My father never taught me to shave. I had to learn from his medicine cabinet.
The first time I got scruffy, I went to the bathroom and opened it up. I grabbed everything that had to do with shaving.
A bottle of aftershave that looked ancient. A can of foaming shaving cream that looked cheap. A bag of disposable razors that looked even cheaper.
I had no damn clue what I was doing. Everything I knew about shaving came from Gillette commercials and that scene in Home Alone.
I sprayed the cream into my hand and patted it on my dry face. I grabbed the razor and nervously moved it across my cheeks and throat in slow, downward strokes.
The blades didn’t glide as smoothly as I hoped they would. The results were disappointing, too. I wanted my face to be smooth, but I just made it patchy. I looked even worse than before.
So, I patted more shaving cream on my face and went at it again. As if I hadn’t made enough shaving mistakes already, I shaved against the grain of my facial hair.
There was more resistance when I pulled the razor upward, but at least I ended up smooth.
Then my face turned bright pink. I got a burning sensation everywhere the razor had touched. Splashing aftershave on it made it even worse.
I hated my scruff and stubble, but I hated shaving even more. So, I only did it once every week or two.
I kept buying the disposable razors. I knew that straight razors still existed, but as far as I could tell the only people who still used them were assassins.
I hated throwing that much plastic in the trash after a single shave, so I wore the hell out of the blades and only sent the razor to the landfill when it was too dull to work.
I kept skimming off my father’s shaving cream but I left his aftershave alone. I had no idea what it was for and I could do without the sting and the whiff of spearmint and alcohol.
For years, I dealt with razor burn and razor bumps.
I figured I just had sensitive skin and never looked into it (my stubbornness is probably my most masculine trait).
When I moved out on my own, I tried a few different shaving cream alternatives and eventually landed on Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap. Not a shaving product per se, but all-purpose enough to work.
That was a vast improvement. I could glide the razor smoothly, apply less pressure, and eliminate some of the razor burn. But I was still far from having a proper shaving setup. I wouldn’t get one of those until I started growing a beard.
I look young for my age. If I’m out without my kids, I’m often asked if I’m a student (I’m 36).
Without the beard, I looked like a teeanger, no matter how old I got.
That didn’t bother me all that much until I enrolled in a PhD program and had to teach first-year undergrads. Most of them looked older than me.
Whenever I complained to my colleagues about how hard it was to feel authoritative in front 19-year-olds who all somehow looked like they were pushing 30, they’d all tell me the same thing.
“Just grow a beard.”
No thanks. If I looked sixteen without the facial hair, growing one would just make me look like a high schooler who grew a shitty beard so he could buy booze.
I changed my mind during Spring break in my third year of grad school. I spent it the way I spent every week off: reading dense books, working on my own dense articles, and trying to think of a way to make all this dense crap sound interesting for my students.
I carried home a teetering stack of picture books and DVDs from the library so my kids would be too busy to interrupt me, and I went into academic hibernation mode in my tiny home office.
After a week of cramming information into my brain but somehow feeling dumber, I emerged with two weeks’ worth of facial hair.
I caught my wife looking at me.
“What?” I asked, feeling suspicious.
“I think you would look really good with a beard.”
I saw the vaguely horny way she was eyeing me and that was it. I decided to grow one.
Growing it was the easy part. Managing it would be more complicated.
The scruff turned into a proper beard, but that soon turned into an unruly mess.
The facial hair did make me look older. I kept getting those looks from the Mrs. But the more it grew, the more disheveled I got.
I spent most of my time in philosophy seminars, so being disheveled wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. But I didn’t grow it to look like an oblivious academic — I grew it to look like a much, much, much, much, much less attractive Jake Gylenhaal.
Like most of the good things in my life, I have to credit the solution to my wife. While I was wasting my time reading Aristotle, arguing about Aristotle, and pondering things Aristotle had already done a better job pondering, she took the time to look into grooming tips.
She sent me a grooming tutorial by someone who went by Alpha M. “Ignore the name,” she told me. “Just follow his advice.”
My father had never taught me how to shave. And here I was, after using razors for more than ten years, learning how to do it for the first time from some guy on YouTube.
Better late than never, I suppose.
Learning some grooming basics was just the start. It sent me into some deep corners of the online world. I discovered countless blogs, forums, and YouTube channels run by men who have made facial hair a lifestyle and have the strongest opinions you could imagine about beard balm.
I learned the ins and outs of beard care. I knew I had to up my game, but it all seemed a bit much.
If you follow enough of this advice, you’ll be convinced that you shouldn’t even bother growing a beard unless you use a straight razor, a strop, a shaving brush, a shaving cup, beard oil, shaving oil, shaving cream, a moisturizing aftershave, a beard brush, and a mustache comb. If you want to look like you own a unicycle, you’ll need some mustache wax, too.
The problem is I had a bathroom with limited counter space. Plus, I hate burdening myself with too many things if I don’t need to (except books and records — those feel weightless to me).
I wanted to keep things minimal, so I pared it down to the essentials and figured out what you absolutely need for a good, proper shave.
A Real Razor
I never felt right about using disposable razors. But the drug stores in my town didn’t stock proper razors and I wouldn’t have even known to look for any even if they did.
Now, I was a grown-ass man with a credit card and a wi-fi connection, so I had some options.
A straight razor was out. If I wanted to minimize the bathroom clutter, I definitely had to go without a strop. So, I ordered a safety razor and a package of razor blades.
There was a bit of a learning curve with it. It’s got a heavier handle so you don’t need to use as much pressure. And it’s all about the angle — you have to hold it at 45 degrees instead of holding it up straight. But once I got the hang of it, I knew I’d never go back. It’s a much better experience.
Cartridge razors are kind of bogus, anyway. The extra blades don’t do anything a single blade can’t do. Well, that’s not entirely true. Some are designed to pull your hair up so that the next blade can cut it closer to the root. So, I guess what I should’ve said is that they don’t do anything worth doing.
A closer shave isn’t a better shave. The closer to the root you shave, the more likely you end up with ingrown hairs and razor bumps. So, treat your face right by sticking to a single blade and shaving with the grain.
The Dr. Bronner’s soap worked fine, but I still wanted to start using a product designed to give me a good shave.
Aerosol shave creams just gave me flashbacks to my razor burn years. Shaving soaps and traditional shave creams were a lot more appealing, but they would need a cup and brush. Not minimal enough for my needs.
In the end, I settled for Dr. Carver’s Easy Shave Butter because it worked well and didn’t require any accessories — I just had to squeeze it from the tube and rub it on my face.
Maybe the takeaway here is that you should always trust a Doctor with your shaving needs. But I’m hesitant to say that because I have Dr. in front of my name, too, and I’m not qualified to do anything useful.
Most of the stuff that advanced beardsmen swear by is optional. Beard oil isn’t. Unless you keep a smooth shave, use some daily.
Beard oils are composed of two types of oils: carrier oils and essential oils.
The carrier oils are there to moisturize and keep your beard healthy and soft. Your skin produces sebum oil for that purpose, but it doesn’t produce enough to properly coat a decent amount of facial hair. Even if it did, you wash it away with every shower, so you need to supplement with some beard oil.
You’ll find a lot of claims about the essential oils in these products — they’re antiseptic, they’ll keep your beard healthy, they’ll promote beard growth. Whatever. I honestly never put much stock in it. As far as I’m concerned, their only real function is to add fragrance.
That’s no small thing. It makes applying it more pleasant and makes you smell nicer. That alone is worth rubbing a couple of drops into your facial hair.
That’s it. That’s all you really need for a proper shave.
I’ve since added to my shaving stash. I still use the same safety razor (and will until the day it falls apart) but I couldn’t resist the old school appeal of classic shaving products. So, now my shaving routine involves a shaving brush, a mug, and a tin of shaving soap.
It takes a bit of work to get a decent lather with it and I’ve messed it up a couple of times.
When my sons grow up, they won’t be able to get a good shave by just grabbing my shaving supplies and trying to figure it all out. Rubbing some of the unlathered shaving soap on their faces won’t help much. They might fumble quite a bit trying to figure out the safety razor, too.
But that’s okay. Because I’m going to walk them through the whole thing. They won’t have to learn to shave from my medicine cabinet.