The best shave I've ever had was from a barber in Japan, who wielded his single blade like a ninja, removing every hair like it was his mortal enemy. I wouldn't have to shave for three days. But why shave at all? A reasonable question. I am pursuing the clean shaven path because I find it more comfortable (same goes for underwear). For this post, I will be focussing on shaving the face, because that is part I know.
For a long time, I used an electric shaver for convenience. Recently, just for a change of face, I decided to switch to a razor. When I went to the store to get one, I was overwhelmed by the choice, which included some with up to five blades. Ironically, Occam’s Razor, a philosophical rule of thumb, suggests, “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” I wondered how many blades I needed to be the best I could be.
Hysteresis or Hysteria
Back when I began my shaving career, twin blades were the cutting edge technology. The explanation was that the first blade pulled each hair out slightly so the second blade could cut it further down, below the skin’s surface, for a smoother shave. This effect, perhaps unnecessarily called hysteresis, has also been invoked to promote the value of additional blades. Test shavers supposedly support the results, but I am not convinced that is really what is happening. It seems to me that the timing of this effect would be too tricky to be reliable. Given the complexities of surface to be shaved, maybe the extra blades just increase the chance of cutting off what you want.
Cutting Edge Solutions
Even if five blades is not any better, they had to at make it not significantly worse, which required many design modifications, which would have applied not only to the five blade scenario but presumably the earlier increases as well.
FIrst was figuring out the Goldilocks gap for the blades. Too close and two blades could cut into a hair at once, which might hurt. Plus, they would clog up more easily. Too far apart, and you wouldn’t get the desired hysteresis, although to my mind, that might not matter.
More blades add weight and size. So they made thinner blades with diamond-like stronger steel.
More blades could mean more friction, resulting in more irritation. So they coated the blades with a Teflon-like coating so they would glide more smoothly.
More blades could increase the chance of getting nicks. So they have added a flat part at the bottom of the cartridge to smooth out the skin before the blades get there.
More blades makes it harder to cut a straight line. So some of them added a separate edging blade.
The offer of more anything often seems irresistible to those inclined toward a maximizer decision making style rather than a satisficer. These companies may say they are improving your shave, but of course, they are really trying to improve their bottom line. "Razor-and-blades" is even a business model. Getting the closest shave may not even be desirable if your facial hair tends to curl, because it can make you more prone to ingrown hairs, which can be painful.
At the moment, I am using a three-blade model because more blades still seems ridiculous to me, and fewer blades are difficult to find. For every day, I might go back to an electric razor because this does take more time. And the sustainability of these choices is another complicated question. What seems to be more important than the number of blades is technique. For example, moistening your beard with warm water can significantly reduce the force required to cut the hairs.
Please share your cutting remarks in the comments.