barbers) noticed a lack of closeness. Those testers also didn’t appreciate the perceived gimmickry of lubricating strips and vibrating heads.
“They’re weird,” PC editor Nathan Edwards said. “Between the multiple blades, the moisturizing strip at the top of each razor, and the vibrating, both felt very different than my normal safety razor. I was able to shave each side with one pass (often I do two passes), but it felt disconnected from my normal routine. It didn’t feel like I was shaving, more like passing the end of a bar of soap across my face. It wasn’t as precise.”
However, it is worth noting that you can choose not to use the vibration if you don’t want it, and that the “normal” Mach3 cartridges have far less lubrication than their Sensitive counterparts. Overall, we think the vast majority of morning facial shavers would prefer the convenience of cartridges over the closeness of a safety razor shave.
A disposable, if you need it
Disposables are a good choice for traveling because you never have to worry about losing them. For the most part, they’re a spartan affair featuring one or two blades, and they sell for about 50 cents a pop. Barbers, who are skilled at shaving, like these, but for less skilled or more hurried shavers, one dark-horse disposable broke through in our testing: the neither here-nor-there BiC Hybrid 4 Advance. This is a four-blade cartridge system that is always sold with a handle. Once you’ve worn out the included cartridges, you toss the old handle and buy a whole new five-pack-with-handle (about $9).
The shave I personally got from this product was really nice—as smooth as any of the Gillette products, and the handle had a very nice ergonomic shape that was easy to grip in the shower. Furthermore, unlike other bargain razors, the BiC cleared whiskers and shaving cream very quickly.
However, the BiC Hybrid 4 evoked violently differing opinions among our other testers. Some loved it (“It felt like a normal razor. I like feeling the grip of the blades on the hairs. I could actually feel when it was cutting them, so there was more feedback if I missed a spot”), while others found it loathsome: “I don’t want to drag this thing across my face again,” wrote one tester, noting that the razor head’s large size (bigger, top to bottom, than most five-blade products) and the pivoting head’s limited range of motion made it difficult to handle.
That said, as a group, disposable razors are among the least ecologically sound shaving methods. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 2 billion unrecyclable, non-biodegradable razors are discarded every year into US landfills. The Hybrid 4 mitigates this somewhat by including five blades with each handle, but it’s still not ideal. Cartridges, too, have to be disposed of—and also aren’t recyclable—but they at least take up less space4.
If you have time: a safety razor pick
The cheapest way—and in many ways, most satisfying way to shave—is to use a traditional double-edge razor. If you’re willing to learn, the result with any of these razors is a sort of spiritually satisfying shave that feels as much ritual as routine, though I dare you to get out of the bathroom in less than 15 minutes. I tested four double-edge razors, including my dad’s adjustable Gillette adjustable (aka the “Fat Boy,” to shave enthusiasts) which, according to the razorarchive.com database, was manufactured in 1969.
Along with that I tried an Edwin Jagger DE89, a beautifully finished, last-you-forever safety razor that costs about $30 on Amazon. I also added an exotic: the legendary Merkur Slant Bar 37c, or “Sledgehammer” razor ($45). Slant razors hold a standard double-edge blade at a slight angle, creating a scythe-like cutting surface that chops through facial hair faster and more efficiently. This razor has a “no beginners” reputation, as if somehow the angle makes it more dangerous to handle. The truth—as I discovered, and as is well documented in many reviews—is that if you’re careful and know how to shave with a double edge, you’ll do fine. Finally, I tested a budget double edge—the Chinese-made Weishi 9306-F.
Starting with a solid, well-made, budget razor like the Weishi is a good idea, but if you ultimately decide to embrace old-school shaving—and the time it takes—you’ll want to go with the Sledgehammer, which offers a faster, smoother, and highly technical shave. If you’re feeling super-retro, you can buy a used razor. Thrift stores often sell cheap, tarnished Gillettes that can be easily restored, or you can try Razor Emporium for already-buffed second-hand product.
There’s also the question of which blade to choose. If you’re a double-edge enthusiast, you’ll know that there are dozens of blade options out there, ranging from the ultra-sharp Japanese Feathers brand to inexpensive generic blades found at your local dollar store. A good place to learn about blades is the Badger & Blade website, where shaving enthusiasts offer an avalanche of debate, arguments, fact sheets, and tips. They recommend—and I agree—that you start with a “blade sampler.” Here’s one that includes 25 loose blades from 24 manufacturers for $16. Once you’ve picked a favorite blade—I like the Israeli-made Personna Platinums, sold in a red or blue packet—prices drop to about to 15 cents a blade or less (120 blades for about $19).
No matter which blade and razor combo you choose, you’ll want a little instruction prior to starting with a double edge. The fundamental philosophy is to make multiple passes, gently; the goal of each pass is progressive beard reduction—not immediate beard removal. Check out the YouTube tutorials from Mantic59 and GeoFatBoy.
The result of all this is fanatic loyalty. One of our cartridge finalist testers put it this way: “I liked that I managed not to cut myself with any of the razors [I chose]. Normally I give myself a small nick about 40 percent of the time with my safety razor, but I didn’t here. That said, I’m not going to switch back to a cartridge razor for my normal shave routine. Safety razors are cheaper, last longer, and give me more of a connection with the shaving experience.”
It all depends on what you want from shaving. And warning: There’s a chance you might be driven insane by all this, in which case you’ll find yourself not buying one old-school razor, but many, and maybe even using them all at once, as shave guru Bruce Everiss does. Next step will be your significant other—if you still have one at this point—gaining power of attorney over your affairs.
What about women’s razors?
We didn’t specifically cover women’s razors this time around, but we plan to in the future. You might be tempted to apply these facial razor findings to your leg-shaving routine in the meantime, but we wouldn’t suggest doing that.
Beard hair is very different from body hair. This is the fundamental difference between facial shaving and body hair shaving, whether by women or via “manscaping.” Whiskers are tough. Hair on legs, underarms, or elsewhere is softer and longer. That’s why patents on women’s shaving systems almost always offer one consistent difference between men’s facial razors: variance in the spacing between blades, or the thickness of antifriction blade coatings.
Other touches like semi-oval heads that don’t jab sensitive areas also make women-specific models better suited toward body hair removal than your typically boxy facial cartridge razor. It’s not just pink paint jobs and marketing, though Gillette doesn’t quite give a straight answer when asked about the differences between men’s and women’s products, especially when it comes to price.
What about the Gillette Fusion ProGlide?
In our opinion, the Fusion ProGlide line is Gillette’s second-best line of razors right now. They offer a good enough shave, but we found nothing to justify paying the nearly 100 percent upcharge for cartridges over the Mach3 line. But if we were to get one razor from this line, it would be the Fusion ProGlide Power for the same reason we picked the Mach3 power handle: because it gives you the most flexibility in choosing what features work for you. If you don’t like the electric buzzing, you can simply go without.
The array of Fusion options is even more baffling than the Mach3’s. First, Gillette divides the handles into two categories—Fusion and Fusion ProGlide. Gillette offers three ProGlide handles: a manual version, a power version, and the manscaping-friendly ProGlide Styler, a power razor with a beard trimmer. With the exception of the Styler, all ProGlide models now come with the Flexball, a cushiony, rubber insert that allows the blade to float in multiple directions as it passes across the skin. The standard Fusion line is less confusing: just two models are available—one with power, and one without, neither with a Flexball.
So one big difference between ProGlide and standard Fusion is the Flexball. But in our testing, we really didn’t find the Flexball to offer that much of a difference. The real ProGlide difference is in the cartridges.
A visual examination of ProGlide and Fusion cartridges reveals several obvious distinctions. The ProGlide blades have a bigger lubricating strip; the area above the five blades has fewer grooves. But the biggest contrast is a series of vertical nibs—traditionally called a comb in razor terminology—in the ProGlide. The ProGlide blade includes a central stabilizing mast behind the blades; a series of ridges at the top of the ProGlide cartridge, dubbed “Snowplow ports” by Gillette, are designed to channel away excess shaving cream. Gillette also says there’s a non-visible difference between Fusion and ProGlide: The higher-end blades use a microscopically thinner cutting edge that allows “lower forces” to move the blade along the face. Less force, Gillette claims, means less potential irritation.
But Gillette’s own internal studies call into question several of the fundamental principles behind the ProGlide “advantages.” In a document downloaded from the Proctor & Gamble dermatology website called Male Skin: An Increasingly Sensitive Subject, Gillette researchers compared its various five blade cartridges, with mixed results. Some men found that ProGlide cartridges offered less stinging and burning, but complained of more overall soreness. In the end, Gillette’s researchers concluded, “Both razors were well tolerated for men with sensitive skin.”
Interestingly, the document also brings into question the concept of hysteresis and blade count escalation. When triple blade razors like the Mach3 were introduced, the idea was that if a double blade razor pulled the first hair, held it, and let it be cut closer, a third blade would do more of the same. That implied action isn’t present in Gillette’s study of five-blade products. Instead, the document states that “the key to comfortable multiple blade technology is not just the number of blades but the distance between the blades.” Gillette claims that the fractional spacing decrease between three and five blades allows less facial skin to squeeze up between the blades. With a five-blade razor, “skin bulge is reduced and more uniform stress is placed on the skin, resulting in a more comfortable shave.” (For a detailed evaluation of the Fusion versus ProGlide cartridges, see this review).
In my own personal testing, I found the Fusion to be marginally faster, smoother, and sharper than the Mach3—though as you can see in the chart above, not all our testers agreed. In any case, the margin of improvement (whatever it may be) is too thin to justify the price difference. Both razors got me out of the bathroom quickly, without irritation, and without nicks or cuts. The Mach3 required a few extra strokes on the toughest parts of my beard, but it was no big deal.
Another Mach3 advantage, noted by several testers, is the wider spacing of the triple-blade cartridges, which allows for easier cleaning than the Fusion’s crowded quintet of cutters.
Ultimately, the slightly faster Fusion—if it was faster—was speedier by only a few seconds, not enough to justify the huge price difference between the Mach3 cartridges and the Fusion ProGlide cartridges: about $3 versus about $5. Gillette claims a Fusion cartridge lasts up to 30 days—and if they were that durable, the price might be justified. But I didn’t find that was the case. Both Mach3 and Fusion were noticeably duller after about a week of daily shaving.
The competition: cartridges
Among the rest of the cartridge razors we looked at, there were some strong contenders that were almost pick-worthy, as well as many no-buys.
A second runner-up after the Fusion ProGlide would be Gillette’s even older technology, the Sensor (now marketed as the Sensor Excel). This is the razor I covered in the 1990s, and it is a testament to the product’s quality that it is still manufactured and marketed by Gillette. The Sensor shaves well—maybe not quite as well as the Mach3, possibly because it weighs about 30 percent less than the higher-end models—but it works fine, and for about $18 for a 10 pack of blades, the Sensor is a fine choice for economy-minded shavers who want a pivoting head product but don’t want to buy disposables.
Another option the economy-minded might consider are the shave clubs. But in practice, we found that the products offered by these theoretically disruptive razor subscription programs—in the US, the two major players are Dollar Shave Club (slogan: “Our blades are f***ing great) and the more elegant Harry’s, founded by the entrepreneurs who began eyeglass vendor Warby Parker—don’t measure up. Both razor sellers operate the same way: Pick a razor and blade—Dollar offers double-, quad-, and six-blade (!) options; Harry’s offers only a five-blade model—and a delivery frequency. Prices, with shipping, can get as low as 65 cents a blade, though the higher-end shaving systems generally run about two bucks per unit.
The idea is appealing and has been successful enough to prompt Gillette to offer its own subscription plan. The problem is that neither shave club makes a very good razor. The Dollar offerings are rebranded generics, manufactured by Dorco, a Korean conglomerate that is Asia’s largest razor seller. You can find the exact same razors at US retail under the Pace and several regional brand names and often for less money. The shave they give is acceptable, but nothing special. The Dollar/Dorco razors are also spectacularly ugly, with all kinds of weird, toothbrush-looking stripes and grooves, few of which seem to serve an ergonomic purpose.
Harry’s was an even bigger disappointment. Though the Razor’s $15 Truman handle is pretty—it feels substantial, and has a sort of old-fashioned (but bright orange) Bakelite-like plastic finish—it has the opposite problem as the Dollar handles: no grooves, no shaping. It is so slippery you’ll have a hard time holding on to it, especially if you shave in the shower. Even if you manage to find a firm grip, you’ll be bummed by the shave itself. Unlike Dollar, Harry’s actually does make its own blades—they purchased a century-old German razor company last year—but so far what they’ve come up with isn’t so good. Rather than clipping to a pivoting axis, the way most modern razors do, Harry’s cartridge attaches with a flexy rubber pseudo-hinge that bends when you press it into your skin. Harry’s claims that this design yields an effect that, like “a paintbrush on a wet canvas … flexes to the contours of your face for precise control.” In fact, the opposite is true: The cartridge yields too much, resulting in a sloppy shave.
Another contender that didn’t quite make it is the Schick/Wilkinson Hydro system (in some parts of the US the same shaver is sold under the Axe brand). Available in interchangeable triple- and five-blade cartridges, the Hydro, Schick says, includes a “reservoir … that hydrates with each shave”.5 To me, the term “reservoir” implies some kind of actual, miniature tube of lotion, constantly keeping my face slick while I shave. In fact, Schick’s reservoir is nothing more than a very chunky lubricating strip.
Schick has already gotten into trouble with Hydro’s moisturizing feature. Initially, advertisements implied that the blade’s hydrating effect lasted beyond a single shaving session. After competitors complained, Schick was ordered by the Federal Trade Commission to modify its claims by inserting the phrase “hydrates only during shaving.” Moisture is absolutely essential to shaving—studies have shown that wet whiskers are twice as pliable as a dry beard—and the Hydro system’s lubricating strip is absolutely more viscous than any other shaving system I tried. But that’s not a good thing: The strip felt like it was emitting a gooey slime that tended to gunk up the blades and didn’t feel particularly soothing.
Whether the lubricating strips really work—and whether they’re overkill when shaving a well-prepared, moisturized face—is debatable. But as the signature feature of the Hydro, they actually work against a closer shave. Your face gets so slippery that the blade loses cutting effectiveness.
As far as store-brand razors go, no matter what you buy, you’re likely going to get product manufactured by Personna—the CVS and Walmart shavers we tested were virtually identical to ones we found at Rite-Aid and Walgreens. But we generally found them to offer inferior shaves to name brands, and as a result, no private-label razor made it to the second round of our testing.
We also found that most disposables, perhaps because they’re cheap, offered a subpar shaving experience. More testers reported tugging, early dulling, and cuts with the cheapest throwaway razors. Surprisingly, though, one specific and authoritative group of testers—professional barbers—liked disposables. And they overwhelmingly preferred the cheapest tossable razors. Across the country, a pair of disposables got the overwhelming nod as the barber’s favorite at-home shaving tool. First among them was the standard, orange-and-white BiC shaver. The razor’s single blade and low price—about 50 cents per razor—appealed to trained shavers. Of the 30 barbers I asked, eight used the standard BiC (officially known in the US as the BiC 1 Sensitive); and another five used the BiC Metal, a slightly sleeker version of the same product (the BiC Metal has been discontinued in the US; its replacement is the twin-blade BiC Comfort 2).
Another barber favorite was the Schick Slim Twin, which, at 50 cents per razor, is the least-expensive brand-name multiblade disposable we could find. One thing the BiC and the Schick have in common is they lack pivoting heads, which barbers dismissed as bogus. “Move it with your hand,” a haircutter in Laconia, New Hampshire, scoffed. My personal barber, Carlos DeAnza, owner of Jake’s Barber Shop in Northeast Los Angeles, is a Slim Twin user. “I like the simplicity,” he told me. “You don’t need anything more.” Most of the barbers we spoke to were careful shavers, if not ritualistic. It takes longer to shave with a simpler razor, and barbers confirmed that their morning shearing took about eight to ten minutes. BiC’s lower-profile Metal is especially well-liked among traditional double-edge users, like those on the Badger & Blade forums, where it is often mentioned as a go-to product when a traditional double-edge isn’t practical (double-edge razors are not allowed in carry-on bags, according to the Transportation Security Administration; cartridge systems and all-in-ones are).
If you want to go the disposable route, the good news—pun intended—is that it is relatively cheap to conduct your own tests. The exception is if you include the throwaway versions of higher-end cartridge systems. Those are absolutely not recommended; there’s little or no price difference, and you end up with a substantially lighter, less maneuverable, landfill-clogging handle. Avoid.
What to look forward to
Six-blade razors are already here, though not from Gillette; they’re offered by Persohna, the house-brand division of Schick/Wilkinson; Korea’s Dorco has just introduced a seven-blade razor—seven!—under the Pace brand name, but only overseas, so far. In the United States and Europe, the reality is that the shaving market is a bit stagnant. Both Schick and Gillette have publicly stated that future growth will likely come from multifunctional products like the Fusion ProGlide Groomer and the Hydro Groomer.
In the rest of the world, though, there’s still plenty of room for shaving innovation. One of my favorite razors in our tests doesn’t offer the best shave, and its innovation is based in simplicity, even elegance. The world’s true last bastion of old-school shaving aren’t the effete enthusiasts and retro-grouches of the Badger & Blade shaving forums. Thanks to custom and economics, India is still a traditional shaving nation, with tens of millions of double-edge blades sold every year. Three years ago, Gillette launched a secret project to change that, attempting to move Indian men into the world of proprietary cartridges. But instead of going with the Fusion-like escalating-price model—that wouldn’t work in a place like India, where the per capita annual income is just $1,570—Gillette went low end, introducing the Guard, a single-blade razor that’s a masterpiece of minimalism. A contoured black handle attaches to the cartridge via a pair of plastic pivots. There’s a hefty comb to guide the hair toward the blade, but no lubricating strip. The cartridge is remarkable at shedding whiskers and shaving cream—a necessity in India, where fresh water isn’t always available. And the price is right: A Guard handle costs the equivalent of about 30 cents in India; the blades are about a nickel. I like shaving with the Guard, and it is a genuine improvement over stateside disposables if you want to go super-cheap.
Gillette says it has no plans to introduce the Guard to the United States, though it is exploring a Mexico-specific version. But a handful of specialty shops have begun importing them to the US, where they remain a budget-shaver’s secret. You can get a handle for $2 and a pack of five cartridges for 50 cents. The Guard could be a great choice for traditional shavers who need to travel, since it is a TSA-approved cartridge system.
At home, it seems, we’re doomed to bells-and-whistles. What’s next, then? Eight blades? Ten? It feels like we’ve reached a limit. But there’s an intriguing bit of technology in Gillette’s existing top-of-the-line product that has yet to be fully exploited. Kevin Powell, director of the company’s British labs, speaking to the Guardian newspaper, revealed that the microchip in the company’s vibrating handles—which mostly regulates pulsations and turns the razor off to save batteries – contains a secret function: it gathers data. With the chip, Gillette can “do things in terms of learning about the consumer,” Powell said. So far, that ability has been activated only in prototypes, but imagine a shaver that learned about your beard and cut it accordingly.
Wrapping it up
Until the computerized cartridge razors come, you’re not going to beat the Gillette Mach3—a razor that is, admittedly, more about the past than the future, but works beautifully at a price that won’t bleed you dry.
Originally published: February 4, 2015