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Let’s Cut to the Chase

Here’s everything you need to know before you shave for the first time.

Shaving collage
Photo illustration by Slate.

Read more from Slate’s puberty series. Bonnie J. Rough tells you how to maintain a close and loving relationship with your teen. Rachelle Hampton assesses the current crop of girl puberty books. Christina Cauterucci praises advancements in period technology for giving girls control over their bodily care. Rebecca Onion explains why bra options are so much better for girls today. In case you missed it: Check out Slate’s book list for middle schoolers.

As a teenager, my lack of upper-lip hair was a source of some embarrassment. I was a late bloomer, and while I could hide my bare armpits in the locker room by walking around like a member of the Queen’s Guard, my face was always on display. A fuzzy haček below the nose is impossible to counterfeit, and its presence on some of my classmates intimated a whole world of adult responsibility. Those who could sprout peach fuzz were trusted to keep it in check, and they were given, of all things, a blade in order to do it. How amazing is that?

Puberty can start early (9 years old, sometimes even younger) or it can start late (16 and up), and facial hair may pop up at any time in that window. My first wisps of a “mustache” didn’t sprout until around age 16, though I needed an electron microscope to see them. Even at age 33 they can remain elusive to the naked eye, and I only have to shave every other day or so. While I am sometimes envious of my lumberjack-ian friends’ beards, I am no longer embarrassed by my zero o’clock shadow. Shaving is a fine rite of passage the first time, but, after that, it can become a routine chore, eating up your morning and chewing up your skin.

Walt Whitman hated shaving, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen a picture of Walt Whitman. In an early version of “Song of Myself,” he wrote, “Washes and razors for foofoos … for me freckles and a bristling beard.” I only mention this because, in the spirit of Whitman, I must now contradict myself: I’ve recently come to find that shaving isn’t that bad. Sure, I’d prefer to not have to shave at all, but I’ve steadily grown to appreciate it, at least as a chore. Call me a “foofoo” if you want; I can take it.

So, how does one learn to appreciate the act of shaving? My journey began with an electric razor, which has always been the easiest method for me. It’s what I used for most of my life, even before I needed to shave. Usually, young people start shaving after hair becomes visible enough for others to drop hints about it, but I was given an electric razor as a rather confusing Christmas gift when I was 15. I didn’t need it, but someone apparently thought it was time to start (Santa, you hypocrite).

I liked my electric razor when I first started shaving because it’s difficult to cut yourself with one, even if you don’t have anything to shave and instead nervously jab the device around your face as I did. Because you don’t have to apply foams or lathers before use, it’s also the quickest way to go. The biggest downside is that you don’t get as close a shave as you do with a standard manual razor and certain areas, like the neck, are frustratingly resistant to the electric razor’s charms.

I got turned onto manual razors only recently, when I was forced to use one on a trip without my electric device. I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only did I avoid severing any arteries while shaving, I also rather enjoyed it. Specifically, I adore the sound the blades make when raking across my small collection of facial hairs. How I wish this sensory treat was available without the shaving, but, alas, it’s worth it. Now I switch back and forth between a disposable razor and my electric one—I’m a glutton!

My post-pubescent shaving renaissance was marked by three epiphanies, though I will list them here as “tips” lest I come off as a self-mythologizing zealot in regards to this mundane grooming habit:

1. Let the razor do the work. I didn’t invent this advice. The phrase is present in nearly every shaving guide out there. But really, there’s no need to apply any real pressure with the handle. Let gravity take over and you’ll be A-OK.

2. As you’re holding a manual razor by its handle, never move it side to side or you’ll slice open your face. This seems obvious, but no one ever explicitly told me this was a no-no. To avoid cuts, only maneuver the blade in a straight motion like you are grating cheese. (Not an ideal image, perhaps, but you get the idea.)

3. You don’t need a million blades. Those who have Brillo Pad cheeks may disagree, but I’ve found that a razor with two blades works perfectly fine (so long as those blades are sharp).

I would be remiss if I didn’t address the hirsute elephant in the room: Are you supposed to shave with or against the grain? This was discussed at length in Whit Stillman’s 1994 film Barcelona, and it remains a point of contention. According to the American Academy of Dermatology’s guide, you should shave with the grain “to help prevent razor bumps and burns.” This isn’t always an option, however, as the contours of your face may require some salmon-like maneuvers against the flow. That’s fine. With some patience and a little trial and error, you’ll find your way.

Speaking of trial and error, those with thicker or coarser follicles might encounter more frequent ingrown hairs and other irritations. Prep is key in avoiding these maladies. Wash your face with warm water before getting to work. This will open up your pores which should make your skin more forgiving. Exfoliating scrubs and shave lubricants can also help, and it’s all about figuring out what works best for your own hair and skin type.

What works best for me, it turns out, is a little bit of everything. Here are some blades, creams, and other items that have helped me and may help you find some pleasure in the chore of removing hair from your face.

Electric razor

I’ve found that the amount of facial hair one has is inversely proportional to the amount of money spent on an electric razor. As such, I used an expensive Norelco for years until I lost it and switched to this less expensive Remington. Much to my surprise, even though it’s clunky and not so good for traveling, it shaves as good or better than the pricey device it replaced.

Remington electric razor
Remington

Remington electric razor

This razor is excellent for first-time shavers.

Manual razor

These simple dual-blade razors work great for me. They should be plenty effective for you, too, assuming you also have the face of a naked mole rat. I recommend buying them in a smaller quantity than the 52-pack, at least until you figure out whether they’re a good fit for your needs.

Box of Gillette 52-pack
Gillette

Gillette custom plus disposable razors

These disposable razors get the job done.

Shaving cream

I like classic Barbasol because the can makes me feel like I’m smuggling dino DNA out of Jurassic Park with Wayne Knight. (If you have to do something every day, you might as well try to have a good time with it.) For those with sensitive skin, a specially formulated foam or gel might work better.

Barbasol
Barbasol

Barbasol shaving cream

This shaving cream works well and smells great.

Alum block

Next time you nick yourself while shaving, harness the awesome power of chemistry. A potassium alum bar will clean out the cut and help stop the bleeding, which is pretty much all we can ask for from the periodic table.

alum block
BarberUpp

BarberUpp alum block

Have this on hand in case of nicks and cuts.

Sink plunger

It’ll come in handy, sadly. On the bright side, this one sounds like a crinkly fart. Shaving really is for the adults among us.

drain and sink plunger
Liquid-Plumr

Liquid-Plumr sink and drain plunger

Those teeny hairs have a way of clogging sinks. This will help.