In this article we take on the safety razor vs cartridge razor question. Which is better?
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re someone who shaves or has shaved. There’s also a good chance that you learned how to shave on and still use a cartridge razor. Like many people, the commercials fed to you by Big Razor made you feel like these multi-edged proprietary blades were your only option in the war against stubble. The slick graphics of blade after blade slicing away at a single hair follicle probably convinced you that the shave you were getting was the best you could possibly have. However, the exorbitant cost per blade, the unrecycled cartridges and the skin irritation have led many to question their morning routine, and look for better options when it comes to a better face de-fuzzer.
There’s a veritable shave-naissance going on around the world, as many are ditching their cartridge razors for something new. Interestingly, they’re not picking up some new fancy gadget that’s on the forefront of technology. But rather looking to the past. What they’ve discovered is a classic piece of grooming kit that has refused to retire – the safety razor. Coming to prominence at the turn of the 20th Century, safety razors made daily shaving affordable for the common man. Who until that point was often reliant on his local barber to keep his face smooth. Safety razors were a hit, and became a must-have for men (and women!).
This would change around the 1970s, when cartridge razors made their way onto the shaving scene. Through extensive marketing campaigns on the part of major razor companies, by the turn of the Millennium cartridge razors had pretty much taken over the shaving market.
But does their popularity make them better? And when it comes to safety razors vs. cartridge razors, which one is better? If you’ve taken even a brief look at our store, it should be pretty obvious which side we’re on. We’re team safety razor all the way. They’re far more economical, environmentally friendly, and give what we believe is a closer and less irritating shave compared to their cartridge counterparts. On the more subjective side, they exude old school cool and classical manliness. Plus, paired with shaving soap they can turn your generic shaving routine into a confidence-boosting morning ritual.
We’ve clearly laid our bias out there, but we don’t just expect you to just take our word for it (although we wouldn’t mind if you did). In this article we’re going to compare the qualities of both kinds of razors, explore their pros and cons, and ultimately show that in the battle of safety razors vs. cartridge razors, safety razors are clearly the superior choice.
The History of Safety Razors and Cartridge Razors
Ever since men started growing facial hair, they’ve been looking for a way to get rid of it. There’s evidence of shaving going back as far as 30,000 B.C (although some archaeologists suggest we may have started shaving even earlier), when ancient people would use shells to pluck hair, or sharpened stones to scrape it off.
However, metal tools dedicated to shaving wouldn’t really see their day until about 3000 B.C., when copper shaving tools were invented. Ancient Egypt had a strong shaving culture, where smooth faces and heads were considered good hygiene. Since shaving technology was still in its early stages, it took time and a professional barber to get a truly close shave. This meant that exceptionally smooth skin was reserved for the wealthy and powerful.
Egyptians weren’t the only ancient people to shave, though. Early Scandinavian cultures also fashioned shaving tools. In the 4th Century B.C., Alexander the Great is said to have made his soldiers shave to prevent their enemies from grabbing them by the beard. It was also around this time that Ancient Rome joined the facial depilation craze, scraping their beards away with volcanic rocks known as pumice stones. Definitely don’t try this at home….
Throughout the Middle Ages, shaving would fall in and out of fashion and shaving technology would stay largely the same. By the end of this time period, shaving tools resembled little axes. It wasn’t until 1680 that we get the first shaving implement that we might recognize today – the straight razor. Invented in Sheffield, England, these “cutthroat” razors became popular throughout Europe and would be the primary way that men were separated from their whiskers for the better part of two centuries.
However, the straight razor was still mostly a tool of the professional barber, since it required specialized tools to maintain that weren’t practically or economically available to most men. There was also the steep learning curve in order to shave without cutting yourself. And for the busy working man it often made more sense to leave straight razor shaving to a professional. There was massive opportunity to create a user-friendly razor for the common man that would deliver a close, safe shave without needing a lot of maintenance.
The first razor that would resemble a modern “safety razor” was also invented in England in 1847 by William S. Henson. It was the first razor that had the blade at a right angle to the handle, and had a shape that resembled a garden hoe. However, the blade itself was essentially a straight razor and required extensive maintenance. The actual term “safety razor” was coined in 1880 by the Kampfe Brothers in Brooklyn. Their razor pioneered features such as having the blade held in a hollow space in the head, and having a part of the surface of the head make contact with the skin before the blade.
However, it would be a man named King Gillette (yes, THAT Gillette) who would create double edge safety razors with disposable blades. Although he came up with the idea in 1895, he wouldn’t secure a patent until 1901 and only began manufacturing in 1903. Gillette’s persistence would pay off. In 1915, his company sold 450,000 razors and over 70 million blades. The Gillette Safety Razor Company would also supply razors and blades to American troops during World War I and World War II, creating shaving habits that soldiers would take home with them.
By the middle of the 20th Century, clean-shaven was the norm and men were using their own safety razors to keep up with the Joneses. Although safety razors came in various varieties (more on that in a moment), their blades were made with carbon steel. This made them prone to rust and needed to be changed regularly, which no doubt benefited razor companies’ bottom lines. In 1962, however, Wilkinson Sword released a far more durable stainless steel blade, forcing their competitors to change their production methods as well. This wouldn’t be the only way that Wilkinson Sword changed the world of shaving.
In 1970, Wilkinson Sword released their “Bonded Shaving System”, wherein a single blade was encased in a disposable plastic case that was attached to a handle. The era of cartridge razors had begun. Gillette quickly released its own cartridge model in 1971 called the Trac II. Despite derision from media outlets like Mad Magazine and Saturday Night Live, the Trac II made an impact. Multi-blade cartridge razors were here to stay. In 1974, Bic released the environmentally iffy disposable razor, which required the user to dispose of the whole thing after use. The concept would soon be copied by its competitors.
In 1980, Gillette released a new cartridge system known as Atra. It incorporated a pivoting head, which would become a standard feature on cartridge razors in the future. However, Gillette was not done adding features (or blades, for that matter). In 1998, the company released the Mach 3, a razor that used a cartridge with three blades. Accompanied by a titanic marketing push, the Mach 3 became the standard by which other razor companies compared their own offerings. Other razor manufacturers would release cartridges with four blades, while Gillette would up some of their later models to five blades. The multi-bladed razor arms race would eventually see South Korean razor company Dorco release a cartridge razor with seven blades.
At the turn of the Millennium, it appeared that cartridge razors had won the war against safety razors. They absolutely dominated the razor market, and for some it might have seemed that the traditional safety razor wasn’t long for this world. However, something surprising has happened in recent years. Safety razors have been making a comeback, particularly in the aftermath of the global recession of 2008. People began to realize that safety razor blades were far less expensive than proprietary cartridge blades offered by major razor companies. Environmental consciousness also led people to look for alternatives to plastic-filled cartridge razors, and the fully recyclable double-edged blades of safety razors were there to meet that need.
Cartridge razors might have won the end of the last century when it comes to market share, but the classic safety razor isn’t going away. The war of safety razors vs. cartridge razors has only just begun.
Both safety razors and cartridge razors share a similar basic design philosophy. A handle connects to a head portion that houses razor blades. These blades sit perpendicular to the handle and rest at an angle to the skin. However, that’s where their similarities end. Let’s take a look at the different design peculiarities when it comes to safety razors vs. cartridge razors.
Safety razors are generally made with metal. They usually have a cylindrical handle with some sort of non-slip grip engraved into it to prevent slipping. The handle is connected to a fixed, concave head that houses the razor blade. In general, safety razors tend to be shorter than their cartridge counterparts. However, given that shaving with a safety razor is not done with a tight, full-handed grip this isn’t an issue. Given their metal construction, safety razors tend to be heavier than cartridge razors. Again, this feature aids in safety razor shaving, since the weight of the razor helps keep it in contact with the skin and the shaver’s strokes stay straight and smooth. The robust design and construction of safety razors means that if properly cared for, they can last for a lifetime (or even several).
One of the biggest design features of the safety razor is the blade it accepts. All metal, double edge blades are manufactured to a standard size and shape, meaning that any safety razor can use any safety razor blade. This gives the shaver the freedom to find the razor blade that suits them. Prefer a blade with an incredibly sharp edge? There are plenty of options for you. If a milder shave is more your thing, then you will absolutely find something to fill your safety razor. This also means that blade manufacturers are incentivized to maintain quality, because customers can easily find a better product if their standards aren’t met. Cartridge razors, on the other hand, try to lock you into a proprietary shaving system with handles that only fit their blades.
Despite looking very similar on the outside, safety razors actually come in a variety of styles that affect how blades are inserted, how they’re held in the head, and the design of the portion of the baseplate that makes contact with the skin during shaving.
There are three general configurations that safety razors come in that affect how they open up to accept a new blade – two-piece, three-piece and butterfly. Regardless of how they open up, the head of any safety razor will have posts in the center that go through the stamped holes in the center of a double edge razor. The head will also have two openings on either side for each of the blade’s edges. Once secured, the baseplate and the cap of the head will bend the edges of the razor downwards towards the guard portions of the baseplate.
A two-piece razor, as the name suggests, only has two pieces. The first piece is the handle and the baseplate and the second it the cap. The cap has three posts, with the central post being longer than the other two and threaded. The razor blade is slotted through the posts on the cap, and is then the cap is inserted into the holes of the baseplate/handle section of the razor. The entire setup is then secured by twisting the lower portion of the handle until tight. A three-piece safety razor works in a similar way, except that the baseplate and the handle are separate components. Once the razor blade is inserted between the cap and the baseplate, the entire handle is twisted over the threaded central post protruding from the head assembly to secure all the razor’s pieces.
The most mechanically complex safety razor is the butterfly razor (also known as a twist-to-open razor). Like the two-piece safety razor, the butterfly has a twistable lower portion on its handle. However, instead of releasing the cap section of the head, the entirety of the head opens up from the center. With the two halves of the cap opened outwards, the razor blade can be inserted directly into the head which is then closed again with another twist of the base of the handle. The complexity of the butterfly mechanism can make this kind of safety razor more prone to malfunctions, but this might be worth it given how much quicker it is to change a blade compared to its two and three-piece brethren.
Blade insertion method isn’t the only way in which safety razors differ. Different safety razors have different levels of “aggressiveness” when it comes to how the blade is housed in the head and the subsequent effect on the user’s shaving experience. There are even some safety razors that allow you to manually adjust the aggressiveness of your safety razor with a mechanical dial. The more of the blade that is exposed from the razor and the wider the gap between the blade and the baseplate, the more aggressive the razor. Aggressive razors allow more hair to enter the gap between the edge of the blade and the baseplate.
The more exposed blade comes in closer contact with the skin. This can be beneficial for men with thicker facial hair, but given the greater risk of nicking your skin, aggressive razors should be left to more experienced shavers. For most men, a milder razor which holds the blade in a less exposed position is all you need.
The final major difference between safety razors is the configuration of the combs on the guard portion of the head. The guard generally makes first contact with your skin during shaving and guides your facial hair towards the blade. It also helps tighten the skin during shaving. There are broadly two kinds of combs on safety razors, open and closed combs. Closed combs, which are divots along the edge of the guard, provide more protection. They are a lot less aggressive and generally suited for those who are daily shavers or have thinner facial hair.
Open comb safety razors, like hair combs, have teeth along the edge of the guard. This helps them to guide facial hair more easily towards the edge of the blade. Their shave tends to be more aggressive, since there’s less guard to protect the skin, but the exposed comb teeth can really help shavers who have thicker facial hair.
We’ve gone over a lot of information here about the different kind of safety razors, and for the newbie wet shaver this might feel a little overwhelming. It’s not as complicated as it might seem, and the important takeaway from all this is that you can find a safety razor that fits you and your preferred shaving style based on your facial hair type. This gives you so much more control over your morning shave, as opposed to cartridge razors that have a one-size-fits-all approach. Speaking of which…
Despite the numerous brands of cartridge razors out there, they all have two basic components: the handle and the blade cartridge. Cartridge razor handles tend to be made of plastic, although some luxury brands make metal ones. They tend to be longer than safety razors and can be grasped with your entire hand. Some will even incorporate rubber to make gripping them easier. The exact shape of the handle can vary depending on the company making them.
One of the ends of the cartridge razor will have a clip where the blade cartridge is attached. Many will have a release button the user pushed when changing cartridges, but some might forego this as a cost saving measure. This clips will generally be designed to only fit one company’s blades, and this is where one of the biggest differences of safety razors vs. cartridge razors comes into play. Safety razors allow you to buy from any blade manufacturer you want. Cartridge razor companies try to lock you into buying a proprietary blade, leaving you at their mercy in terms of pricing and quality
The cartridges themselves are plastic rectangles that house anywhere between two and seven blades depending on the company making them. The blades are pointed at different angles, and are designed to alternate between raising facial hair and cutting it. However, the added blades can lead to greater irritation when shaving. Many cartridges will incorporate an aloe strip to supposedly reduce irritation, but anyone who has used a cartridge razor knows that they don’t last long at all. Most modern cartridge razors also allow the head to pivot up and down, keeping the position of the blades consistent relative to the surface of the skin.
Although cartridge razors might seem a more simple when compared to safety razors, Big Razor is doing everything it can to change that. In recent years cartridge razors have become more gimmicky (and more expensive). Beyond packing more blades into cartridges, some razors have been released that require batteries and vibrate while shaving. Even more recently, you can buy a heated razor for the outrageous price of $200. Surely if the basic design pf cartridge razors just worked, you wouldn’t need to upsell customers on seemingly superfluous features, right?
Safety razors are built to last, and allow to shavers a variety of options in terms of handle styles and blades. They don’t lock customers into a proprietary blade system, and can be incredibly personal pieces of shaving equipment. Cartridge razors, on the other hand, have handles made with cheaper materials and lock shavers into a single brand of blade. Plus, cartridge razor manufacturers are trying to get you to spend even more of your money on handles with gimmicky features that you absolutely don’t need.
In the battle of safety razors vs. cartridge razors, the one area that cartridge razors have a slight lead in is learning curve. Cartridge razors are incredibly simple to use. Press blades against face, pull razor in desired direction. The pivoting head of a cartridge razor will make sure that the blades are correctly positioned against the face. They’re relatively foolproof.
Shaving with a safety razor, on the other hand, requires a bit of skill. Since the head of the razor doesn’t move, you need to be aware of the angle of the blade against the face at all times (ideally 30 degrees). You will need adjust how you’re holding your safety razor in order to this, particularly when shaving the curved surfaces of the chin and jawline. Unlike cartridge razors, safety razors are best used with lighter pressure. This can mean shavers switching from a cartridge razor might need to get used to shaving with a different sort of pressure, which adds to the learning curve.
Despite the slight skill required when it comes to shaving with a safety razor, we believe they come with clear advantages over cartridge razors that more than make up for it. In fact, mastering the skill of classical wet shaving can make your morning face shearing a point of pride as opposed to a tedious chore.
When it comes shaving, one of the biggest complaints people have is the cost of razors. At least this is the case for those who are using cartridge razors. When you look at the lifetime cost of safety razors vs. cartridge razors, there is simply no competition – safety razors win hands down.
For someone who is looking to get into shaving with a safety razor, it might seem at first that they’re actually more expensive. This is because the cost of the razor itself is generally higher than that of cartridge razors (unless, of course, you buy that ridiculous $200 heated razor that we mentioned earlier). The average safety razor handle can range between $30 and $40, but you can find more economical options for as low as $24 like our introductory safety razor.
But what about the blades? You might want to sit down for this, because the numbers might shock you. A year’s supply of razor blades for a safety razor will cost you on average $10. Yes, you absolutely read that right – $10. If you’re feeling fancy and have money to burn, you can find safety razor blades that go for $15 for a year’s supply.
Using some of our introductory razor deals, let’s take a look at the cost of owning a safety razor over two years. Our midrange safety razor comes bundled with a year’s supply of blades for $40. For the cost conscious among you, that might seem like a steep price to pay to get into wet shaving. However, after a year when it comes time to buy more blades, you’re only going to spend $10 for a fresh supply. This brings your two year cost for razors and blades to only $50. This lowers your per-year spending on shaving supplies to $25, and with each passing year that number will get even lower.
Even if you decide to splurge on our premium, Made in the USA razor with year’s supply of razors (which you absolutely should do) for $90, you’re still spending less money year over year than you would if you purchased a many of the cartridge razors options out there. Again, after your initial investment, your yearly spending on razors is only $10, meaning that your annual average cost of owning the razor is going to drop precipitously.
So what about cartridge razors? Their pricing philosophy is essentially the inverse of that for safety razors. Cartridge razor companies will generally offer a cheaper handle upfront in order to entice you into buying into their razor system. Once you have their handle, you’re forced to use their blades which are far more expensive over time than double edge blades for safety razors. Let’s take a look at some popular brands of cartridge razors and see how they stack up in yearly cost.
How about Dollar Shave Club, one of the first subscription razor services? Well, if you get their cheapest starter set and sign up for monthly refills (the only delivery interval they appear to offer) of their least expensive cartridges, your first year with them will cost you $48 (see disclaimer at the bottom of the page). After that, you’ll be spending $48, bringing the cost of your first two years up to $96.
Harry’s, another subscription razor service, is more expensive than the Dollar Shave Club and far more expensive than shaving with a safety razor. Assuming you buy their cheapest razor handle and order blades at a quantity that would allow you to shave every day for a year, your first year with Harry’s will cost you $95.48 (see disclaimer at the bottom of the page). The yearly cost after that is $86.48, meaning your two year total shaving cost is $181.96.
In terms of savings, there’s just no comparison when it comes to safety razors vs. cartridge razors. Safety razors win. Period.
Safety Razor vs. Cartridge Razor & Environmental Friendliness
A major reason for the resurgence of safety razor shaving is people becoming more conscious of their impact on the environment. Lots of folks are taking stock of the waste they produce in their daily lives, and many are realizing the toll that shaving with a cartridge razor can have on the planet.
Blade cartridges are a mixture of plastic and metal, which makes them extremely difficult to recycle. There needs to be a process to separate the two materials, and most local recycling plants aren’t equipped to do this. What this means is that most razor cartridges end up in landfills and the materials used to make them go to waste. Harry’s pretty much admits that they don’t have a solution for this on their website.
Gillette does have a solution, but it’s not very practical for your average person. You need to sign up on their recycling partner’s website and be accepted into their recycling program. Once you have enough cartridges collected, you print a shipping label and send them to the recycling center. However, according to the Gillette website, you’re the one who has to pay for shipping. That’s right, you have to pay extra to not have your cartridges sit in a landfill. Again, this isn’t a practical solution for most people.
Double edge safety razor blades, however, are made completely out of stainless steel. This means that once you’re done with them, they’re easily recycled through your community recycling program. Many safety razor blades even come in easily recycled paper-based packaging as opposed to the plastic packaging of cartridges. Their ease of recycling means that safety razor blades are more likely to actually be recycled, leading to less waste in landfills and less demand for resources.
Again there’s no comparison of the environmental friendliness of safety razors vs. cartridge razors. Safety razors are the green choice.
Quality of Shave
Even though safety razors have a sturdier and more durable construction, are more cost effective to own and are better for the environment than cartridge razors, none of that means anything if they don’t provide a superior shaving experience. So, in our final faceoff of safety razors vs. cartridge razors, which shaving system gives you the best mug mowing?
One of the myths that cartridge razor companies perpetuate is that more blades will give you a closer and better shave. We beg to differ. We have found (from personal experience) that a close shave is primarily determined by the angle of the blade relative to the skin. Therefore, safety razors can give you an incredibly close shave with only a single blade. Not only that, using one blade edge reduces the number of surfaces moving across you skin during shaving.
Intuitively you would think that one blade running across your skin would reduce the chances of getting skin irritation, including razor burn and razor bumps compared to multiple blades running across your skin.
It is also easier to keep your safety razor clean and therefore more sanitary than cartridge razors, meaning that the chances of your skin becoming irritated during shaving are even more reduced. The gaps between blade edge, head cap and baseplate prevent stubble and other debris from getting caught in the razor. It also allows the safety razor to be easily cleaned, meaning that irritation-causing bacteria are less likely to accumulate between shaves.
One of the concerns that people have about switching to a safety razor is the perception that you’re more likely to nick yourself shaving with one than with a cartridge razor. We understand this fear, however, used correctly, safety razors can be as safe as cartridge razors.
Altogether, safety razors provide a close, safe, sanitary shave while possibly reducing irritation.
So what are all those blades actually doing? Despite what you might think, they’re not all cutting your facial hair. The blades alternate between catching facial hair and cutting it. Not only is this inefficient, it can cause more irritation during shaving. Instead of one blade, you have several scraping across your skin. The more edges you have, the more likely it is that your skin gets irritated and develops razor burn or bumps. As we suggested above, our experience has shown us that the angle of the blade is a very important part of the shave process, so it is possible you might not even be getting a closer shave with all those blades running across your skin.
Cartridge razors can also be less sanitary than their safety razor competitors. The tightness of the spaces between the blades can trap stubble and other muck while shaving. That lack of space means that some of it might never get washed away, which can lead to more bacteria growth on the blades. You just might find yourself shaving with the unhygienic leftovers of your last shave and causing increased skin irritation. YUCK!
Just because they might seem safe, doesn’t mean that shaving nicks aren’t possible with cartridge razors. A slip of the hand and a sideways swipe can easily mean a bloody time out with toilet paper on your face. If you’re putting a sharp surface against your skin, there’s always a chance you might cut yourself.
When it comes to shaving with safety razors vs. cartridge razors, It is hard for us to imagine why someone would not choose the safety razor.
After comparing the design, cost, environmental impact and shave quality of safety razors vs. cartridge razors, we believe it is a no-brainer. You should replace your cartridge razor with a safety razor! They’re built to last, cost far less, are better for the environment and deliver a an awesome shave. They do have a slight learning curve compared to cartridge razors, but this is more than made up for by all their benefits.
If you’re ready to make the switch to a safety razor, or are looking to stock up on wet shaving supplies, head on over to our store.
Nick Rosholt is a Los Angeles-based writer, specializing in podcasts and online content. He spends his free time pursuing screenwriting and perfecting his guacamole recipe. Follow him on Instagram @allegedly_nick.
The Wet Shaving Club is not affiliated with Harry’s or Dollar Shave Club. The prices detailed above in our price comparison vs Harry’s and The Dollar Shave Club are based on pricing as of 10/1/20 and are subject to change. Wet Shaving Club makes no guarantees as to the current accuracy of these prices. They are also based on information obtained from their respective websites. We do not check back regularly to see if their plans or offerings have changed. Please research their prices yourself.