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Shaving Soap vs Shaving Cream-West Coast Shaving

Shaving Soap vs Shaving Cream

One of the most important elements of a wet shave is a good lather. A thick, dense, rich, frothy, smooth, . . . ahem, sorry, lost my train of thought. A drool worthy lather makes a huge difference in the comfort and performance of your shave. But you might be asking yourself, which is better: a shaving cream or a shaving soap? Here’s a break-down of some of the differences.

The first thing to say about this discussion is that you can create an amazing lather from both shaving creams and shaving soaps. There isn’t necessarily a categorically better product. However, their different attributes might make one more attractive to you, but both will whip up protective, lubricating froth with a shaving brush.
Old fashioned barbershop with towel, razor, and mug of shaving cream

Shaving Cream vs Shaving Soap - What’s the Difference?

Shaving Creams:

Bowl of whipped shaving cream and brush
  • Probably the biggest difference between a soap and a cream is the consistency. Shaving creams are softer. They often contain more water and are easily scooped and placed in a mug or bowl for lathering. 
  • Creams are often quick to lather. It doesn’t make much elbow grease, “blooming”, or water to get a legitimate whip going. 
  • Because of the ease of lather, creams are often the go-to for beginner shavers. When you are just getting started and all the many techniques are new, taking a few variables out of the equation can be helpful. And a nice, easy lathering cream can be a great place to start.
  • Just about any brush you can think of can produce a fabulous lather on a cream.
  • Even though you only need a dime sized amount of cream to whip up a multiple pass lather, you will still likely go through cream faster than a soap on a ounce for ounce basis.
  • Ingredients typically only found in creams:
  1. Myristic Acid: This is another organic fatty acid that is formed from saponification of coconut oil(acid). This surfactant can help to speed up the lathering process and, like water, has great emulsifying properties, so will help in creating a very stable lather with all the saponified and any botanical ingredients evenly distributed. This is not found in significant concentrations in many hard soaps or cream soaps (croaps).
  2. Methylchloroisothiazolinone: This phenolic compound is a common preservative found in many topical, liquid skin care products, so this is great for preserving the shelf life of many common shaving creams, such as Taylor of Old Bond Street. The compound also has great anti fungal and antibacterial effects, but can cause some mild contact dermatitis in those who are already susceptible to this or have sensitive skin.  

    Shaving Soaps:

    Shaving brush loaded with lathered shaving soap


    • If a cream is “creamier” in consistency, then a soap takes the other side. Shaving soaps tend to be hard. They are frequently “triple-milled” which results in an extremely hard puck. You aren’t going to be scooping out the soap with your finger. Usually it will come in a jar/bowl for lathering or you can load the brush on the soap and take it to the bowl/mug/palm/face to finish the lather. 
    • While soaps can be vegan as well, many soaps contain tallow, a traditional ingredient that promotes at light, creamy lather and provides moisturizing properties.
    • Because of the nature of triple-milled soaps, they have great longevity. One soap puck can last quite awhile. Load off the top, rinse, allow it to dry and it will provide you many great shaves. Shaving soaps are a fantastic value for your money.
    • During the soap making process and particularly with the triple milling the scent gets mixed thoroughly into the product resulting in a uniform aroma. 
    • Some hard soap users like a boar brush (or stiffer shaving brush) to bring out the lather from the harder soap. You also might want to “bloom” the soap (set warm water on the top of the puck for a few moments before you apply the shaving brush).
    • Ingredients typically found only in soap (athough there are exceptions):
    1. Tallow: This is a cattle-derived fatty acid obtained by steam melting the initially solid fats. The less dense, less soluble tallow sits atop the more dense fats and is collected. Tallow is typically mixed with coconut acid/oil, then saponified. Once water is added to the soap via the lather process, tallow will give the resulting lather incredible slickness. Because of the resulting soap after this ingredient has been saponified, tallow is used almost exclusively in soaps, though there are a very small handful of exceptions.
    2. Jojoba: Jojoba oil is obtained from the seed of the jojoba (S. chinensis) plant and is virtually unsaponifiable. This means that it will not contribute to the soap-making process and will remain virtually in its true form. Jojoba oil is very similar in function and chemical structure to sebum, which is the oil naturally found in and is produced by the sebaceous glands of the skin. Those who have very dry skin will find this ingredient especially helpful in the “post shave feel” department. Along with glycerin, this will keep the skin very supple and moisturized.
    3. Shea Butter: Taken from the African Shea Tree, many of Shea butters’ unsaponifiables are used in shaving soaps. Triterpene alcohol makes up a majority of obtained shea butter. Within this alcohol are “Cinnamate esters” which have a UV protection rate so significant it is used in many advanced and highly protective sunscreens. Along with jojoba oil, shea butter is also very helpful in retaining moisture in the skin, and helping the skin quickly return to its normally-hydrated state.

    Both Creams & Shaving Soaps:

    Shaving brush and bowl full of lathered shaving cream/soap
    • Additionally, ingredients can be added to both shaving soaps and creams to enhance certain characteristics. You will frequently find glycerin, shea butter and other butters, jojoba oil, bentonite clay, and so many other additives that promote hydration, post-face feel, stable lather and more. Many products can be added to contribute to a notable post-shave face feel and nourished skin.
    • They can be vegan-based and created with solely plant-based products. 
    • Both creams and soaps can boast fantastic, long-lasting scents.
    • Shaving creams and shaving soaps can both be whipped with a quality, shaving brush
    • Ingredients found in both soaps & creams:
    1. Water: Also known as the universal solvent! It helps to dissolve many of the ingredients used in shave cream/soap. As the “wet” in wet shaving, it is especially helpful when further added during the lathering process due to its tremendous emulsifying properties. The water content plays a vital role in determining the final consistency of the product when being produced.
    2. Stearic Acid: Crucial for the saponification - or soap making- process. This saturated fatty acid is an organic (carbon-containing) triglyceride that combines with another ingredient to form the soap/cream itself. It is also what's known as a surfactant, or a substance that reduces surface tension between itself and other liquids or solids. This will aid in the "glide" of the lather.
    3. Sodium/Potassium Hydroxide: These inorganic molecules are the other very crucial ingredient for forming the shaving soap/shaving cream base. Sodium hydroxide is used as the main base and in the highest concentration when a soap/croap (hybrid of cream & soap) consistency is desired, though is still found in lesser concentration in shaving creams. Potassium hydroxide is used as the primary saponifying agent in creams. When either hydroxide is placed in solution, it ionizes into its main constituents: Sodium/Potassium and the hydroxide group. The hydroxide group will take a hydrogen atom off of what’s known as the “carboxyl” end of the stearic acid, as well as (in the right concentration) those of any other organic acids/oils/butters that are present. From here, the saponification process has occurred, and you now form a carboxylate functional group. This is where you get your potassium - or sodium- stearate/cocoate/butterate, etc. All these “ate”s are basic (as opposed to acidic) and will be quite slippery (a property of most bases). **Note: by nature, bases attract and can “steal” hydrogen ions, oftentimes from other water molecules. This is why some may find their skin a bit tight after the shave, since the base can interchangeably make the skin more basic than in its non-soaped state.** The concentration and proportion of these ingredients is important in keeping the stability of the soap’s pH. Too low or too high, and the soap/cream may break down.
    4. Glycerin: Glycerin is an incredible addition to soap/cream. It can be added, but it is produced during the actual saponification process itself. Glycerin has effective humectant properties, meaning it retains water very well. This, in turn, greatly aids with the water retention and stability of the resulting lather. Glycerin is also readily absorbed into the epidermal layer of skin and, with its humectant properties, gently draws and traps water into the epidermis, keeping it hydrated. Glycerin can also aid somewhat in the slickness of the soap/cream.

    Whether a novice or experienced wet shaver, either a shaving cream or shaving soap can provide the lubricating froth you’re looking for to get that perfectly smooth face.

    So, what are you lathering up? Are you a shaving soap aficionado? Do you prefer shaving creams? Tell us why in the comments below.
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    Kumar - June 19, 2023

    Thank you for such a detailed explanation. Exactly what i was looking for, to understand the science behind the two products. Very often we start using products solely based on advertising promises but a few brands go out of the way to empower the user. Thanks for this!!

    Steven - May 18, 2020

    I also am of African decent and I would suggest the following:
    1) Get a powered facial brush or at least a toothbrush. Use with a good facial cleanser or soap ( NOT a deodorant soap but something like Dove, Purpose,…I like Pears, I get from the Dollar Store for $1)
    2) Shave after a hot shower in which you use the above, or at least shave after washing face using lots of warm water
    3) Get a shaving a shaving brush. I suggest a boar bush for the stiffness to lift a curlier beard. Badger brush would do also if the knot is very dense (24 or more mm)
    4) Use a high quality cream/soap. If you haven’t used a brush before I suggest starting with a cream. Remember anything in an aerosol can is NOT a cream.
    5) Use a single blade safety razor or Bump Fighter razor. Change blade frequently, not more than 3 shaves per blade. Take your time shaving. Light, short strokes. Shave with the grain and across the grain, never against the grain.
    6) Finish up by thoroughly rinsing your face with warm then cold water, gently rub an alum block on the skin and use a non-alcohol based after shave balm.

    Andrew - April 1, 2020

    I am of African descent and I’ve tried many shaving products but end up stopping due to bumps. I am interested in your products, what are your recommendations for a good shave that will also prevent bumps, thank you

    Paul A Schneider - February 29, 2020

    Having tried many soaps and creams, I find it hard to beat a good cream.
    I stick with Poraso (pre and shave) and Fine with the DE everyday; and for travel I use a small tube of Spiek preceded by small pill box of poraso, with a small omega brush where I use a Trac2

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