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Shaving Soaps Vs. Creams-West Coast Shaving

Shaving Soaps Vs. Creams

This post will deepen your knowledge of shaving cream and soap ingredients.


When it comes to shaving creams and shaving soaps, the most obvious difference is the consistency: one is a soft and one is hard. One has a creamy consistency, and one is most often produced in a triple-milled fashion. Below are some of the main ingredients found in both shaving creams and soaps.


Below are some ingredients that are absolutely crucial to making the soap base (or are a byproduct of the base formation) and are involved in the saponification process that, when used with water and shave brush, will result in a thick, slick lather.

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.

Stearic Acid: Crucial for the saponification - or soapmaking- process. This saturated fatty acid is an organic (carbon-containing)  triglyceride that combines with another ingredient to form the soap 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.

Sodium/Potassium Hydroxide: These inorganic molecules are the other very crucial ingredient for forming the soap 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 may break down.

Glycerin: Glycerin is an incredible addition to soap. 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.

Only Soaps:

Below are some ingredients that, due to their chemical and/or physical properties, are typically only found in shaving soaps or croaps.

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.

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.

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.

Only Creams:

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).

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 antifungal and antibacterial effects, but can cause some mild contact dermatitis in those who are already susceptible to this or have sensitive skin.

No matter which you choose, whipping up a thick, rich, lather to lubricate and protect your skin is what your wet shave is all about. Shave on!

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Paul King - August 31, 2020

Some soaps that I have tried are rich and “creamy” and the lather stays creamy on my face during the shave
i.e. Mitchell’s Wool Fat. or Moon Soaps Union. In others like Taylor of Bond Street and a locally made soap that I tried the lather dissipates and I find myself repeatedly apply the soap to my face during the shave. These soaps are “thin” and are more bubbles than creamy and dense. Of course I prefer the creamy long lasting lather. When trying new soaps how do I avoid those weak and thin soaps? What ingredients other than tallow produce the creamy lathers that I prefer?

Eric Geller - May 18, 2020

Excellent short summary of both shaving creams and soaps. I learned valuable information. Thanks,

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