"The venerable safety razor ... is having a renaissance," The New York Times' Style page declared in late 2014. Some men like the nostalgia. Some are looking for a closer shave, with less skin irritation. Some just want to save money.
Of course, you could spend $185 on a luxury safety razor plated in rhodium. But that won't be necessary. Reviewers' favorite safety razor, the Merkur 34C (Est. $30), costs under $35 -- less than a good quality plastic drugstore razor and a pack of cartridges.
"The 34Cs are enormously popular for a reason," says Sharpologist.com shaving expert Mark Herro, who recommends the Merkur 34C as one of his top picks. It's nothing fancy -- just the type of chrome-plated safety razor your dad or granddad probably shaved with -- but it delivers "an easy, super-smooth shave," says Alan Henry at Lifehacker.com.
In an online vote, Lifehacker.com readers name the Merkur 34C as their favorite safety razor. "Extremely well made and durable, easy to use and swap razors safely in, and in many ways, the last razor you'll ever buy," Henry says. "Once you start swapping out blades in one of these, the body will last forever, and you'll get an even, consistent, close, smooth shave with little effort or pressure."
Enthusiastic users at Amazon.com award the Merkur 34C terrific ratings. Several say that if you've never shaved with a safety razor, there's a learning curve: You'll need to use careful, short, light strokes, and some say they need to shave twice to get baby-bottom smooth. Still, very few say they'll ever go back to multi-blade razors.
So, if safety razors are so great, why did most men switch to cartridge razors in the first place? For some, a multi-blade cartridge just seems to shave closer. And then there's the "safety" issue: Yes, safety razors are safer than the cutthroat straight razors they replaced a century ago. But today, you're a lot less likely to slice your fingers (or face) if your razor blades are safely encased in a plastic cartridge. On a hurried morning, you simply can't whip around your face with a safety razor the way you can with a modern cartridge razor. That's one reason why the Gillette Fusion ProGlide FlexBall (Est. $12) is so popular.
"Even we will admit -- grudgingly -- that modern cartridge razors have their place," Herro writes. "Cartridges are convenient. They're widely available. The blade pivot can provide a quicker, more consistent shave in some cases ... And sitting on the cartridge throne is the Gillette Fusion ProGlide." The ProGlide "does provide very good shaves," he adds, with blades that will easily last through two weeks of daily shaving.
In 2014, Gillette added a swiveling ball-hinge to the ProGlide's handle. NYMag.com's Kevin Roose scorns the FlexBall as "a dumb novelty that is meant to trick customers into believing that their old, swivel-free razors are outmoded, and that they should pony up for the new model." But many, many users beg to differ. It's an overwhelming favorite at Amazon.com, Target.com and Lifehacker.com.
The Fusion ProGlide FlexBall "gave me the best shave I've had at home with less irritation. Hands down," says David Alexander, men's hair expert at About.com. Alexander actually tested the vibrating battery-powered version, the Gillette Fusion ProGlide Power FlexBall (Est. $14), and recommends it: "Opt for the power -- it does make a difference" (although he doesn't say how).
Besides the FlexBall (intended to help the razor follow the curves of your face) and optional power, Gillette loads up the Fusion ProGlide with goodies: five blades, a low-resistance coating, lubricating strip and a single blade on the back for trimming under the nose and sideburns. The Gillette Fusion ProShield FlexBall variant (Est. $8) adds an extra lubricating strip. However, some owners at Amazon.com say that makes the razor head too bulky (so it's hard to maneuver in tight areas) and the blades don't last as long as the regular ProGlide's. The ProShield's refill cartridges (Est. $40 for eight) cost more than the ProGlide's refill cartridges (Est. $30 for eight), too.
If you balk at the price of Gillette's Fusion cartridges -- $4 to $5 each -- you've got some alternatives. Schick's answer to the Fusion, the Schick Hydro 5 (Est. $9), uses cartridges that cost $2 to $3 each. Herro says that the Hydro 5 doesn't shave quite as well as the Fusion, but Schick's cartridges last a bit longer (two to three weeks).
To save even more, reviewers like Dollar Shave Club (Est. $3 to $9 per month) or -- cheaper yet -- Dorco (the company that supplies Dollar Shave Club's razors). Both ship razors directly to your door. Dollar Shave Club sends them once a month, via a set-it-and-forget-it subscription, so you never run out of razors. With Dorco, you simply reorder whenever you want.
Their twin-blade cartridges are the cheapest, but the six-blade Dorco Pace 6+ (Est. $21 for handle plus 10 cartridges) is by far the most popular. It's the best-selling men's shaving razor at Amazon.com, earning an average of 4.5 stars from more than 3,600 customers. It looks an awful lot like a Gillette Fusion: There's the familiar lubricating strip, tilting head and single-blade trimmer on the back -- and, of course, that additional sixth blade on the front.
So, how's the shave? Pretty darn good, testers say. In head-to-head razor tests at ConsumerReports.org and Observer.com, the Gillette Fusion wins by a hair -- but the six-blade Dorco runs a close second.
"On price and service, [Dollar Shave Club] clearly wins," Observer.com's Brady Dale concludes. The Gillette Fusion shaves just a smidge closer, "but that still doesn't justify their crazy prices."
At Sharpologist.com, "our testers found the Dorco shaves to be very comfortable but just adequately close," Herro says. "A cartridge typically lasted 7-8 shaves but then degraded quickly." Some Amazon users agree, but others find the $2 Dorco cartridges shave closer and last longer than Gillette's $4 cartridges.
NYMag.com's Roose is sold. "Just do what I do -- buy cheapo razors from an Internet wholesaler," he advises readers, with a link to the Dorco website. "They're as good as Gillette's razors, for a fraction of the price."
If you've ever shredded your face with a cheap disposable razor, you may be wondering: Does a decent disposable razor exist?
In TheSweethome.com's huge razor test, "more testers reported tugging, early dulling, and cuts with the cheapest throwaway razors" than with replaceable-blade razors. "Surprisingly, though, one specific and authoritative group of testers -- professional barbers -- liked disposables."
In fact, nearly half of the 30 barbers TheSweethome.com surveyed use cheapest-of-the-cheap single-blade disposable razors when they shave at home -- mostly the Bic Sensitive Shaver (Est. $3 for 12). Why? Because it's more like the single-blade razors barbers use on the job. There's no pivoting head or bulky multi-blade cartridge to get in the way or mess up their stroke.
Here's the rub, though: You've got to shave slowly, carefully and with a light touch to avoid the dreaded disposable hack job, just as you would with an old-school safety razor. "Barbers confirmed that their morning shearing took about eight to ten minutes," TheSweethome.com says.
Most users prefer a disposable that behaves more like a refillable razor. The Gillette Mach3 Sensitive Disposable (Est. $7 for 3) is the favorite at Amazon.com and Target.com. Its contoured handle, pivoting head, three spring-mounted blades and lubricating strip allow users to shave quickly without cutting themselves. Several say they can get a couple of weeks' worth of shaves out of one razor -- not bad, especially for a disposable.