The shaving brush is an integral part of traditional shaving, right up there with the razor itself. It’s arguably of equal importance to the razor if not, controversially, more so. It plays a fundamental role in the pre-shave process and is absolutely essential for a comfortable, clean and close shave. As such, it’s very important to choose a quality brush, use it correctly and look after it well.
This article will explain the benefits of using a shaving brush, describe the different types available, and give advice on how to store and maintain your brush. Also, take a look at our article Razor or Brush – what’s more important?.
Why Use a Shaving Brush?
The shaving brush is an integral part of traditional shaving, right up there with the razor itself.
As we’ve talked about in our Guide to Traditional Shaving, the pre-shave process is key to a successful wet shave and, as with many things in life, the value of good preparation should never be underestimated.
When used with a proper shaving cream or soap, a shaving brush will create a rich, thick lather that will soften the hair and lubricate the skin. Worked the brush in a circular motion, the bristles provide gentle exfoliation. This helps to remove dead skin cells and dirt that can hinder the blade and thus cause irritation. The brush also lifts the hairs, allowing the lather to cover them completely and making them easier for the blade to cut.
The use of a brush is far more effective than applying a gel or foam by hand, which flattens the hairs, and does little or nothing to exfoliate the skin. With the beard matted down, the razor essentially tugs at the flat hairs rather than slicing through them, and the lather is less able to reach the surface of the skin. This severely diminishes its lubricating properties, results in a poor shaving experience and often causes severe skin irritation.
Types of Shaving Brush
By far the most popular and common shaving brushes are those made with badger hair. There are four varieties of badger brush, and we’ll talk about them below. Other sources include boar hair, horse hair and synthetic bristles, but the water absorption qualities of badger hair, combined with its natural softness, make it perfect for use in shaving brushes. It’s the ability of badger hair to retain water that gives it primacy over the alternatives. When mixed with shaving cream or soap, badger hair creates the luxurious, thick lather synonymous with a comfortable, close and enjoyable wet shave.
Synthetic bristles do not hold the same properties as badger hair, but they serve a purpose; they’re cheaper than their animal pelt counterparts, making them a good option for those on a budget or just wanting to first try out the whole shaving brush thing. They are also suitable for vegetarians, vegans, or those who simply prefer to not use animal products. Beardy Pete’s Shaving Emporium offers a synthetic bristle option, in addition to a selection of excellent quality badger hair brushes.
Made from the most readily available part of the animal’s pelt, sourced from approximately 60% of the body, pure badger are the most common and inexpensive of badger hair shaving brushes. For those just starting out and not wanting to spend too much these are ideal. Experienced traditional shavers may still opt for pure or best badger brushes, as higher grades of badger hair are much softer, making them less effective when used with solid shaving soap and offering less exfoliation.
The hairs used for these brushes are uneven in length so will be trimmed to fit during the manufacturing process, and you’ll generally find that a new brush will shed some hairs during the first few uses. The trimming of the hairs detracts from the more natural feel of higher grade brushes, but augments the exfoliation properties.
The next class up from pure is best badger. It’s an excellent compromise between entry level pure badger and the far more expensive super badger. Still readily available and sourced from a large area of the badger’s body, best badger is a softer grade of hair than pure, with better water retention properties. Coupled with the fact that the hand-selected hairs are more densely packed, this creates a thicker and richer lather.
Some manufacturers hand-place the hairs while others trim them, as with the pure badger variety. Either way, best badger is still very effective with soap blocks and offers good exfoliation.
Taken from the back of the animal, super badger hair is finer than pure and best. It is significantly softer and much less readily available. The craftsmanship that goes into super badger, and silver tip (see below), brushes is far greater, ; the hairs are hand-selected and hand-placed, with no trimming.
Dark in the mid-section and lighter at the end, the densely placed hairs retain their natural tapered tips. They deliver a smoother and much more luxurious feel than pure and best. With their superior water-retention properties and higher hair count, super brushes create an even thicker lather, but the fineness of the hairs means they must be better cared for. Also, whilst they are remarkable with a quality shaving cream, they don’t work amazingly well with shaving soap blocks.
The highest quality, and correspondingly most expensive, of the badger hair shaving brushes. Silver tip hairs are sourced from the neck of the badger. They are the rarest and softest grade of badger hair, and are so-named owing to their bright, silver tips. Able to retain yet more water than even super hairs, the richness of the lather created by silver tip brushes is unsurpassed.
The hand-selected and hand-placed hairs are often combined with hand-crafted handles, making them exquisite items to own, but perhaps not particularly practical for everyday use. Extra care must be taken to ensure longevity with silver tip brushes. As with super badger brushes, they work best with shaving creams rather than soaps.
Shaving Brush Care
Even a top-quality shaving brush won’t give the lifetime of use a decent and well-maintained razor will. But, looked after properly, it should last a good few years. At the very least, the brush should be rinsed well in warm water after every use. Shake or gently squeeze excess water from the bristles, and leave to air dry in an open space. Do not – do not – wring or pull the bristles, otherwise the handle will end up in one hand, the bristles in the other, and it’ll be time to buy a new brush.
It’s best to suspend the brush upside down, using a shaving brush stand. This aids drying and prevents water from pooling in the base of the knot, which can cause mildew to grow.
For the most part, thoroughly rinsing and air drying the brush will keep it in good condition, but occasionally it will require a deeper clean. How often this is required will depend greatly on how often the brush is used, how well it’s rinsed afterwards, and the hardness of the water. Some lower quality, mass-produced products may also contain chemicals that will have a detrimental effect on the brush hairs.
The use of a pre-shave oil, although a highly recommended part of the shaving routine, will accelerate the need for a thorough clean, as oil can be difficult to rinse off completely. It can build up over time, thus reducing the effectiveness of the brush by hindering its ability to absorb water.
There are various methods for cleaning a shaving brush, a common one being the use of Borax Substitute (a relatively inexpensive and easily available cleaning compound).
- Using a mild shampoo or soap, make a lather and gently work it into the bristles. This helps to first remove some of the excess shaving oil or soap build up. Rinse well.
- Mix some Borax Substitute with a little water to create a thick paste. Gently rub the mixture into the bristles, all the way down to the base, and leave for a few hours. Overnight is ideal.
- Rinse thoroughly with warm water and allow to air dry as normal.
Other methods suggest soaking the brush in a water/vinegar solution as an alternative to applying a Borax Substitute paste. Some recommend the use of a conditioner after regular cleaning to help soften the bristles. The use of a toothbrush is also a good idea to scrub the base of the bristles. Probably don’t use the one you use for your teeth, and always scrub upwards in the direction of the bristles.
Any of these techniques are fine; the basic principle is that, every so often, the brush will need a little more than just warm water. Remember too that after cleaning, as with after use, it needs to be thoroughly rinsed and allowed to dry naturally. In summary, treat the brush with the respect it deserves and always take care when working the bristles.