For the foreseeable future, I will be shaving my face with a Merkur Safety Razor and double-sided Feather razor blades. This type of razor takes some practice, but once you get it down, no setup can match the price, durability, comfort and overall simplicity of a solid double-edge (DE) safety razor like the Merkur.
(If you’re a woman and/or a cartridge loyalist, I have picks for you, too.)
To make my picks, I spoke with experts who have been through every razor fad and tried every setup, including beard-trimmers. I then personally tested widely available non-disposable razors on the market. I asked several women test out “women’s” razors and cartridge men’s razors on their legs, bikini lines, and underarms, then got their takes.
To commenters: this is a product category with an fervent community of debaters. I’ve surveyed every corner of the shaving community and used the collective intelligence to inform my picks, so if you want to comment on this review with personal knowledge or anecdotes, please finish reading the whole thing, then fire away. I’ll be looking at feedback and will verify anything that looks like it could be superior than the things I’ve chosen.
Prepping your face
Understand that many factors contribute to the quality of a shave, especially preparation. For example, try to shave post-shower. Warm water and steam opens up facial pores relaxing the hair, and a layer of water helps the razor skim or hydroplane across the surface rather than drag against the skin and cause razor bumps. Take time getting the shaving cream set into the skin, and after applying, let it settle in. If you’re like me and have a Mark Spitz/Freddie Mercury-level mustache, a bit of hair conditioner or skin lotion before the shaving cream can make the shave smoother. Your hair type matters, too. African-American men or anyone with curly hair can have issues with multi-blade cartridge systems, which tend to cause bumps and ingrown hairs because the blades aren’t sharp enough, or they catch on thick hair.
Besides the comfort benefits, using a razor that’ll outlive its owner is much kinder to the environment than a plastic- and rubber-heavy cartridge model. That didn’t factor heavily into my assessment, but it’s a nice side effect.
I talked to Corey Greenberg, a veteran product reviewer (Stereophile, for one). Anyone who has researched this topic has probably seen his appearance on NBC’s Today Show to explain the best way to shave. He is the man behind ShaveBlog, a site that covered (he hasn’t updated it in years) all things shaving. He’s been deep into the shaving forums and tried out every shaving brush, shaving cream, razor blade manufacturer, etc. Here’s his setup and his explanation for each item:
1) Merkur HD Safety Razor (“It’s durable. You can huck it against a wall and it won’t go off spec.” This is a different model from our pick: our Safety Razor’s handle is slim while the HD’s is thicker with more metal. It also costs about $15 more than the regular Safety Razor.)
2) Personna razor blades (“I get my blades on eBay, Personna from Israel. Next to Gillette, they’re the biggest blade manufacturer. The ones made in Israel are money in the bank. Buy a box of 100 for $15, and you’re set for life. They don’t rust, they don’t go bad. I get about a week of shaving per blade.” Like all blades designed for DE handles like the Merkur, these blades are sharp on both sides. You can shave one side of your face with one side of the razor, then rotate and shave the rest with the other side.)
3) Williams Mug Shaving Soap (“I’ve tried them all, and this is what I use. Potassium-based, smells great, kinda lemony, lathers as well as anything out there, and shaves better than the high-end soaps. It’s on the bottom shelf at the drugstore.”)
4) Vulfix Shaving Brush or an Omega synthetic. (“[If you don’t want to just use your hands,] get a cheap shaving brush. Synthetic works as well as the best badger brush out there, it just doesn’t look as boss and doesn’t feel as luxurious. But in terms of doing its job, that is, raising whiskers, it works. If you spend more than $10 on a brush, it’s because you want badger in your life, or your life is luxurious and you can’t have anything cheap.”
5) No aftershave. (“A splash of cold water, and maybe some witch hazel. It closes pores and works as an antiseptic if you’ve nicked yourself.”)
A double-edge (DE) safety razor like Merkur makes is a simple, cheap and extremely comfortable way to shave. With a single, large and rigid blade, a DE razor will glide cleanly over skin and seldom cause any ingrown hairs, razor burn or skin irritation. DE blades are also, compared to cartridges, incredibly cheap. With a $35 handle and a bulk pack of blades, you can shave for years on less than $60. The one major drawback is that this type of blade takes patience and a bit of learning to get good at. If you can apply yourself to mastering the angling and stroke patterns required for a DE razor, it’s the best way to shave for anyone who can take the time to give himself a proper shave.
(Merkur has a few different models in their lineup. Most men will do well with the standard Safety Razor we suggest. If you can spend an extra $15, the HD has more heft, which is nice for home shaving, but it’s a bit heavier when traveling. If you have big hands, the Long Handle model is another option. I use our pick, the Safety Razor, and it’s served me well for years.)
Shaving 101 said of the Merkur 1904, “Inspired by the original design of the first Gillette safety razor produced in 1904, this modern safety razor is an example of precision German engineering with a classic antique appeal…The Merkur 1904 Classic is a regular in my shaving rotation because the razor is not only visually appealing, but it is very well balanced and comfortable to use.” On the shaving forum Badger & Blade, Merkur models were often recommended by “100% of reviewers.”
So do you need this setup when you can just go to the Walgreens around the corner? I asked Greenberg if he ever uses anything from a drug store. “Those razors tore up my face and are the reason I changed the way I shave,” he said. “In those cartridges, it’s not a blade, it’s a piece of tin foil. If you disassemble them, it’s shocking that you use these to shave yourself. The blade has to be rigid to shave well.”
For the blades, shavers argue over which are the best, but if you stick to reputed brands, you’ll be set. As mentioned, Corey likes the Israeli Personna blades, and I’ve used Feather to great effect. Either one will be fantastic when used correctly in a Merkur handle.
If he finds himself without his Merkur, Greenberg will get a pack of single-blade Bic For Sensitive Skin. He said, It’s the simplest possible disposable razor. One blade, single edge. You get three really good shaves. In a pinch, those are great. It’s the only razor sold at a drug store that I’d use.”
As someone who never checks bags on flights, save surfboards and snowboards, I usually take an electric razor to avoid the ire of the TSA. An electric razor won’t give you as close of a shave as a razor blade, but it’s tool for the fastest shave possible, by far. There’s no prep necessary, though a warm shower will get a closer shave, and cleanup is minimal. There’s no need for running water or creams, either. As our own Bryan Gardiner explains, “In the end, a good electric razor is will save you time, banish creams and foams from your daily routine, and reduce nicks and cuts.” If this sounds appealing, we like Braun’s Series 7 790cc shaver, which comes with its own cleaning system that charges and ensures an extended life for the razor. $200 is a bit to spend on a razor, but as a daily-use item, it’s worth the cash. When I’m at home, though, the clean shave that comes from a DE razor works day-to-day.
For traveling with the double-edge blades, Greenberg says, “I have never had TSA give me trouble. If the blades come up on x-ray, I show the guy the blades, shows him how I shave with it, and never once had them confiscated.” If you’re skeptical, see below for some TSA-friendly cartridge options.
For all the benefits of the Merkur, or any single-blade razor, understand that if you’re transitioning from a Mach3 or Gillette Fusion, for example, you’ll go through a learning period of what a friend who works at the Art of Shaving said is about two to three weeks. This means figuring out how to properly angle the razor head, how to stretch the skin taught, and how to properly prep and finish so that the hairs respond to the blade. Even after mastering the technique, a full, proper shave can take up to 10 or 15 minutes.
Cartridge razors are the most ubiquitous shaving tools on the market because they’re convenient and simple to use. You get a plastic handle with a spring clamp head that fits with a specific brand of cartridge. Each cartridge will last you about a week depending on how much you’re shaving. The major advantage these razors have over an old-style double-edge safety razor like the Merkur is a quicker shave — the cartridges have surface area surrounding the blades, so there’s no need for slow, deliberate strokes to avoid nicks.
The downside is that because the blades are small and not rigid, they won’t be as sharp as a DE blade. Especially for men with thick facial hair, this causes skin irritation and ingrown hairs. Cartridges are expensive, too, many times more so than the equivalent of double-edge blades. You’ve seen the cases of cartridges locked behind lucite at the drug store for this reason.
All that said, if your skin isn’t especially sensitive, you shave in a bit of a rush, and can afford the cost of cartridges, get the Fusion ProGlide.
Unlike the Mach3 or the standard Gillette Fusion, the ProGlide’s five blades move independently of eachother, which lets the edges contour to skin. The blades are also coated with a treatment that allows the five blades to slide across the skin without snagging on hair, or causing razor burn.
When I tested it, the blades consistently trimmed every hair in its path. I didn’t need to make multiple passes on the same patch of skin, which saved time in the morning. The most impressive feat, though, was how it handled the neck beard. I, against all warnings, shave against the grain (as in, holding the razor upside-down and going up on my neck) to get the hair as short as possible. The ProGlide is the first cartridge razor I’ve used that never left my neck red or itchy afterwards. As for control, the Fusion ProGlide has a more substantial handle than other models, which makes it easier to control and keep in line.
Critics and users like it, too. Men’s Health named the Gillette Fusion ProGlide their favorite razor in 2011. Hans, the Shaving Detective, said, “First of all, I am impressed by the smooth sensation while I am shaving. There is no significant drag on my skin, and the blades glides easily across all parts of my face.” Of the 50-plus reviews on Amazon, the ProGlide gets 4.5 out of 5 stars.
There’s a smattering of competition in the cartridge market, mostly names you’ve probably heard before.
I tested the manual ProGlide alongside the ProGlide Power model, the latter of which uses a AAA battery to vibrate the handle and razor head. I’m not a fan of the vibration sensation, and didn’t find it to accomplish a closer shave than its manual counterpart. Still, El Hub of Makeup & Beauty Blog said, “I could tell it was working well right off the bat. No tugging at my skin at all, incredibly close after one pass, and handles the contours of my skin better than ANY blade I’ve ever used before.” I’d rather avoid having electronics that close to water. I also tried the regular Gillette Fusion razor, but around difficult sections like the chin and jawline, the Fusion required a few more passes to clear area than with the ProGlide. For my intense moustache, the Fusion also left the skin red and angry after multiple swipes.
The biggest name in cartridge razors is Gillette’s other ubiquitous multi-blade razor, the Mach3. It’s basically the same as the Fusion (minus two blades), just without a few features. It has no “blade stabilizer: to keep the blades at a fixed width from each other, it doesn’t have the “Low Cutting Force Blades” to stop resistance…you get the idea. In terms of what’s noticeably different between the Mach3 and the ProGlide, the Mach3 rougher on the skin, especially on the neck, where I ended up with hot red skin, even when shaving horizontally, not against the grain. The handle is much lighter than either Fusion model, which makes it harder to keep steady through a stroke.
The Fusion and Mach3’s advantage over the ProGlide is price. A four-pack of regular Fusion blades costs about $3 more than a four-pack of Mach3 blades, and the same pack of ProGlide costs $5 more than the regular Fusion according to Consumer Reports (subscription required). At the Art of Shaving, for example, an eight-pack of Mach3 blades costs $23, while an eight-pack of of ProGlide blades costs $34. It’s no small amount, but as someone with sensitive skin and patches of thick Eastern European hair, I think the added comfort is worth the cash. The way the blades move independently benefits the use around the chin and neck, no matter what your hair is like. All of these razors will cut hair, but if you try to go cheap, you sacrifice comfort and skin irritation, which doesn’t depend much on the hair type you have.
Across the board, these razors, especially the ProGlide, are much better than their predecessors. Peter Martin edits the grooming section of Esquire, and he explained to me how a few years back, the multi-blade models from Schick and Gillette were redesigned to have the blades closer together. “We spoke to a few scientists about it. [The redesign] makes it so skin doesn’t raise to catch between blades. It’s actually not just marketing stuff, it actually holds the skin down.”
Martin has a full-on beard at the moment, but if he were to lose his facial hair, he says he’d use up the Mach3 cartridges he has lying around. “I always was a Mach3 guy, and those would be fine for me now. We [at Esquire] get enough nice shaving creams, too, which is good because I’m too lazy to rub anything into a lather.”
For those of you with beards, Martin recommends Gillette’s Fusion ProGlide Styler. The Styler comes with a battery-operated handle with a ¾″ wide clipper head. Included are three different snap-on heads, each of which leaves hair a different length. If you keep your beard a specific length, this is the tool. “It’s $20 and it’s fantastic,” he said. “Once you determine the edge of your beard, the line you make is so much smoother on the skin.” I’ll still take a DE razor when I can.
Gillette introduced a new handle this spring with a ball pivot designed to “remain in constant contact with the face.” In general reviewers who’ve tested the $11.50 Fusion ProGlide Manual Razor with Flexball Technology have responded with a collective shrug. Fast Company didn’t buy into it being all that different from any other manual razor, saying, “[I]t felt… totally fine. Like a razor.” Gizmodo was unimpressed: “Shaving with the demo version wasn’t a bad experience, but it didn’t make me want to shave more often. It definitely didn’t make me want to spend more money.” Wired said that “the new razor’s fluidity and flexibility does seem to come in handy when you’re transitioning from your jowls to under your jawbone or shaving along the cheekbone–prime areas to end up dotted with little squares of toilet paper,” but admitted admitted there was nothing really “revolutionary” about it. We think you can safely save the extra cash and go with our cheaper Gillette alternative pick.
Harry’s $15 Truman Shaving Set, while certainly nicer to look at and hold in your hand than a drugstore cartridge razor, doesn’t shave any better, closer or more comfortably than a $10 Gillette Fusion. Harry’s razor has more style, but if it’s substance you’re after, look elsewhere.
Shaving with the Harry’s combo is uncannily reminiscent of shaving with a Gillette Fusion—the same oddly disconnected sense of feeling numbly removed from the fact that blades are cutting whiskers along the surface of your skin, the same lack of sensory feedback loop to gauge your progress and let you know whether you need to go over an area again or if you’re done. And most of all, the same slight burning sensation afterward that I never, ever feel after shaving with my single-edge safety razor. If I can say anything positive about the Harry’s shave, it’s that I was able to get through several day’s worth of shaves without the ingrown hairs, shave bumps and bloody nicks I always get from the Fusion. But blood or no blood, a McShave is still a McShave. My face still looked and felt stubbly after shaving with the Truman.
We see the appeal of the Dollar Shave Club in theory, but in practice, it offers a terrible shaving experience that far outweighs any convenience or cost savings you might get over going to the store to buy Fusions every once in a while.
At first glance, the math looks good. $3/month gets you the basic two-blade “Humble Twin” cartridge, which resembles the old Gillette Sensor Excel. $6/month upgrades you to the four-blade “4X” cartridge. For $9/month, you get the six-blade “Executive” cartridge. Ironically, the cheapest “Humble Twin” is the least-bad shaver of the trio. It shaved my whiskers closer and gave me less skin irritation than the four and six-blade models, which provided a mediocre shave that left my face feeling raw afterward. I’d rank them both well below Gillette’s five-blade Fusion. But even “least bad” doesn’t mean good. Ultimately, the “Humble Twin” fell short of the mark set by the Gillette it most closely resembles, the 20-year-old Sensor Excel. We highly recommend passing on this one.
It’s tricky to use the Mach3 handle to shave legs—the grip for the men’s blades is designed to be held so it stands vertically, with the cartridge up. To reach their legs, women hold the razor with the index finger on the handle, behind the cartridge face. Fortunately, the Mach3 cartridges fit in the Venus Embrace handle. In our testing, the ProGlide’s extra features didn’t come through when shaving legs, and the negligible difference in quality doesn’t justify the extra cost for ProGlide heads.
The Embrace, unlike the men’s models, has a grip specifically designed to be held with a forefinger guiding the head. The Embrace has copious rubber on its handle to ensure a controlled grip with the forefinger, and the head pivots freely to hug the curvature of the leg and thigh. Testers said that the head moved freely enough to avoid nicks, even during a hasty shave.
I compared the esteem for the Embrace with other publications. The best and most comprehensive women’s razor blade review comes, unsurprisingly, from Good Housekeeping. They named the Embrace as their overall top pick for refillable razors. The results: “This razor received the highest scores for overall performance and ease of use, and was the best at providing a close shave. Even with the highest number of blades in its category, the Embrace earned a near perfect score for not nicking or irritating testers’ skin and testers found it was good at maneuvering around even the most tricky of spots like knees and ankles.” We imagine the Embrace would only perform better if outfitted with a Mach3 cartridge.
The drawback to the Embrace, like the ProGlide, is price. Consumer Reports (subscription required) did a comparison test of women’s razors. They found that the Embrace performed as effectively as the competition. They made the point that because the Embrace can cost up to $1.50 more per cartridge than competitors and up to $3.50 more than a drugstore generic model like the CVS Women’s 6 Blade, users should start cheap and work up. CR said, too, that testers chose mostly on personal preference. With an item like this that accumulates cost through daily use, it’s worth seeing if your skin can handle a cheap generic model. If the price isn’t that big of a factor, the Embrace is a no-fail pick. If you outfit it with Mach3 heads, it makes for an even better shave.
The Venus with Olay is designed to be used without shaving cream, but our testing found that the “moisture bars” above and below the five blades end up as gooey messes and don’t provide enough lubrication to prevent razor burn. With the extra volume from the bars, the head covers more space than on the Embrace, which made it difficult to get around ankles and knees.
For a go-to body razor, get the Venus Embrace and use Mach3 blades.
This is expert territory. These are the reason setups like the Merkur are called “safety razors.” If you can handle them, straight razors have distinct advantages. They’re the tool that’ll give you the closest shave possible because the razor’s angling is entirely adjustable; if you get the blade very parallel to your skin, you’ll get a close cut. Assuming you invest in a quality straight razor, it’ll be the last one you ever have to buy. Wirecutter’s resident shaven head Seamus Bellamy uses a Dovo straight razor, specifically a Dovo 5/8 Extra Hollow Ground “singing” razor.
He also said, “My one complaint about the blade is that it’s made from carbon steel—not ideal as it’s a device intended to get wet, but it holds a remarkable edge and is easy to strop. I’ve been dying to get my hands (and head) on a blade made by Hart Steel: An American company that build their blades to order. Their blades have a Rockwell hardness of 63.”
The disadvantages besides the potential hemmorhage are long shave times—think 20 minutes-plus for the full-face treatment. Straight razors, unlike safety blades, have no chance of getting past TSA personnel.
If you’re still with me and eager to try one out, start with a “disposable” straight razor. These models take razor blade cartridges, whch makes them much cheaper than a serious straight blade. I’d buy the Dovo Shavette for its compatibility with a wide range of razor blades and its weighted handle.
If you’re going to invest in a full-on Dovo, Seamus suggests the Prima Rindleder strop. He says, “I’ve had for close to six years. Simple, easy to use and effective.”
I’m going to keep using my Merkur double-edge razor with, my personal favorite, Proraso shaving cream.
The Merkur Safety Razor on Amazon
Corey Greenberg, ShaveBlogCorey Greenberg, interview.
Peter Martin, Esquire MagazinePeter Martin, interview.
Gillette Venus Embrace Refillable Razors, Good Housekeeping, June, 2011,"This razor received the highest scores for overall performance and ease of use, and was the best at providing a close shave. Even with the highest number of blades in its category, the Embrace earned a near perfect score for not nicking or irritating testers’ skin and testers found it was good at maneuvering around even the most tricky of spots like knees and ankles. It also was the best at removing hair in a single pass — our testers didn’t have to shave an area repeatedly with this razor."
Merkur 1904 Classic Safety Razor, Shaving 101, October 7, 2010,"This safety razor is a traditional three-piece design, meaning the cutting head unscrews from the handle for blade replacement. This design works well for the longevity of the razor because there are no mechanical parts that are prone to wearing out, and it also makes the razor very easy to clean and maintain."
Merkur 33c Classic Double Edge Razor, Badger & Blade,"This razor was and is my first DE razor. It gave me a nick-free, irritation-free first shave. It neatly slices the hairs of a well hydrated face and with proper angle it is very forgiving. The blade replacement is not the same as that on a HD since this is a 3-piece. The head is rather large compared to the body but it does not affect the balance a whole lot. You can usually find this razor for 30 dollars online, and is a great price for a tool that can last a lifetime."
The Gillette Fusion ProGlide Razor and Fusion Pure & Sensitive Hydragel Moved Me to Blog, Makeup and Beauty Blog, July 5, 2010,"I took the blade, clicked the power button (the whole razor gently vibrates), and started my shave. I could tell it was working well right off the bat. No tugging at my skin at all, incredibly close after one pass, and handles the contours of my skin better than ANY blade I’ve ever used before."