Last updated on September 13th, 2018 by Garrick Dee
Perhaps one of the most hotly debated topics in the world of shaving – whether to use a safety or a double edged razor or your trusty Gillette cartridge.
For years now big brands like Gillette have dominated the shaving market with clever marketing. This has resulted in a multi-billion dollar industry that continues to grow every year.
Another product making a comeback is the safety razor thanks to Vloggers like GeoFatBoy and Nick Shaves who educate their viewers on the right wet shaving techniques.
Despite the resurgent popularity a lot of people still don’t know about this product and its benefits.
And we’ll talk about all these in this guide.
Now I’m not trying to dissuade you from buying a cartridge razor because I use them on my beard-less mug. However years of using them made me realize their deficiencies that I’ll discuss in detail below.
Photo courtesy of Shawn Burns of tools for men.
I’ll keep this as subjective as possible and focus on the numbers and science between these two products to give you as much factual information as possible to help you make the best choice for you needs.
To help guide you in this review, I’ve created this table of contents section…
- Breaking down the basics of a cartridge and safety razor (plus a little history lesson)
- Shave quality – are five blades better than one?
- Which is easier To clean?
- Operating costs
- The bottom line
To help educate you about the differences of these two, let’s first look at product design.
Cartridge razor is a shaver that uses two or more blades (up to six!). These products use cartridges that house the blades. Once dull or clogged, you throw it away.
Most brands have a reusable handle where you slot in a fresh cartridge.
These products have been in the market for decades and the default choice of any man (or woman) when they hit puberty.
Now let’s look the safety razor, also called a double edged razor (or DE in wet shaving circles). These shaving tools have actually been in a market for a longer time.
In fact before Gillette shifted their focus on cartridges, they were actually the first to introduce it to the market when King Camp Gillette patented the world’s first doubled edged razor in 1901 to meet the demand of men looking for a safer option than a cut throat razor.
And despite the odds he and his business partner W.E. Nickerson were able to create the machinery needed to mass produce the first disposable blade.
This invention made Gillette a millionaire in just a few years after.
Gillette was able to thrive as an independent company for over a century before Procter and Gamble purchased it in 2005.
A safety razor made from various types of metal (stainless steel, brass, etc.) that houses a single double edged blade. The innovative design makes it easy to replace the blade once it dulls.
Watch any Gillette commercial and you’ll notice one thing –they that 5 blades are actually better than one.
Most of these adverts say the same thing.
First blade pulls the hair for the second blade to cut and so on. By the time the fifth blade comes, your face will be as smooth as a baby’s skin.
Here’s a microscope shot of a Gillette 5 blade razor shaving facial hair.
But scientific research has proven otherwise. Based on a study done by Donald Reim and Martin Reiger that they call the “Observations on the Cutting of Beard Hair” there is actually no hair pulling or bending when you slice facial hair with a sharp razor.
This study alone demystifies the claims of these large razor manufacturers that more blades are better.
More blades = more irritation
The more blades exposed to your skin, the more irritation you will get. Look at it this way, a single pass from a 5-blade cartridge is the same has 5 passes from a single blade safety razor.
Let me ask you a question, did you ever get a close baby butt smooth shave with a single pass on a cartridge? 9 times out of 10, I bet your answer would be a big no.
Quality of blades
One more thing that separates safety razors from cartridges is quality of steel. I don’t hear manufacturers telling consumers the type of steel used in their products.
Even if these products use some sort of coating to protect blades from corrosion and make it smoother, more often than not disposable cartridges use inferior quality steel.
The reason is simple – using cheaper steel make it cheaper to mass produce and keep prices down. Double edged blades on the other hand use surgical quality stainless or carbon steel that resist corrosion better.
These blades are also sharper and have sharper edges that resist dulling longer. The beauty of a safety razor is you can pick and choose a blade that will suite your skin type the best in terms of sharpness and smoothness.
Cartridge razors allow you to shave at different angles because of the play on the shaving head. This play allows some leeway in terms of not having to have a fixed angle when shaving.
It’s also this feature that makes a cartridge razor almost idiot proof.
A safety razor on the other hand has a fixed shaving head. This forces you to hold it at a fixed angle which is around 30 degrees.
Granted that lack of a learning curve is what makes a cartridge razorso popular when you compare it to a DE razor that forces you to lock your wrists to maintain that 30 degree angle.
In a way mastering that skill would be a step closer in giving you a world class shave without having to pay a lot of money for it in a barbershop.
One of the big advantages of a safety razor is how easy it is to clean the blade.
Since you’re only dealing with a single blade, cleaning is as simple as disassembling the razor, removing the blade and disinfecting it with alcohol then storing it.
Cleaning a cartridge razor head is almost impossible. The gap between blades is so narrow that cleaning it will take too much time.
What most men would do is tap the head over a hard surface like a sink to remove any loose gunk but that isn’t enough.
However doing this isn’t advisable according to Dr Kristina Vanoosthuyze who works for the Gillette Shaving Technology department.
Doing so can misalign the blades that have been aligned at a specific angle for the best shave possible.
See what I mean?
You will never totally clean a disposable no matter how hard you try.
And what happens when you introduce a dirty razor on your skin with pores wide open?
You can get irritation and possibly infection if you’re shaving over an open wound.
A quick search in Amazon reveals that a Gillette cartridge razor will cost between $6 and $14 depending on the variant and number of blades which is pretty cheap.
For an average Joe who doesn’t know squat about wet shaving the choice is obvious. But don’t let the low upfront cost fool you. Adding up the cost of cartridges can run into four figures over a period of 70 years.
And men are starting to take notice. Recently Razorpedia did a survey and 50% of the 186 respondents say that the biggest reason why they are switching to safety or straight razors is cost.
Now I didn’t go through all that trouble doing the math because somebody already did.
Remember that the computation does not account for the cost of shaving creams, pre-shave oil, shaving soaps, aftershaves or any of the miscellaneous items that traditional wet shavers use. We’re strictly talking about cost of replacement blades.
Topping the list would be a BIC disposable with a staggering $7,777 (or $0.30/shave) over a 70 year period followed closely by the Gillette Fusion ProGlide at $6,863 ($0.27/shave). Dorco placed third at $2,752 ($0.11/shave).
The running cost of DE blades is around a thousand dollars cheaper than a Dorco and the cost per shave goes all the way down to 0.07.
Remember these figures are fluid and there are other factors to consider. But this is a good baseline of what to expect in terms of expenses over your lifetime on a piece of metal that will keep your face stubble free.
Around 2 billion disposable razors end up in a dumpsite annually according to a report by the EPA.
DE blades can be recycled but that would depend on how your local recycling plant is set up. The biggest issue would be properly disposing these tiny sharp metal objects in a way that wouldn’t harm plant workers.
This is one of the cheapest and most creative ways I found online where you can dispose of your used blades.
If reducing your carbon footprint is a concern for you then the choice is obvious. Even though companies like BIC have developed a program that allows their customers to send back used razors to recycle. These products tend to be more expensive.
Based on research, cost and overall shave quality that it brings to the table, a safety razor wins hands down.
Don’t believe the marketing hype that having more blades will give you a better shave because it simply does not. The narrow gap between the blades of these cartridges clog up these razors quickly even after just a few uses.
Then there’s the cost, the cost of cartridge refills can add up rather quickly. And based on the infographic I shared, you can literally save thousands of dollars by switching to a safety razor.
The downside of a safety razor would be the learning curve involved. Another would be the time it takes to do a proper 2 or 3 pass shave – at least 10 minutes! But getting a world-class shave does take time!
If you’ve decided to go to the safety razor route here are some recommendations…
- Merkur 34HD – my review / amazon reviews
- Edwin Jagger DE89 – my review / amazon reviews
- Feather AS-D2 – my review / amazon reviews
- Merkur 37C Slant (for advanced shavers only!) – my review / amazon reviews
Should you decide to go to the cartridge route, a few recommendations would be the Schick Xtreme 3, Bic Twin Select or the Schick Quattro. If you’re a Gillette fan you definitely have to go with the Mach 3 Turbo.
The only reason I could think about where I would recommend a cartridge would be convenience and ease of use. These products are the widely available in just about every pharmacy or supermarket you go to.
Out of the box, these products are almost idiot proof because of the pivoting head. You don’t need to worry about proper angle or grip which perhaps is its biggest advantage.
Also these tools are probably the best option for you if you want to shave your privates, legs or even your head because shaving with a DE razor is all about angles and using the wrong technique could result in a bloody error.
But for the best results and the best bang for your buck, safety razors are the way to go. You’ll have to invest time learning the proper technique.
Lastly, if you want to know more about different types of razors, check out this article from ties.com to know more.
Garrick spends his days researching and writing about grooming. When he’s not in front of his computer, you can find him hanging around with his wife and son.