safety razor vs cartridge razor

A Showdown For The Ages: How Cartridge Razors and Safety Razors Compare

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You don’t have to look far to see an advertisement for a popular cartridge razor.

While subscription services like Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s are making inroads into a market that was once dominated by the likes of Gillette and Schick, the cartridge razor has been the shave tool of choice for men everywhere for several years.

But it wasn’t till just recently that we are starting to see a renaissance of sorts in the shaving world.

Specifically, around the double edge safety razor (also known simply as a safety razor).

While we will get into the details about this legacy shaving system in just a minute, we wanted to use this article as a platform of sorts in fully exploring the nuances between both safety razors and cartridge razors.

Whether you are a teenager looking to shave for the very first time, or you are a seasoned shaving vet looking to switch things up, you will want to read on as we try our best to answer ALL of the most popular questions that men have about these two unique razors.

Without wasting a second more of your valuable time, let’s get started:

Safety Razors Are Experiencing A Renewed Interest From Men

From communities like /r/wicked_edge and others, men are taking notice of the double edge safety razor.

Once a standard issue item for men serving in World War I, the safety razor has been around for years (first patented in 1880 by Fredrick and Otto Kampfe).

But one aspect that immediately catches any man’s attention about the safety razor is the cost:

Safety Razors Are REALLY Cheap For The Long Term

While a safety razor handle can cost upwards to $50 bucks, and specialty shave creams and brushes can also demand a hefty budget, there is still no denying the long term savings you realize when you begin to use a safety razor.

Relying on just a single blade with a universal fitting to do the cutting, safety razor blades just cost pennies compared to the couple of dollars you may have to pay for a cartridge counterpart.

When we compared some of the best safety razor blades on the market, we found that no single blade cost more than $.35 (and this was the PolSilver blade that is no longer actively being produced).

But with a blade only ringing up at a fraction of the cost of a cartridge blade, surely there has to be a catch…right?!

Kind of:

Safety Razor Blades Often Have Shorter Lifespans

While oxidation and repeated use will quickly degrade any razor blade – the simple truth remains:

You can only expect to get about a weeks worth of shaving from a single safety razor blade.

This is both a good and bad thing, here’s why:

Good if you have sensitive skin and don’t like any pronounced skin irritation.

Simply changing out your blade will not only help curb skin irritation, but will also deliver a much cleaner cut on your whiskers – ensuring that there is no tugging, nicks, or other issues.

Side note: if you have immense skin irritation while shaving and are interested in getting a safety razor, you will want to check out the Merkur 37C slant head razor.  The cutting motion on this razor head is perfect for men with sensitive skin.

Now the bad:

Disposing safety razor blades can be a bit tricky.

As we covered in this post, getting rid of old/used razor blades isn’t as simple as throwing them into the trash can.

Doing so may cause harm to others including sanitation workers, kids, etc.

Secondly, given that razor blades are so small and thin, recycling them is impractical given the risks.

Therefore, you will need to store them in a blade bank before they ever get thrown out to ensure safety for yourself and those around you.

Don’t worry, blade banks cost under $5 bucks.  If you are price conscious, you could always use an old Altoids tin or pill bottle instead.

Note: As you likely already know, blade disposal is a non-issue when using a cartridge razor.

Learning How To Use A Safety Razor

If there is any single point of contention with the safety razor, it’s going to be technique.

Unlike the cartridge razor, the safety razor is not very forgiving.

Too open or closed of a cutting angle may lead to severe nicks and post-shave burn…

…and this can scare off a lot of men (and rightfully so).

When it comes to using a safety razor, there are some excellent tutorials on YouTube that demonstrate how to do this properly.

One of the best ones out there will definitely be from wet shaving expert Mantic59:

Put it simply, this guy is legit when it comes to wet shaving knowledge.  Be sure to sub to his channel if you want to know the right way to do things when it comes to shaving…

Just be sure that before you take a safety razor to your skin, you take a moment to understand how your beard hairs grow in.

When using the safety razor, you will want to make sure that you always make the following passes (in this order):

  1. With The Grain
  2. Across The Grain
  3. Against The Grain

This will ensure a smooth and comfortable shave that will be free of any unwanted irritation.

shave cream for safety razors

Shave Cream & Pre Shave Oil Becomes More Important When Using A Safety Razor

Unlike cartridge razors where you can get away with using a shave gel (although you shouldn’t be using these to begin with), safety razors require a bit more of a proper base in order to get a great shave.

Two ways to make sure that every shave will be effortless is by incorporating both a pre shave oil (also known as shaving oil) and a traditional shave cream.

Shaving oil helps to provide a slick lubricated layer to your skin, ultimately lowering the effort required for the razor blade to glide along your skin and make the cut on the whisker.

One of our favorite shave oils is this one by The Gentlemen’s Refinery.

After the shave oil is applied, then its the shave cream:

While shave cream may also provide a lubricated base akin to a shaving oil, shave cream also will do a great job at keeping your follicles warm with its insulating layer.

Once you apply a shave cream, your follicles will both soften and swell, further reducing the effort required by your safety razor.

Clearly when both shaving oil and cream are combined, shaving with a brand new razor blade will be like a hot knife cutting through butter – there will be no greater satisfaction before 8 am!

For shave creams, we often recommend men using a safety razor for the very first time to check out the highly touted Taylor of Old Bond Street.  It’s a stellar cream that performs wonderfully.

Note: You will want to pick up a shave brush upon checkout when using this shaving cream.

Finding The Right Safety Razor For You

While we could talk about the nuances of a safety razor system including the head design, blade gap, blade aggressiveness, weight, and handle length.

It’s better suited for you to check out this article where we compare the top brands.

But simply put, here are our findings:

For beginners, the Merkur 23C is an excellent starter safety razor.

It’s length is similar to that of a cartridge razor and will feel very familiar in your hand.

However, if you can stretch a dollar a bit more you will want to go with a razor that can work with you for a number of years before you feel like you have outgrown it, the Merkur 38 HD ‘Barberpole’ is an excellent choice.

Weighing a fair bit more than the Merkur 23C but nearly the same length, the Merkur Barberpole is a great heavy duty razor that requires zero pressure on your behalf when making your passes.

Lastly, if you have a bit more sensitive skin and don’t mind veering off the beaten path, as we mentioned earlier, the Merkur 37C Slant Head will be best for you.

Rather than cutting your hair straight on, the 37C cuts your hair in a similar motion as a scythe (cuts at an angle).

This reduces any tugging or pulling on the root when you pass, ultimately working best for men with overly sensitive skin.

Note: If you are starting from scratch and are looking for additional savings, then a shave kit may be a great option for you.

Cartridge Razors Still Are The Single Most Popular Razor Systems

As we mentioned earlier, cartridge razors are everywhere.

Their performance and small learning curve make them perfect for every man.

However great as they may be, there still are some downsides and a few things you may want to consider before you might double down and invest in a cartridge razor (plus refills):

Unlike The Safety Razor, Cutting Angle Is A Non Issue

With the pivot head found on nearly all cartridge razors, this mechanism allows the blades to always be set at the optimal cutting angle:

pivot head on cartridge razors

Not only is this one less thing that you need to think about in the morning before you get your cup of joe, but it also speeds up the shave time.

Unlike a safety razor that may take up to 10 minutes of your time to get a great shave, with a cartridge razor most men are done in as little as a couple of minutes.

Sure, 8 minutes might not sound like a lot, but if you are the one responsible for dropping your kids off at school and you have a 9am meeting, those 8 extra minutes could mean the world!

But even if you can get a shave done a bit quicker, what’s the deal with all the extra blades?

In short: lift-and-cut.

Cartridge razors rely on this lift-and-cut technology in order to get a close and smooth shave.

Basically it works like this:

With the 5 razor blades on the head, they will alternate with what they are responsible for.  One blade will lift the whisker, another will cut it, the third blade will lift the hair again (just a little higher), and then another will cut it.

In the instant that the razor head goes through this motion, you have an incredibly close shave in just one pass.  If you were using a safety razor, this would take a few passes of a single blade in order to achieve similar results.

But this is where things get tricky:

Cartridge Razors May Cause Irritation For Men With Sensitive Skin

Even some of the best cartridge razors on the market will wreak havoc for men with sensitive skin.

With a safety razor you have total control on how many times the single razor blade comes in contact with your skin, whereas with a cartridge razor you will have multiple blades come in contact with your skin on EVERY single pass.

And any guy with sensitive skin will know that when it comes to your neck, or even your cheeks for that matter, it will quickly become irritated once you are done shaving.

Therefore, just like when you learn how to shave with a safety razor, it becomes really critical to know how your beard hairs grow in when using a cartridge razor.

So, when using this type of multi-blade razor head, you MUST go with the grain…


Here’s why:

Going Against The Grain May Cause Razor Bumps & Ingrown Hairs

If you ever had a razor bump or ingrown hair, you know the type of discomfort it can cause (also worth mentioning is how unsightly they are).

When using a cartridge razor, going against the grain is never advised, especially for men with thick or coarse beards.

This is primarily due to the fact that the cartridge razor blades will cut the follicle too low beneath the surface of the skin.

When the beard begins to regrow, it’s much more susceptible to curl back into the skin causing issues.

To try and alleviate the pain, many men may either try to massage their neck or apply an aftershave balm to ward of any potential for an infection.

Long Term Cost Ownership of Cartridge Razors

Over the long run, cartridge razor refills tend to cost a significant amount more than safety razor refills.

In fact, we wrote about it here where owning a cartridge razor will set you back roughly $240 a year in refills, whereas a safety razor will cost about $13 bucks annually.

It’s important to note that this does exclude the cost of the safety razor handle itself.

Cartridge razor handles do tend to cost significantly cheaper (around $10 bucks) compared to a safety razor that can cost anywhere between $20 and $50 dollars.

Furthermore, subscription services like Dollar Shave Club, Harry’s, and even Gillette’s own OnDemand service have helped to lower costs for these shave systems in recent years.

If You Are Considering A Cartridge Razor, You DON’T ALWAYS Need the Latest And Greatest

Seriously guys, while having the newest razor may be nice, it’s not always necessary when it comes to shaving.

The same theory that holds true for safety razors also holds true for cartridge razors – less is more.

When the Gillette Mach 3 was introduced a decade ago, it took the shaving world by storm.

It was the gold standard for men everywhere.

In fact, even today, many men still hold on to their trusty Mach 3 simply because it can deliver great results at a fraction of the price.

While not as widely available as the latest cartridge razor systems, you can typically pick up Mach 3 cartridge refills by the fistful at popular online retailers like Amazon.

Cartridge Razor vs. Safety Razor: It’s All About Personal Preference

Really, both shave systems are great in their own regard.

While cartridge razors tend to be a bit more expensive, they still are terrific at delivering an efficient shave with very little thought.

Personally, I think too many folks get wrapped up in the beauty of the safety razor, and they fail to keep in mind the actual shaving process and all it entails.

Yes, safety razors are great tools, and yes they are great for men who want total control, but when you have to decide on a cartridge vs a safety razor, it’s really all about how you will be using it every single day.

About The Author

Shawn Burns

Shawn is the founder and senior editor at Tools of Men, the leading style and grooming source trusted by men in 187 countries. He started this site with the goal of teaching men proper grooming habits and sensible style. He is an expert in all things men's grooming related. His work has been mentioned on countless sites including The Wall Street Journal, NBC, AskMen, Vice, WikiHow, and the New York Times.

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