What is wet shaving?

What does “wet shaving” mean?

By definition, “wet shaving” is a shaving process that uses water. You may also hear it referred to as “manual shaving.” Applying water to facial hair before shaving is thought to soften the hairs and help lubricate the skin so a razor blade can cut the hairs with as little resistance and skin irritation as possible. A dry shave, on the other hand, is shaving without water and is usually only done when using an electric razor to shave.

However, in everyday usage, when someone uses the term “wet shaving” they’re usually referencing the traditional shaving process that involves using some combination of these shaving tools in addition to water:

  • A safety razor or straight razor
  • A shaving soap
  • A shaving brush
  • A shaving bowl

How to wet shave:

The most important component of a wet shave is an “old fashioned” vintage style razor such as a double edge safety razor or a straight razor. Both of these shaving tools lost popularity when disposable and cartridge razors were introduced in the early 1970’s. According to Wikipedia, modern cartridge razors such as the Gillette Fusion are a subcategory of safety razors but in day-to-day usage, a “safety razor” almost exclusively refers to a vintage-style double edge razor that is secured to a metallic handle such as this one:

"El Grande" Double Edge Safety Razor by Wet Shaving Products
This is a typical double edge safety razor.

A straight razor is a single blade which is usually attached to its handle with a hinge so that it can be closed when not in use. Rather than being replaced when it becomes dull, a straight razor is sharpened by rubbing it against a thick piece of leather called a strop:

A straight razor on top of a sharpening strop.
A straight razor on a leather strop used to sharpen it.

The next most important component of a wet shave is producing a lubricating shaving lather using a shaving soap, shaving brush, shaving bowl, and water. Water is added to the shaving bowl which holds the shaving soap at the bottom. The shaving brush is used to agitate the wet soap creating a lather which is collected in the bowl. The shaving brush is then used to smear the lather onto the face and beard in preparation for using the safety razor or straight blade to scrape and cut the beard stubble. The lather lubricates the skin making it easier for the blade to glide which protects the facial tissue from irritation and makes nicks and scrapes less likely. This style of producing a lather lost popularity as aerosol cans of shaving cream gained popularity.

Shaving bowl, soap, and brush.
A shaving bowl, shaving soap, and shaving brush are used to create a thick, foamy lather that lubricates the facial skin with fats and oils.

Wet shaving may also involve an alcohol-based aftershave and alum block. The aftershave often contains botanicals, such as aloe or witch hazel, that help soothe and moisturize the skin. An alum block is rubbed on the skin to lessen irritation and aid in healing any nicks or scrapes that may have occurred while shaving.

Perhaps the best way to understand wet shaving is to watch the process in action. Here’s a video of a man wet shaving with the traditional process:

Why do people wet shave?

In recent years, the traditional wet shaving process has gained popularity. Google Trends data shows that interest in the topic “safety razor” has been growing steadily since 2004 with the growth picking up momentum around 2010:

You may be curious why interest in traditional wet shaving has been increasing lately. Why would anyone would want to use “old school” shaving technology like safety razors and straight razors when newer, better shaving techology exists such as razor cartridges with 4 or even 5 blades and hinges that swivel to conform to the contours of your face?

There are three major reasons why more and more people are choosing the traditional wet shaving process over more modern shaving technology:

  1. The traditional wet shaving process produces a “better” shave for them either in terms of closeness or comfort. Many people find that they’re able to avoid problems they have with modern shaving tools, such as ingrown hairs or nicks. However, this isn’t true of everyone. Some people prefer modern shaving tools for exactly the same reason.
  2. They enjoy the ritual of traditional wet shaving for the process itself which they may find soothing or meditative. Some people find that the process of producing the lather by hand and shaving the same area of skin multiple times forces them to slow down and carefully attend to what they’re doing. Some people find it very relaxing to mindfully groom themselves.
  3. They want to save money. Shaving with a double edge safety razor or straight razor and shaving soap is often less expensive than modern cartridge razors and canned, aerosol shaving creams or gels. You can easily find double edge razor blades for as little as 8 cents a blade and a single blade can easily last for 3-8 shaves. A traditional shaving soap which can easily be found for $4 often lasts for hundreds of shaves. This can mean that it costs literally less than a penny a day to shave this way. Even less if you’re using a straight razor which is sharpened, rather than replaced.

Basically, in spite of so much money spent marketing modern shaving technology by behemoths like Gillette, Shick, and Bic, there is a grassroots movement toward traditional wet shaving because a growing number of men and women are realizing that newer does not always mean better. They’re rejecting modern technology and embracing the technology that tried to replace it.

If you’re interested in getting started with wet shaving, we recommend our customizable safety razor starter kits. Our kit-building wizard will help you assemble the perfect starter kit for your shaving needs and budget. At each step, it gives you guidance on how to select the best product.

Learn more about wet shaving:

What are the benefits of traditional wet shaving?

What is a safety razor?

What is a straight razor?

What is the correct technique for wet shaving with a double edge safety razor?

Which shaves better: a double edge safety razor or a straight razor?

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