This type of razor takes some practice, but once you get it down, no setup can match the price, durability, comfort, and overall simplicity of a solid double-edge (DE) safety razor like the Merkur.
(If you’re a woman and/or a cartridge loyalist, I have picks for you, too.)
To make my picks, I spoke with experts who have been through every razor fad and tried every setup, including beard-trimmers. I then personally tested widely available non-disposable razors on the market. I asked several women test out “women’s” razors and cartridge men’s razors on their legs, bikini lines, and underarms, then got their takes.
To commenters: this is a product category with an fervent community of debaters. I’ve surveyed every corner of the shaving community and used the collective intelligence to inform my picks, so if you want to comment on this review with personal knowledge or anecdotes, please finish reading the whole thing, then fire away. I’ll be looking at feedback and will verify anything that looks like it could be superior than the things I’ve chosen. Note, too, that we’re waiting on test units from the Dollar Shave Club to see how their blades compare.
Understand that many factors contribute to the quality of a shave, especially preparation. For example, try to shave post-shower. Warm water and steam opens up facial pores relaxing the hair, and a layer of water helps the razor skim or hydroplane across the surface rather than drag against the skin and cause razor bumps. Take time getting the shaving cream set into the skin, and after applying, let it settle in. If you’re like me and have a Mark Spitz/Freddie Mercury-level moustache, a bit of hair conditioner or skin lotion before the shaving cream can make the shave smoother. Your hair type matters, too. African-American men or anyone with curly hair can have issues with multi-blade cartridge systems, which tend to cause bumps and ingrown hairs because the blades aren’t sharp enough, or they catch on thick hair.
Here’s why Merkur makes the best razor: Like most in their lineup, the Merkur Model 180 Safety Razor has a chrome finish and a knurled handle, which makes it easy to grip even when your hands are wet. For a investment, the Merkur’s steel construction and lack of moving parts mean it’ll survive drops in the sink, high heat, and corrosion from water. Unlike disposable blades, or even high-end cartridge razors, the Merkur has more weight overall, especially in the head. Rather than pushing the blade into the skin for a close shave, which will give you irritation, the weight of the Merkur sits with just the right pressure against the skin.The principle advantage of a single-blade safety razor is that it allows for multimple passes on the same area of skin without causing irritation — I’ll explain how that’s different for a cartridge later. The edges on the Merkur’s head position the blade so that it glides over the skin without unnecessary pressure.
Besides the comfort benefits, using razor that’ll outlive its owner is much kinder to the environment than a plastic- and rubber-heavy cartridge model. That didn’t factor heavily into my assessment, but it’s a nice side effect.
I talked to Corey Greenberg, a veteran product reviewer (Stereophile, for one). Anyone who has researched this topic has probably seen his appearance on NBC’s Today Show to explain the best way to shave. He is the man behind ShaveBlog, a site that covered (he hasn’t updated it in years) all things shaving. He’s been deep into the shaving forums, tried out every shaving brush, shaving cream, razor blade manufacturer, etc. Here’s his setup and his explanation for each item:
1) Merkur HD Safety Razor (“It’s durable. You can huck it against a wall and it won’t go off spec.”)
2) Personna razor blades (“I get my blades on eBay, Personna from Israel. Next to Gillette, they’re the biggest blade manufacturer. The ones made in Israel are money in the bank. Buy a box of 100 for, and you’re set for life. They don’t rust, they don’t go bad. I get about a week of shaving per blade.”)
3) Williams Mug Shaving Soap (“I’ve tried them all, and this is what I use. Potassium-based, smells great, kinda lemony, lathers as well as anything out there, and shaves better than the high-end soaps. It’s on the bottom shelf at the drugstore.”)
4) Vulfix Shaving Brush or an Omega synthetic. (“[If you don’t want to just use your hands,] get a cheap shaving brush. Synthetic works as well as the best badger brush out there, it just doesn’t look as boss and doesn’t feel as luxurious. But in terms of doing its job, that is, raising whiskers, it works. If you spend more than on a brush, it’s because you want badger in your life, or your life is luxurious and you can’t have anything cheap.”
5) No aftershave. (“A splash of cold water, and maybe some witch hazel. It closes pores and works as an antiseptic if you’ve nicked yourself.”)
A double-edge (DE) safety razor like Merkur makes is a simple, cheap, and extremely comfortable way to shave. With a single, large and rigid blade, a DE razor will glide cleanly over skin and seldom cause any ingrown hairs, razor burn, or skin irritation. DE blades are also, compared to cartridges, incredibly cheap. With a handle and a bulk pack of blades, you can shave for years on less than. The one major drawback is that this type of blade takes patience and a bit of learning to get good at. If you can apply yourself to mastering the angling and stroke patterns required for a DE razor, it’s the best way to shave for anyone who can take the time to give himself a proper shave.
Greenberg’s not the only one who attests to the Merkur’s exceptional quality. There are many major, famous publications that have rated old-style manual razors — probably because, as I said, it’s such a subjective field — but Merkur models are unequivocally tops. No matter the write-up, know that nearly all Merkurs have the same head construction and weight, with the differences mostly in the handle design.
Shaving 101 said of the Merkur 1904, “Inspired by the original design of the first Gillette safety razor produced in 1904, this modern safety razor is an example of precision German engineering with a classic antique appeal…The Merkur 1904 Classic is a regular in my shaving rotation because the razor is not only visually appealing, but it is very well balanced and comfortable to use.” On the shaving forum Badger & Blade, Merkur models were often recommended by “100% of reviewers.”
So do you need this setup when you can just go to the Walgreens around the corner? I asked Greenberg if he ever uses anything from a drug store. “Those razors tore up my face and are the reason I changed the way I shave,” he said. “In those cartridges, it’s not a blade, it’s a piece of tin foil. If you disassemble them, it’s shocking that you use these to shave yourself. The blade has to be rigid to shave well.”
If he finds himself without his Merkur, Greenberg will get a pack of single-blade Bic For Sensitive Skin. He said, It’s the simplest possible disposable razor. One blade, single edge. You get three really good shaves. In a pinch, those are great. It’s the only razor sold at a drug store that I’d use.”
As someone who never checks bags on flights, save surfboards and snowboards, I usually take an electric razor to avoid the ire of the TSA. An electric razor won’t give you as close of a shave as a razor blade, but it’s tool for the fastest shave possible, by far. There’s no prep necessary, though a warm shower will get a closer shave, and cleanup is minimal. There’s no need for running water or creams, either. As our own Bryan Gardiner explains, “In the end, a good electric razor is will save you time, banish creams and foams from your daily routine, and reduce nicks and cuts.” If this sounds appealing, we like Braun’s Series 7 790cc shaver, which comes with its own cleaning system that charges and ensures an extended life for the razor. is a bit to spend on a razor, but as a daily-use item, it’s worth the cash. When I’m at home, though, the clean shave that comes from a DE razor works day-to-day.
For traveling with the double-edge blades, Greenberg says, “I have never had TSA give me trouble. If the blades come up on x-ray, I show the guy the blades, shows him how I shave with it, and never once had them confiscated.” If you’re skeptical, see below for some TSA-friendly cartridge options.
For all the benefits of the Merkur, or any single-blade razor, understand that if you’re transitioning from a Mach3 or Gillette Fusion, for example, you’ll go through a learning period of, what a friend who works at the Art of Shaving said is about two to three weeks. This means figuring out how to properly angle the razor head, how to stretch the skin taught, and how to properly prep and finish so that the hairs respond to the blade. Even after mastering the technique, a full, proper shave can take up to ten or 15 minutes.
If that’s not an option and you regularly wake up with moments to spare before getting out the door, the Gillette Fusion ProGlide is the best cartridge razor.
Cartridge razors are the most ubiquitous shaving tools on the market because they’re convenient and simple to use. You get a plastic handle with a spring clamp head that fits with a specific brand of cartridge. Each cartridge will last you about a week depending on how much you’re shaving. The major advantage these razors have over an old-style double-edge safety razor like the Merkur is a quicker shave — the cartridges have surface area surrounding the blades, so there’s no need for slow, deliberate strokes to avoid nicks.
The downside is that because the blades are small and not rigid, they won’t be as sharp as a DE blade. Especially for men with thick facial hair, this causes skin irritation and ingrown hairs. Cartridges are expensive, too, many times more so than the equivalent of double-edge blades. You’ve seen the cases of cartridges locked behind lucite at the drug store for this reason.
All that said, if your skin isn’t especially sensitive, you shave in a bit of a rush, and can afford the cost of cartridges, get the Fusion ProGlide.
Unlike the Mach3 or the standard Gillette Fusion, the ProGlide’s five blades move independently of eachother, which lets the edges contour to skin. The blades are also coated with a treatment that allows the five blades to slide across the skin without snagging on hair, or causing razor burn.
When I tested it, the blades consistently trimmed every hair in its path. I didn’t need to make multiple passes on the same patch of skin, which saved time in the morning. The most impressive feat, though, was how it handled the neck beard. I, against all warnings, shave against the grain (as in, holding the razor upside-down and going up on my neck) to get the hair as short as possible. The ProGlide is the first cartridge razor I’ve used that never left my neck red or itchy afterwards. As for control, the Fusion ProGlide has a more substantial handle than other models, which makes it easier to control and keep in line.
Critics and users like it, too. Men’s Health named the Gillette Fusion ProGlide their favorite razor in 2011. Hans, the Shaving Detective, said, “First of all, I am impressed by the smooth sensation while I am shaving. There is no significant drag on my skin, and the blades glides easily across all parts of my face.” Of the 50-plus reviews on Amazon, the ProGlide gets 4.5 out of 5 stars.
There’s a smattering of competition in the cartridge market, mostly name’s you’ve probably heard before.
I tested the manual ProGlide alongside the ProGlide Power model, the latter of which uses a AAA battery to vibrate the handle and razor head. I’m not a fan of the vibration sensation, and didn’t find it to accomplish a closer shave than its manual counterpart. Still, El Hub of Makeup & Beauty Blog said, “ I could tell it was working well right off the bat. No tugging at my skin at all, incredibly close after one pass, and handles the contours of my skin better than ANY blade I’ve ever used before.” I’d rather avoid having electronics that close to water. I also tried the regular Gillette Fusion razor, but around difficult sections like the chin and jawline, the Fusion required a few more passes to clear area than with the ProGlide. For my intense moustache, the Fusion also left the skin red and angry after multiple swipes.
The biggest name in cartridge razors is Gillette’s other ubiquitous multi-blade razor, the Mach3. It’s basically the same as the Fusion (minus two blades), just without a few features. It has no “blade stabilizer: to keep the blades at a fixed width from each other, it doesn’t have the “Low Cutting Force Blades” to stop resistance…you get the idea. In terms of what’s noticeably different between the Mach3 and the ProGlide, the Mach3 rougher on the skin, especially on the neck, where I ended up with hot red skin, even when shaving horizontally, not against the grain. The handle is much lighter than either Fusion model, which makes it harder to keep steady through a stroke.
The Fusion and Mach3’s advantage over the ProGlide is price. A four-pack of regular Fusion blades costs about more than a four-pack of Mach3 blades, and the same pack of ProGlide costs more than the regular Fusion according to Consumer Reports(subscription required). At the Art of Shaving, for example, an eight-pack of Mach3 blades for, while an eight-pack of of ProGlide blades costs. It’s no small amount, but as someone with sensitive skin and patches of thick Eastern European hair, I think the added comfort is worth the cash. The way the blades move independently benefits the use around the chin and neck, no matter what your hair is like. All of these razors will cut hair, but if you try to go cheap, you sacrifice comfort and skin irritation, which doesn’t depend much on the hair type you have.
Note: We’re waiting on test units from the Dollar Shave Club, and we’ll update as soon as we test them. Brian Lam says that he’s used the low-end double-blade razor, and it destroys his face every time he uses it.
Across the board, these razors, especially the ProGlide, are much better than their predecessors. Peter Martin edits the grooming section of Esquire, and he explained to me how a few years back, the multi-blade models from Schick and Gillette were re-designed to have the blades closer together. “We spoke to a few scientists about it. [The redesign] makes it so skin doesn’t raise to catch between blades. It’s actually not just marketing stuff, it actually holds the skin down.”
Martin has a full-on beard at the moment, but if he were to lose his facial hair, he says he’d use up the Mach3 cartridges he has lying around. “I always was a Mach3 guy, and those would be fine for me now. We [at Esquire] get enough nice shaving creams, too, which is good because I’m too lazy to rub anything into a lather.”
For those of you with beards, Martin recommends Gillette’s Fusion ProGlide Styler. The Styler comes with a battery-operated handle with a 3/4″ wide clipper head. Included are three different snap-on heads, each of which leaves hair a different length. If you keep your beard a specific length, this is the tool. “It’s and it’s fantastic,” he said. “Once you determine the edge of your beard, the line you make is so much smoother on the skin.”
I’ll still take a DE razor when I can.
If I shaved my legs, I’d get the Gillette Venus Embrace. It has five blades, strips to keep the legs moisturized, it shaves close enough to never require repeat passes, and only the blades, not the whole unit including the handle, need to get replaced. I asked several women test the Gillette Venus Embrace, Gillette Venus & Olay, Gillette Fusion, men’s Fusion ProGlide, and men’s Mach3 side-by-side, and the Embrace was the overall favorite.
The Embrace, unlike the men’s models, has a grip specifically designed to be held with a forefinger guiding the head. The Embrace has copious rubber on its handle to ensure a controlled grip with the forefinger, and the head pivots freely to hug the curvature of the leg and thigh. Testers said that the head moved freely enough to avoid nicks, even during a hasty shave.
I compared the esteem for the Embrace with other publications. The best and most comprehensive women’s razor blade review comes, unsurprisingly, from Good Housekeeping. They named the Embrace as their overall top pick for refillable razors. The results translated to this conclusion: “This razor received the highest scores for overall performance and ease of use, and was the best at providing a close shave. Even with the highest number of blades in its category, the Embrace earned a near perfect score for not nicking or irritating testers’ skin and testers found it was good at maneuvering around even the most tricky of spots like knees and ankles.”
The drawback to the Embrace, like the ProGlide, is price. Consumer Reports (subscription required) did a comparison test of women’s razors. They found that it performed as effectively as the competition. They made the point that because the Embrace can cost up to a more per cartridge than competitors, and up to more than a drugstore generic model like the CVS Women’s 6 Blade, users should start cheap and work up. CR said, too, that testers chose mostly on personal preference. With an item like this that accumulates cost through daily use, it’s worth seeing if your skin can handle a cheap generic model. If the price isn’t that big of a factor, the Embrace is a no-fail pick.
The Venus with Olay is designed to be used without shaving cream, but our testing found that the “moisture bars” above and below the five blades end up as gooey messes and don’t provide enough lubrication to prevent razor burn. With the extra volume from the bars, the head covers more space than on the Embrace, which made it difficult to get around ankles and knees.
One tester, who has a professional background in beauty and shaving specifically, swears by the Mach3. She says, “It runs more smoothly than women-specific models and ends up being cheaper overall.” It’s tricky to use the Mach3 handle to shave legs — the grip for the men’s blades is designed to be held so it stands vertically, with the cartridge up. As I said, to reach their legs, women hold the razor with the index finger on the handle, behind the cartridge face. Fortunately, the Mach3 cartridges also fit in the Venus Embrace handle (thanks, KhaleesiHavsi), so if you want to save a few nickels, grab some Mach3 cartridges. In our testing, the ProGlide’s extra features didn’t come through when shaving legs, and the negligible difference in quality doesn’t justify the extra cost for ProGlide heads.
For a go-to body razor, get the Venus Embrace.
Straight razor shaving:
This is expert territory. These are the reason setups like the Merkur are called “safety razors.” If you can handle them, straight razors have distinct advantages. They’re the tool that’ll give you the closest shave possible because the razor’s angling is entirely adjustable — as in, if you get the blade very parallel to your skin, you’ll get a close cut. Assuming you invest in a quality straight razor, it’ll be the last one you ever have to buy. Wirecutter’s resident shaven head Seamus Bellamy uses a Dovo straight razor, specifically, a Dovo 5/8 Extra Hollow Ground “singing” razor.
He also said, “My one complaint about the blade is that it’s made from carbon steel–not ideal as it’s a device intended to get wet, but it holds a remarkable edge and is easy to strop. I’ve been dying to get my hands (and head) on a blade made by Hart Steel: An American company that build their blades to order. Their blades have a Rockwell hardness of 63.”
The disadvantages besides the potential hemmorhage are long shave times — think 20 minutes-plus for the full-face treatment. Straight razors, unlike safety blades, have no chance of getting past TSA personnell.
If you’re still with me and eager to try one out, start with a “disposable” straight razor. These models take razor blade cartridges, whch makes them much cheaper than a serious straight blade. I’d buy the Dovo Shavette for its compatibility with a wide range of razor blades and its weighted handle.
If you’re going to invest in a full-on Dovo, Seamus suggests the Prima Rindleder strop. He says, “I’ve had for close to six years. Simple, easy to use and effective.”
I’m going to keep using my Merkur double-edge razor with, my personal favorite, Proraso shaving cream.