Over the years, razors have taken various forms, from the solid gold and copper blades found in Egyptian tombs to the steel straight razors used in England in the 18th and 19th centuries. One thing they all had in common: An exposed blade that needed frequent sharpening.
This all changed in 1847, with the invention of the safety razor. Engineered by William Henson in England, the T-shaped design had a steel blade with a guard along the edge. The design was further improved in 1904, when the King Camp Gillette company introduced the double-edged replaceable blade—a game-changing version that didn’t have to be sharpened.
Safety razors were a staple until the 1970s, when disposable cartridge razors were developed and quickly adopted for their convenience and ease of use. Instead of taking apart the head to change blades, you could just pop off the cartridge and throw it away.
But in the last few years, safety razors have made a comeback as more people realize that they give a closer shave, help you save money and are better from the environment.
What is a safety razor?
The safety razor hasn’t changed much in the last century: it’s a T-shaped shaving device that features a double-edged blade. The “safety” is a curved guard, called a plate, covering the blade so that only the very edge is exposed.
Safety razors usually come in brass or stainless steel, which give them a nice weight and won’t rust over time. Aluminum and titanium are also sometimes used to make lighter razors.
Most safety razors follow a standard design, but there are different options: slant razors that are torqued so they slice the hair at an angle, adjustable razors that let you change the blade gap (the space between the razor blade and the safety bar) to switch between a gentler or more aggressive shave, and butterfly razors with hinged plates that open by twisting the handle. For beginners, a standard, traditional design is recommended.
One of the key differences between a safety razor and a disposable razor is the blade. Safety razors use double-edged blades, which are much sharper (hence the need for a guard). Cartridge razors, on the other hand, use blades with only one cutting edge and—to compensate for the lack of sharpness—can stack up to five blades.
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What are the benefits of a safety razor?
With their vintage look and beautiful detailing, safety razors are undeniably appealing. They come in a range of finishes and colours, from brass to chrome to blush pink.
Safety razors don’t just look sharp, though—they are sharp, much sharper than the single-edged blades used in cartridges. With a multi-blade razor, the first blade cuts the hair and removes your shaving product (which lubricates the skin), leaving the subsequent blades to scrape skin, causing irritation and razor burn. As a thin layer of skin is removed, the hair is cut just below the surface. The hair starts growing back at the same time the skin begins to heal—leaving you prone to ingrown hairs. Safety razors, on the other hand, are sharp enough to give a close shave without damaging the skin. They glide right over skin without tugging, and are able to remove long or coarse hair in one pass.
“For more sensitive skin types, [a safety razor] ultimately will [give a better shave] because it cuts the hair at the surface with minimal skin trauma,” says Dr. Renée Beach, dermatologist and founder of DermAtelier on Avenue in Toronto. “In contrast, the multi-blade razors that are advertised heavily can actually produce microtears in the skin or lead to reactionary bumps in coarse and curly textured hair types.”
Disposable razors aren’t just rough on skin—they’re rough on the environment. Back in the 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that two billion razors were thrown away each year. Someone who shaves every day could be throwing away between 37 and 70 razors (or cartridges) every year. That can be avoided with a safety razor: the entire thing is made of metal, and blades are easily recycled. Some companies, like B.C.-based brand Well Kept, use plastic-free packaging as well.
Although a safety razor has a higher upfront cost, it will last you a lifetime, and quickly start saving you money. While a package of four Gillette Venus razor cartridges costs $19.92 ($4.98 per cartridge) on Amazon, the blades compatible with safety razors cost pennies—a 100-pack of RK Shaving Stainless DE Razor Blades costs just $12.84, or about 13 cents per blade.
Are safety razors suitable for everyone?
Anyone can use a safety razor, and it can be used on any body part you would typically shave.
Emilie Johnson, co-owner of Well Kept, suggests that you start out with a fleshier area, like the calf, on your first shave. Once you get more comfortable, you can move onto bonier spots, like the shins and ankles. When it comes to the bikini area, she says it helps to hold the skin taut. Pro tip: If you’re in the shower, it’s a good idea to squat to reach the more delicate areas.
“Another thing I tell people is to hold the razor in their fingertips,” says Johnson. “That way you can’t push down accidentally.”
Safety razor handles come in different lengths, usually between three to four inches. While a short handle is common for shaving the face and neck, a longer handle is ideal for reaching different body parts.
How do you use a safety razor?
If you’re new to safety razors, the main thing is to relax, take your time and think of it as a ritual. (Trying it for the first time before rushing off to work isn’t a good idea.)
Beach recommends shaving no more than once a week. “This will help avoid reactionary papules and ingrown hairs,” she says. She also cautions against using a razor on skin that is already irritated or broken.
Here’s how to get the best shave of your life.
Prep the skin
Shave at the end of your shower. Wash and exfoliate the skin first, as it will unclog pores and soften hair follicles.
“Using warm water and a gentle, creamy cleanser to help soften the hairs makes the shaving process go more smoothly,” recommends Beach.
Use a light touch
Because the blade is exposed and sharp, you don’t want to apply any pressure like you would with a cartridge razor. The weight of the handle provides all the pressure needed. To make sure you don’t press down accidentally, gently hold the razor using only your thumb and the tips of your fingers.
Shave at a 45-degree angle The blade should be touching the skin at an angle of about 45 degrees—roughly parallel with the skin. Because the blade of a safety razor is at a right angle to the handle, hold it perpendicular to your skin. “Everyone’s body and hair is going to be a bit different,” says Johnson. “Start with the razor more or less parallel to your leg, then slowly increase the angle until you find something that’s comfortable and working for you.”
Go with the grain
Shave in the direction of your hair growth; shaving against the grain is hard on the skin and can lead to irritation, razor burn and ingrown hairs.
Start with short strokes
Shave with slow, short and slightly overlapping strokes. As you become more comfortable with the razor you can increase the length of the stroke.
Go for a one-and-done approach
Don’t go over the same spot more than once—the first stroke removes the protection of your shaving product, making skin more prone to irritation. Need another pass? Rinse, lather and repeat.
To help prevent ingrown hairs, Beach suggests applying a salicylic acid serum or cream a day after your shave. “It helps eject hairs rather than having them curve back into the skin,” she says.
How often should you change the blade on a safety razor?
As with any razor, blades should be changed every five to eight shaves, depending on your hair type, how much hair you are shaving and how often you shave. If you experience any pulling, tugging or skin irritation, it’s time to change the blade.
Companies that sell safety razors typically also sell replacement blades. You can also find them at retailers such as The Detox Market, Well.ca, Amazon and Walmart. There are many brands to choose from: Astra, Feather, Merkur, Wilkinson, Personna, Derby, Gillette and many more. You can even buy variety packs and find the one that suits you.
Because blades have a universal design, they will be compatible with whatever safety razor you have; only the sharpness and quality vary.
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How do you change a safety razor’s blade?
A double-edged blade has openings along the middle, which are positioned over posts on a mounting plate. The blade is then sandwiched between the mounting plate and the top cap.
How you open the cap to change your blades depends on the style of safety razor you have.
With a one-piece (butterfly) safety razor, twisting the handle opens up the cap.
With a two-piece, the mounting plate is attached to the handle; twisting the handle will remove the top cap.
A three-piece, which is the most common type of safety razor, consists of the handle, mounting plate and cap. When you twist the handle, the whole thing comes apart easily.
It’s a lot simpler than it sounds—and most razors come with instructions. This video shows you how to change the blades on each type.
Once you’ve separated the mounting plate and top cap, pluck off the old blade, grasping it by the sides—not the razor’s edge. Immediately deposit it somewhere safe so you don’t forget about it. Then, pop on a new blade and re-assemble the razor. It’s a good idea to change blades on a towel so components don’t slide around as you work.
How do you dispose of used razor blades?
The safest way to dispose of used blades is with a container known as a blade bank. The lid features a slot designed for blades, and the container can’t be taken apart, meaning that blades can’t spill out and cut someone. Blade banks can usually store around 100 blades. Because the container is metal, it can be recycled along with the blades inside.
“You can use anything to collect your blades,” says Johnson. “But we like [the bank] because you can’t open it, so if you have little ones with curious fingers, they can’t get the blades out.”
Well Kept sells a blade bank and offers a recycling program as well. Once your bank is full, you ship it back to the company; they take the used blade banks to the local recycling depot. This is handy because most curbside recycling programs don’t accept blades—they are too sharp for standard machines to process, so they need to be taken to a scrap metal facility.
If you don’t have a blade bank, you can easily make your own. Reuse a jar or a container, making sure to secure the lid (duct tape will do). Cut a small slot in the top of the lid, just the right size to slide in a blade.
Many brands of razor blades come in packaging that includes a compartment for storing used blades. Once you’ve gone through the whole package, you can safely dispose of it.
If you don’t have a blade bank or a way to recycle your blade, you can dispose of a blade by wrapping it in paper (not toilet paper or paper towel), securing it with tape, and putting it in the garbage.
Ready to make the switch? Here are some safety razors to try.
Well Kept Safety Razor
With its solid brass handle and powder-coated finish, this razor by women-led, B.C.-based brand Well Kept stands out. It comes in an array of colours, is sold in plastic-free packaging and you can recycle your blades through the brand’s Blade Bank program.
Karve Shaving Co. The Overlander Safety Razor
Karve Shaving Co., manufactures all of its razors in-house in Edmonton. A comfortable, versatile razor, the Overlander works well for daily shaves or multiple days of growth, and it comes in bronze, copper, brass, aluminum and stainless steel. (If you keep your razor in the shower, founder Chris Kirchin recommends aluminum or stainless steel, which won’t discolour over time.)
Henson Shaving AL13 Safety Razor
Manufactured at Henson’s aerospace facility in Ontario, this razor is built with the
same AS9100 aerospace standards required to build satellite components. Finely milled from aerospace-grade aluminum, it’s light and agile. It comes in jet black, steel blue, silver, copper and tan.
Leaf Safety Razor
Designed with three stacked blades on a pivoting head, this safety razor works just like your old disposable one—no learning curve means it’s the perfect option for first-timers. With more blades than your typical safety razor, this is a great option for shaving your head or hairier body parts. Blades can also be removed or added for a personalized shave. (The more blade, the more aggressive the shave!) The handle is shaped like a leaf, and comes in six finishes.
Oui The People Safety Razor
U.S. brand Oui The People was instrumental in making the safety razor cool again, and it’s easy to see why. The sleek, rose gold design is made in a factory in Germany that’s been making razors for over a hundred years.