Types of Shaving Soap: Hard, Soft, and Cream

Last time, we looked at the most important criteria for a great shaving soap. Of course, there’s more than one way to shave a cat! (It’s more politically correct than skinning them, OK?)

Today, we’re going to examine a few different types of shaving soap out there, and take a look at the differences between the ingredients and processes used.

Hard Soaps

Types of shaving soap: Colgate shaving ad 1930s
1930s advertisement for Colgate shaving soap

The standard shaving soap of today hasn’t changed a whole lot since before World War I. Well, it’s not sold by talking ducks on behalf of a toothpaste company, but you can’t have it all.

It’s a hard puck of soap, sometimes sold in a tin, tub or mug. Traditionally, it would be made using tallow (rendered beef/mutton fat). Hard soaps typically use mostly sodium hydroxide (lye), but most also use a proportion of potassium hydroxide (potash). (We’ll cover the different characteristics and uses of these two types of caustic compounds in another post)

Soft (Italian- or French-Style) Soaps

Italian-style or French-style shaving soap, or simply soft soap, is (surprisingly) softer than the run-of-the-mill hard soap. These soaps have a putty-like consistency, typically due to a different alkali ratio. Other than being a little easier to load on to your shaving brush or transfer to another bowl, there’s not many important differences here.

Shaving Creams

No, not the pressurized stuff out of the can. (Come on.)

Shaving cream has not had its ship entirely sunk by those mediocre mass produced products. Rejoice, fellow cream men!

Shaving cream lives on in its more traditional form, which still requires lathering up with a brush. It lasts for an incredibly long time, produces a beautifully rich lather, and provides a wonderful shave, just like shaving soap.

The lather can deflate a little faster than that of a shaving soap, though. Still, cream is just as good as soap.

As for making it, cream soaps are notoriously fickle. We’ll focus on hard soaps first, but a cursory look at shaving cream recipes in the future isn’t impossible. We’ll need to know all the same information, and the chances of an unusable failure is lessened with regular soap.

Shaving Gel

Just… just don’t. These products usually contain substances you’d never need or want to put in your soap, like isobutane, isopentane, triethanolamine (TEA), and so on.

Even if you’re not the type to take a second look at ingredient lists or fret about what may or may not be toxic or dangerous, there’s really no need to use this disappointing goop. It just doesn’t work very well most of the time, and if there is one that does, I’ve never heard a convincing reason to use it over soap or cream.

Keep in mind that these aren’t hard and fast categories – there are softer ‘hard soaps’ and harder ‘soft soaps’. There isn’t really a strict, objective way to decide where a soap that lands in the middle should belong. That being said, there are similar ingredients and techniques used in shaving soaps (such as triple milling) that can reliably influence hardness.

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Thanks for reading! I’m having a great time writing and researching these posts, watching the blog begin to accumulate followers, and interacting with new people. Even though we’re only covering basics so far, I’m already learning a lot, and I hope you are too!

Which is your favorite – hard soap, soft soap, or shaving cream?

Catch you next time!

Lewis

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11 thoughts on “Types of Shaving Soap: Hard, Soft, and Cream”

  1. We make shave soap using a blend of coconut, palm and olive oil, with an aloe butter to stabilize the whipped shave foam. And we use bentonite clay for that easy glide slip on the skin. Bentonite clay also has a unique quality – as it comes in contact with water an electric charge occurs, allowing the hair to stand on end for closer shave. The clay also detoxes pores leaving skin soft, clean, and the closes shave.

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    1. Sounds great, Barbara! I had no idea about the electrical charge produced by bentonite clay – very interesting. A dedicated clay post is definitely on my to-do list here, as it’s widely used among soapers, but many wet shavers worry that it dulls the blade faster. I’m looking forward to figuring out how true that is, because I’ve experienced all the benefits of clay you mentioned first-hand.

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        1. Just a fan, for now – my aim with this blog is to share my research process, help out other people looking for information on making shave soap, and thereby hold myself accountable for making sure my research is thorough. But the ultimate point of doing this research is to begin making soap. My hope is that this blog will serve as a way for myself and others to cut down on the trial and error approach in the beginning and get us to a decent soap quicker & cheaper.

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  2. I have played with home brewing a few batches of soap so far. I have used combinations of coconut, palm, tallow, castor, and lanolin and gotten some nice results. One of the factors I am trying to figure out is the ratio of KOH to NaOH. This directly affects the softness of the soap. I haven’t achieved a true cream yet but I have to work through a lot of soap before I experiment again.

    Another great article, keep em coming

    Matt

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    1. Awesome, Matt! All highly regarded ingredients – you’ve clearly done your research! I’m definitely planning a post on the KOH/NaOH ratio soon. But, as far as true cream soaps go (rather than just soft soaps), it seems like there are additional factors that determine if it comes out well or not. I haven’t messed with them too much yet.

      Check out Kevin Devine’s video on NaOH/KOH ratios if you haven’t seen it:

      It’s a great demonstration of the effect of different ratios. He also shows different proportions of stearic acid.

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  3. There must be certainly also good shaving gels out there right? I mean I wouldn’t advise them either, but also not say not to use them.

    Personally I prefer shaving creams over shaving soaps, they offer some benefits that a average shaving soap doesn’t and one of the biggest benefits is that they are often easier to lather up.

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    1. I’d have to agree that there could be good gels out there somewhere, but I’ve never seen any that offer benefits beyond a traditional soap or cream. Many of the canned products I have seen use propellants, alcohol, and even numbing agents, none of which are necessary in soap. For many artisans, there would be no point figuring out how to make a good gel when you can already make a great soap.

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  4. Hi Lewis, thanks for your blogging.
    Isn’t there more than just a simple classification of hard, soft and cream? What about Italian style versus French style shaving soap?
    What defines a shaving cream as a cream? After all, a cream can be put into a tub/jar as much as a tube? (Indeed many artisan shaving creams are in jars.)
    Even a hard soap isn’t competely hard unless it’s been fully cured or triple milled. Some “hard” soaps can’t be depressed with a finger, yet others can. So where is the boundaries between hard and soft, soft and cream? I’d certainly like to know as many artisan soap makers like to use these terms to market their products (but may not match the reality).
    Thanks.

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    1. Thanks for reading, filobiblic! You are correct that there are more types of shaving soap than I mentioned here. For this post, I wanted to lay a solid foundation for everyone rather than go super deep on the detail, just to make sure everyone is on the same page.

      You’re also right that the hard/soft soap can get a little blurry. Hardness is a result of different ingredients, techniques (like milling, which you mentioned), and cure time. I think that calling a soap ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ can be tricky, because these things exist on a spectrum rather than discrete categories.

      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment!

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