The Value Question: Shaving Soap

Posted: December 6, 2016 in Shaving Articles
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In this ongoing series, I attempt (with questionable success, I will admit) to help the reader figure out what benefits they might expect to realize as they spend more money on shaving gear. In this case, soap or cream. I’ll discuss only the soaps or creams which are utilized with a shaving brush. Brushless creams, stuff that expectorates out of an aerosol can, or other products that protect the skin during shaves are outside the parameters of this discussion.

Let us, for a moment, consider the various consistencies of soap you might find, as well as what benefits they might yield.

Hard Soap: The first, and oldest, is the hard puck soap. This type of soap is as hard, or even harder, than your standard bath soap. The hardest of these soaps is often triple-milled. This basically means that the soap is processed in such a way as to remove all excess water, yielding a hard and durable finished product. Using this type of soap absolutely requires a brush, and responds best to a brush with relatively stiff bristles. This is sometimes referred to as having “good backbone” in the parlance of brushes.

The advantages of a hard soap are a few. First, they tend to have the highest yield per ounce in terms of number of shaves. Thus, at a given price point, they are the best value to be had. Second, because hard pucks have the smallest amount of water to start, you can control the amount of water in the lather with the most accuracy. It is likely that the hard soap will most effectively reject water saturation, to cap off the advantages.

Disadvantages? Primarily, hard soaps can (can, with some examples) be more difficult to load into the brush. A really floppy brush can have a hard time getting soap loaded in. Hard soaps are a bit more difficult to parse out into a sample bit to give to a friend or put into a lathering mug/bowl. They are, perhaps, not the best choice for a first-time shaver who has never used a brush before. That said, they often have very rich soap bases that make for slick and protective shaves. Examples of these include Tabac, Mitchell’s Wool Fat, and Williams Mug Soap. (I have tried all but Williams.)

Soft Soaps: From here, we go to soft soaps, or “croaps”. These are sometimes called “Italian soft soaps”. They run the gamut from being just soft enough to press a finger impression into, like cool wax, to being almost a cream.

The croap is probably the most popular style in this day and age. They tend to be easy to lather, but stiff enough that they hold well in a tin or bowl. Your brush doesn’t need to be particularly firm to do the trick. They reject water contamination pretty well. They are typically pretty easy for beginners to use, and also easy to parse some out into another container, either to use a lathering bowl or to load into another container for some reason. Examples of this type of soap include Cella, most of the RazoRock soaps…the list goes on. The bulk of artisan shops specialize in this formulation.

Finally, we have creams. Great thing – they’re the easiest to lather, and can even be used without a brush in a pinch. They come in tubs or tubes. Creams, to my way of thinking, are the best type of product if you like to bowl lather, rather than creating the lather on your face. They do, in some cases, cost a bit more or use down more quickly. This is especially the case if you tend to go a little nuts on how much product you use to get started. It’s easy to swirl up enough lather for two or three shaves, if you’re not careful. Creams can sometimes have some iffy ingredients in them, as well. Especially if they come from a more mass-market brand. Brands like Taylor of Old Bond Street, Derby, St. James of London, and Proraso make cream.

Water contamination is typically not an issue, as one doesn’t need to put any water into the cream. This is particularly the case with a tube-loaded product. This makes them easy to care for, and also easy to pass around without the concern about your cooties being communicated to another person. Nearly all of them are easy to load and lather. They can, in some cases, fall short of the buttery slickness of a harder soap.

Now that I’ve ambled through the preamble and taken up far too much of your time…

What do you get for your money?

I will go on record as saying that the economics of shaving soaps do not make logical sense. There are very, very economical products that do a great job. There are expensive products that are surprisingly underwhelming. I can only give you general trends. Beyond that, you’ll need to look at reviews. The truth is, it’s harder to find a really poor soap than to find a good one. With so many artisans and larger companies in the marketplace, a soap that doesn’t do a good job won’t flourish.

Value Priced: 

At the value end of the spectrum, most of your products will be mass market in nature. This means that they are produced in huge lots and expected to be sold in large geographical regions. They will also typically have preservatives, so that the product will have a long shelf life and be accepted as safe in many markets. Thus, they typically have a less “clean” ingredient list than an artisan soap. The various Paraben complex chemicals will likely be included, for instance. There is no conclusive proof that the preservatives used in cosmetics and soaps have a negative effect on most people. Some are sensitive or irritated by them. You likely know who you are. Others would simply rather have a soap with the minimum amount of complex chemicals present.

In many cases, the highest value products may leave something to be desired in regards to the quality of the ingredients. The scent of these soaps and creams will typically be less nuanced, and perhaps less “authentic”, as expensive essential oils may not be included. In some cases, they may produce a little less voluminous lather, or be a bit harder to load. They may not have quite the rich and “fatty” sense of ongoing lubricity on the skin after the shave.

Does this make them poor choices? No. I don’t think so. Soaps like Arko, Derby, and Palmolive are all useful soaps that can give you a great shave. I have used them all, and enjoyed shaving with them. They are, provided that your skin doesn’t have an adverse reaction to them, perfectly viable, honest soaps. They are typically easy to find and work well. If a formulation is used far and wide, and has persisted for many long years, it likely has something to commend it.

A few shaving-specific brands, such as Italian Barber/RazoRock, have skewed all sense of logic and proportion, offering artisan soap in a price range that has typically only been occupied by mass market soaps. Their “Amici” soap, for instance, has a presentation and scent that would typically be reserved for a mid-priced soap. It, however, goes for a price that is way out of proportion to its quality. The water, it is gettin’ muddy.

What constitutes a value soap? To me, I would say that it could be had for less than ten dollars for a reasonable container. All products are prone to market fluctuations and markup, so some of them may be priced here during a good special, but break into moderate pricing at retail, or when accompanied by a large shipping charge.

Many of the soaps I purchased when first starting to wet shave came in the value segment (or would have, if I’d known where to purchase them at fair market value. I still use many of these products, and I’ve found them to be totally worth your attention.

Mid-priced soaps: 

In the mid-priced brands, we have the reasonable artisan soaps and the well-respected classic brands. The old classics, like Cella, Taylor of Old Bond Street, Mitchell’s Wool Fat, and so on. In terms of artisan soaps, brands like RazoRock, Sterling and others populate this price range.

For all but the pampered elitist, you can find a soap that does everything you can dream of in this price range, which I’ll call between $10 and $25. Every imaginable scent, all the different wonderful ingredients, and the packaging and consistency you like best. You can find a whole cornucopia of fantastic soaps in this category, either made in a factory or by a small artisan shop. Of course, some of the soaps in this price category won’t suit everyone. Your preference for formulation and scent will come to the fore in this segment, as there are some incredible soap bases being sold. It is still possible to be disappointed in terms of performance, of course.

Champagne Wishes: 

Above $25? Well, I confess that I’ve only purchased one or two soaps in this price range. And I’m okay with that. There are soaps that clock in at vast sums, but my sense is that, short of wildly elaborate presentation, you’re basically paying for the cologne-crafting element, and perhaps the image. I find it difficult to justify paying more than $25 for a soap, simply because the soaps below that price are so damned good. I have the sense that some people *think* they’re getting better shaves than they are when they’re laying down long green for their products. It’s confirmation bias. If you’re totally honest with yourself and do a painstaking cost/benefit analysis, I think it’s hard to justify a price much about the $4/ounce level.

In Summation: 

Honestly, I have several soaps that, if I had to, I could easily settle on and use every day. Shoot, I could easily use Arko or Palmolive every day. Will I? No, but only because I love the different scents, the different face sensations, the different consistencies. That’s the shaving hobbyist in me, rather that the guy who just wants the hair taken comfortably off his face.

In the end, I would suppose the point of diminishing returns is probably about $20 or so for a container somewhere between 4 and 6 ounces. There’s not much that a soap can do that can’t be accomplished at this price (regulated to U.S. dollars, Fall, 2016).

As to which exact one you’ll like best – that’s a highly personal question. I can only report my own findings, which I’ve done in my long string of soap reviews.

Good luck, and happy shaving.

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