What's the difference? The Soap Saga
We’ve all been there before, it is early morning and you are desperately trying to get out of the door or running late to an event. You reach for your shave soap just to find the container light or empty. What do you do? Do you just bite the bullet and forgo shaving your face or your legs? Do you use regular bar soap? What’s the difference, soap is soap! I wish I could say that there isn’t much of a difference but it couldn’t be farther from the truth. Yes, in theory you can use regular soap for shaving and many people have. Coincidentally, (or not) those are the same folks who usually tell me that they have never enjoyed the shave or the same folks who experience issues with ingrown hair, irritation, and dry skin. Is regular soap to blame? Is it the tools? Both?
My journey into wet shaving started years ago when my grandfather could no longer hold a straight razor due to a degenerative condition in his hands. As a former surgeon, the man was a wizard with a blade and could shave a flea if he had enough time and determination. It pained me a lot to see a man who was larger than life miss out on his favorite thing other than hanging out with his grandchildren- shaving. I tormented my uncles and my grandmother to teach me how to use a straight razor, until finally I was allowed to use one. Let’s just say that it took a few months to dial in my skill. A few bloody incidents later, I could eventually navigate a topography of almost any face with a straight razor in less than ideal conditions.
I have to give a huge shout out to my grandfather for being a patient man with high pain tolerance and seemingly endless support for my newly developed passion for shaving. I am not sure I would have been able to be as dedicated and as loving as he was while volunteering his arm (we have to start somewhere) and then his face for being torn up by the unstable hands of a ten year old girl.
Although by the time I got my first soiree into wet shaving, my country had access to all the necessary ingredients for making shave soap, the majority of folks still preferred using regular soap for the purpose. I am not going to go into details of using soap that can be best described as “industrial cleaning agent” for shaving purposes, but let’s just say that I now know that the lack of lubrication and stable lather contributed to disastrous results of my early shaving education.
So what’s the difference? Simply put - lather.
No, bubbles are not just for luxury and smelling good. It’s not just for looks. Lather is incredibly important to protect your skin, soften whiskers, and ensure a smooth, painless shave.
Normal bath soaps such as Dove and Ivory are detergents. I know a few people are going to read that and run screaming for the woods, but I assure you - there is nothing to fear. A detergent is another way of saying that a soap is designed to get something clean. A detergent is going to break down grime and oils, in some cases disinfect the area, and break down some proteins. Can a soap be organic, natural, hypoallergenic, moisturizing and still be a detergent? Yes, yes it can.
Another key difference is lather. If you try to lather regular bath soap or shampoo, you will notice larger bubbles. The foam will fall and dissolve fairly quickly when left unagitated. If you look at shaving soap lather, you will notice a whipped cream consistency. All lather is built on the same principle of adding air into the soap to make bubbles. It is the size of the bubbles and how quickly the foam falls that determines whether the lather can be used for shaving or not. The smaller the bubble - the better the lather is for shaving.
Let’s get technical, shall we?
Both regular bath soap and shave soap contain lye. Regular soap generally contains sodium hydroxide which is a type of lye. Shave soap contains sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide or straight potassium hydroxide. Then the fats are added for conditioning and sleekness. Regular bath soaps will use oleic, lauric, and myristic fatty acids. These fatty acids cleanse well and form a bubbly lather that conditions the skin. Shave soaps tend to use stearic, palmitic, and ricinoleic acids, which create a lather that's creamy and stable. Although there is some overlap in the fatty acids used between shave soaps and bath soaps, shave soaps usually avoid certain fats like olive oil.
Since we have already established that the main purpose of a bath soap is to get you clean, the shave soap is designed to soften whiskers, create lubrication to form a barrier between the skin and the blade, and to moisturize. The key characteristics of a good shave soap are:
Stability - the lather is stable and velvety. Shave soap lather will last through the whole shave.
Slickness - the blade glides easily over the skin without causing irritation.
Hydrating - proper moisturizing agents are added to the soap mixture to rehydrate the skin after a microscopic layer of epidermis is removed during the shave.
Antiseptic properties - as mentioned previously, shaving removes a layer of skin off so it is important to have ingredients that have antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and skin nourishing properties.
If you are like me and are obsessed with reading labels, I took the time to compile a quick list of the most common ingredients used in shave soaps by their properties.
Stability and Slickness
Stability is often achieved through the use of potassium and sodium hydroxide mixed with stearic acid content fat or oil. High stearic acid creates stable lather, slickness, and softens the hair making it easier to cut. Stability and slickness is a result of a process called saponification when stearic acid reacts with potassium and/ or sodium hydroxide.
Examples of high stearic fatty-acid content oils: castor oil, coconut oil, kokum butter, and palm oil , and tallow.
When reading the ingredient labels on your shave soaps, look for phrases like potassium cocoate or sodium cocoate. In this case we can determine that potassium and sodium hydroxide was used in combination with coconut oil to create the soap base. In similar fashion if you see the term sodium or potassium tallowate, it would indicate that the lipid base in the soap is tallow.
Since shaving can be a fairly dehydrating process, most soap makers add humectants or moisturizers. A humectant is a substance that attracts moisture from the air or from deeper inside your skin. Common ingredients used in shave soaps for hydration purposes are: allantoin aloe vera, argan oil, beeswax, cocoa butter, jojoba oil, kokum butter, lanolin, goat’s milk, avocado oil, and rarely olive oil (as it destabilizes the lather).
Menthol is a common addition to shave soaps and aftershaves and is an excellent antiseptic, Vitamin E (tocopherol) is both nourishing and neutralizes the effects of free radicals. A variety of essential oils designed to add scent to the soap also have antiseptic properties.
The list of ingredients above is by no means a complete list of shave soap ingredients, but it gives you an idea of what you are looking for on a soap label and what some of the ingredients mean. I often run into people who ask me if the products we carry in the shop are vegan, gluten free, or are free of coconut or menthol. And although not all of the products we carry are free of major allergens, we try to carry at least one variety of shave soap that is free of one or more of the main allergens mentioned above. In short, if you are allergic to certain ingredients, read the labels closely and pay attention to the words ending in “-ate”.