The Case for Cold Water Shaving

by Brett on March 24, 2010 · 138 comments

in Dress & Grooming, Shaving

When I watched the HBO series Band of Brothers, I was struck by how the soldiers, ill-supplied, freezing, and wearily dug into the snowy trenches of Bastogne, still made time to shave. The clean shaven face was and is military policy. Even today, US soldiers, although they must do without hot water and baths for months at a time, still try to get in a daily shave. It might seem like a strange policy to civilians, but requiring the men to be well-groomed is believed to be important in preserving the men’s sense of discipline and the esprit de corps.

Shaving with cold water seems like a hardship, a practice that must be endured in Spartan living conditions. After all, it’s wet shaving doctrine that a man must always shave with hot water. It not only feels nice, it softens the beard and supposedly gives you a more comfortable shave.

But what if that advice is wrong? What if it’s actually better to shave with cold water, even when you’re not fighting the Battle of the Bulge?

Well, according to a bunch of authors in the 19th century, cold water shaving is indeed superior to shaving with hot water.

Published in 1833, The Young Man’s Guide offered advice for men coming of age on various facets of life. The author devoted one section to personal grooming. Along with the typical advice you’d expect to hear (bathe daily, change your clothes) the author suggests that men give up shaving with hot water and mirrors in order to save time. Here’s what he says:

Sir John Sinclair asked a friend whether he meant to have a son of his (then a little boy) taught Latin? ‘No,’ said he, ‘but I mean to do something a great deal better for him.’ ‘What is that?’ said Sir John. ‘Why,’ said the other, ‘I mean to teach him to shave with cold water, and without a glass.’

My readers may smile, but I can assure them that Sir John is not alone. There are many others who have adopted this practice, and found it highly beneficial. One individual, who had tried it for years, has the following spirited remarks on the subject.

‘Only think of the inconvenience attending the common practice! There must be hot water; to have this there must be a fire, and, in some cases, a fire for that purpose alone; to have these, there must be a servant, or you must light a fire yourself. For the want of these, the job is put off until a later hour: this causes a stripping and another dressing bout: or, you go in a slovenly state all that day, and the next day the thing must be done, or cleanliness must be abandoned altogether….How many a piece of important business has failed from a short delay! And how many thousand of such delays daily proceed from this unworthy cause!’

Another 19th century writer also advocated cold water shaving. In 1838′s Present to an Apprentice, Sir J. Bannard tells readers:

Always shave with cold water. Barbers use warm, because they have to accommodate themselves to the habits of those whom they shave. The use of cold water saves much time and trouble— tends to preserve the smoothness and beauty of the skin; and when you have accustomed your face to it, you will shave as easily with cold water as with warm.

In Cottager’s Monthly Visitor, a monthly magazine from 1822, the editor writes:

Do not lose time by waiting for hot water. Cold is better after you once get accustomed to it. Hot water makes the face delicate and tender, the very cause why shaving is a painful operation.

And finally, in a book called Shaving Made Easy, the author argues that the idea that a soft beard gives a better shave is a bunch of bunk and that hot water should be avoided:

A hair, as is well known, is a tube composed of a hard fibrous substance, growing from a bulb or root, which secretes an oily matter.
This oil works its way up through the hair, and by permeating all parts, renders the hair soft and pliable. Now in this natural oily condition, it is very difficult to cut the hair with a razor, and it becomes even more difficult if the beard be made still softer by the application of hot water. Many do this, and it is no wonder they find shaving difficult. When this is done, the hairs become soft and limp, and the razor will either slip over them entirely, or else cut partly into them, bend them back and shave them lengthwise, all the while pulling and straining them at the roots, and making the process of shaving most painful.

Why You Should Consider Shaving with Cold Water

The reasons for cold water shaving given by the above authors can be summed up in 4 points:

Saves time. Granted, getting hot water in the 1800s was time consuming and labor intensive. You had to gather wood, start a fire, and wait for the water to boil. Fast-forward to today and all you have to do is turn on a faucet. But even then, it can take a bit of time for the water to warm up. So on those days when you’re running late and every second counts, using cold water can shave some time off your routine.

Allows you to shave when hot water isn’t available. I think we’ve all had those moments when hot water just isn’t on tap: the heater breaks, your wife uses up all the hot water while showering, you’re fighting in the mountains of Afghanistan, or you’re traveling abroad and staying in a place without such luxuries. But when you have to be cleaned up and ready for work, inspections, or a date with an exotic local woman, you can’t skip out on shaving simply because you don’t have hot water.

Cold water gives a better shave. The argument here is that a soft beard is hard to shave, while a stiff beard is easier to cut. Hot water makes your beard soft; cold water keeps the whiskers stiff. Thus, cold water renders a better shave.

Cold water leaves the skin looking healthier. We’ve written about this in our post about the James Bond Shower. Hot water tends to dry out skin. If you want a nice looking mug, use cold water.

My Experience Shaving With Cold Water

I had to shave with cold water several times when I lived in Mexico. Sometimes I ran out of gas before the end of the month and was forced to bathe and shave with cold water (not fun in the winter time). That was over 5 years ago and ever since I got back to the States, I’ve been a strict hot water shaver. But after reading the old advice given above, I decided to experiment with a cold water shave.

After getting over the shock of using ice cold lather as opposed to a nice, warm, soothing one, I have to say the cold water shave wasn’t that bad. The experience wasn’t too much different from hot water shaving and was more invigorating, waking me up.

I did notice that my razor tugged on my whiskers a bit more than when I shave with hot water. But according to Shaving Made Easy that’s to be expected. Hot water softens whiskers, causing the blade to slip over them  instead of cutting them. With cold water, my whiskers remained stiff, thus allowing the blade to cut every single one. It’s like the poor man’s Lectric Shave.

The end result was a surprisingly close shave with just one pass, and my skin felt great. My face often feels puffy, irritated, and dry after shaving with hot water. Not so with the cold.

Will I convert completely to cold water shaving? Maybe. Old habits die hard, but the benefits might entice me to cross over. At the least, I know it’s a viable option when hot water just isn’t available.

For more experiences on cold water shaving, check out this thread at Straight Razor Place.

Do you shave with cold water? What’s your experience with it? Thinking about making the switch to cold water shaving? Drop us a line in the comment box!

{ 138 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Jonathan May 29, 2010 at 4:05 pm

Growing up, my grandfather always used cold water and said it was why his shave AND skin were so nice–even at 80+ years of age. Back then, I took his advice and began using cold water and also got a better shave. Time passed, I began using electrics, and the issue disappeared. That is, until recently. I picked up wet shaving again and used all the typical advice, but I wasn’t getting the quality of shave I believed I should. (Both in the past and now I used a double edge razor). But today, I decided to take up my late grandfather’s advise and, quite surprisingly, I got a better and more comfortable shave. At least, more comfortable once I was over the shock of splashing cold water on my face. Consequently, I decided to do a web search and see if any “experts” would conform the experience. Indeed, that is hard to find. Still, I know my personal experience and it is clear. For me, cold shaving is superior.

102 J. June 20, 2010 at 10:44 am

Hot water is a necessity when you’ve thick, coarse hair. Otherwise it pushes back up into the skin and creates razor bumps that won’t go away for months (not to mention razor burn). Cold water shaving only works if you are shaving downwards and don’t care about closeness, but keeping hair off for hygiene (like in war).

103 R.A. Stewart July 8, 2010 at 4:54 pm

I remember that Straight Razor Place thread. I didn’t try it then, but I may now.

@Sean March 31: “You should shave w/cold water only if you’re in the tropics.”

One reason I’m thinking of trying it now. For the next couple of months, the Midwest = the tropics, only without parrots and mangoes. Spending my shave time dashing cold water on my face might be refreshing.

@Scott Leak March 24: “Very little blood.”

Always an excellent criterion, I find.

And I’m a beard enthusiast, by the way, but mine’s a Van Dyke, so I do have to shave around it.

104 Matt H. July 11, 2010 at 7:21 pm

Since I do have somewhat sensitive skin, I have experimented with different razors and lathers over the years. I just took it for granted that one always shaves with hot water; I saw my dad do it, so it must be the way. But Brett’s article made me think about using cold water, and I have to say it has given me the best shave I have ever experienced. Not only do I not cut myself shaving, but there’s less of a tendency for a razor burn. I have since used hot water again while shaving in the shower, and inevitably found that I had razor burns again. I like the healthy sheen cold water shaving gives me. This has made a big believer out of me.

105 R.A. Stewart July 12, 2010 at 2:45 pm

Since men’s skin and beards vary so much, I won’t get evangelical about this, but I find I like the cold-water shave. I’ve done it for about four days now, and it’s either as good as or a little better than my hot-water shaves. I even get a decent lather out of my Williams soap, which I had feared would be the big problem.

And of course it’s a great time-saver not having to wake up the servants or start a fire.

106 Adam July 18, 2010 at 7:06 pm

I’ve been shaving with cold water since originally reading this article. I shower first. Then in the sink I use cold water with no shaving cream, shaving down first then sideways (toward the my nose). Works just fine. I get far fewer knicks, cuts, or ingrown hairs. I also don’t feel the need to use after-shave lotion to re-moisturize my face because the moisture stays in due to closed pores.

Overall, cold water shaving has proven to be better for my skin and my wallet (as I use far fewer supplies).

107 todd zalewski August 2, 2010 at 3:51 pm

I have to say that the AOM website offers great advice, but this has been awful advice in my case. I tried this cold water shaving and got MANY bad ingrown hairs from this technique. The idea of HOT water shaving is to SOFTEN the beard. A HARD beard hair will curl up after being cut( curl up into the skin- thus ingrown). A good sharp blade will give you a good shave, the water has no effect.

108 mark August 11, 2010 at 6:38 pm

My bathroom is not well ventilated and gets very hot in the summer. I didn’t want to add to the heat in the bathroom, so started using cold water for the shave. It’s great! A much closer shave and less sweating while doing so.

109 Pádraig McCarrick August 20, 2010 at 10:13 pm

I tried the cold water shave today after years of using nothing but piping hot water and oh my lord what a delicious and pleasing shave I had. I will be cold water shaving from now on.

Was telling the men down the ale house earlier. One had never used a hot water while the other had only tried a cold water the other day and agreed with my assessment. Who ever spread the rumor that hot water shaves were the way to go should be shot.

110 R September 22, 2012 at 9:16 pm

I started shaving with hot water since my teens. Never used electric razors much; something about running a blade against my face was so very satisfying. Started using Mach 3, then when I decided the cartridges were too expensive, used disposable 2 blade razors. Hated them, but they did well enough. Recently went to wet shaving with a DE razor, but I never really got the shave that I wanted. Had to go over a few spots several times, and ended up either nicking myself or giving myself razor burn. I read this article and decided to try a cold lather with cold blade. My skin felt better afterwards, but the shave itself was hardly what I’d hoped for. Next time around I tried a cold lather with hot blade and never looked back. The shave was closer, cleaner, and made my skin feel radiant. Never going back to a hot lather, but I think that a hot blade is a must.

111 Yakster October 3, 2012 at 5:44 pm

I used to have to shave on a moment’s notice with a disposable and cold water in a public restroom if I needed to make a service call at a refinery or oil platform, I never enjoyed that.

Now that I’ve switched to classic shaving with a brush and double-edged razors, I’ve tried cold shaves and I agree with the premise that your face doesn’t swell up and it’s easier to get a close shave, but for me cold water results in more razor clogs so I keep a basin of hot water to rinse the razor and avoid the clogs. I think that it’s probably the closer shave that you get with cold water that causes ingrown hairs, so if you’re prone to ingrown hairs it may not be for you. For me, I avoid too much hot water on the face to avoid swelling, the pre-shave oil and the lather are usually cool when applied.

112 Brian October 10, 2012 at 1:18 am

I believe cold water causes your blade to constrict and therefore have a sharper edge, giving a better, closer, shave.

113 Jason November 26, 2012 at 9:01 pm

I’ve gone from hot water to cold water to no water… with today’s 4 and 5 bladed razors I find I can get a really close, really quick shave shaving totally dry. It tugs a bit more, but actually irritates my skin less.

114 John L. December 17, 2012 at 10:29 am

I had some major doubts about cold water shaving. I used to shave in the shower with hot water and a Gillette Fusion razor and I had issues with ingrown hair on my neck. I took a leap of faith after reading the AOM article on shaving like your grandpa and bought a Merkur DE razor, brush, shaving cream, and my shaves drastically improved. My neck was still troublesome, though. I tried different blades. Some were better than others, but I still had neck irritation. I mastered the shaving technique, mapped the grain of my beard, minimized passes, etc. Finally, I combined everything in a cold shave and that was the final piece. I now get really great shaves. Cold water, cold lather, rinse the razor with hot water. No ingrown hairs, no cuts, perfectly smooth skin, no irritation. Thanks for all the helpful tips. I’ve found my perfect shaving combination.

115 Las Vegas Wally December 28, 2012 at 12:19 pm

Recently went retro and began using a double edge safety razor. Incredibly close shave on y face & head. After reading this article and VERY helpful comments I tried a cold water shave, rinsing the razor in hot water. In a word, “Fantastic!”

Thanks everyone.

116 bracey r c December 31, 2012 at 8:16 am

60 years old ,baby soft skin,why perhaps its cold showers each morning along with cold water wet shave.i use a gillêtte fusion and finish with natural almond oil from the pharmacie

117 Matt O. January 10, 2013 at 5:55 pm

I just recently got into wet-shaving. I too shaved with hot water initially as is prescribed by most wet-shaving experts. However, after reading this article, I decided to give it a shot. I must say that during winter it takes a lot of strength to splash that first handful of icy water on my face each morning. However, I learned to appreciate its effects almost immediately. I shave with Proraso’s eucalyptus shave cream; the cold water enhanced the product’s post-shave cooling effect–which really soothes my skin. I get pretty bad nicks and razor burns when I do a second pass against the grain, so I generally avoid doing so, and, therefore, the cold-water method does not irritate my skin whatsoever.

118 Sean March 16, 2013 at 8:11 pm

Been shaving with a straight razor for about 3 years now. While researching ways to reduce razor burn and get a closer shave, I came across Straight Razor Place and Badger & Blade. In one of their forums, I read that cold water might be the answer. I have shaved with cold water since and I love it.

119 Josh March 22, 2013 at 2:06 pm

A military man myself, I concur that having a close shave is almost as important to one’s first impression in the military as airborne wings on the chest or a combat patch on a sleeve (nothing stands out like someone who skipped a day shaving … a great way to piss off your NCO). That said, being in the military requires flexibility and I have not noticed a discernable difference between cold and hot shaving. The key is a clean, wet face and although hot water can make stubble more pliable, and result in less “pulling”, sometimes you just don’t have the time and resources. I will say that I prefer a hot shave for no other reason than I feel that it is easier to keep the blade clean while shaving. In any case, I ALWAYS splash cold water (and then alcohol-free witch hazel) on my face after a shave to soothe the pores and reduce inflamation. The best thing being a military DE shaver is that, while shaving with other fellas, I have taught many the benefits and methods of DE shaving. When you pull out a DE amongst the hordes of Gillette multi-blade users, it almost always starts a conversation!

120 James March 24, 2013 at 10:18 am

Back in my army days I also got to experience shaving on a 40-degree(F) morning using nothing but cold canteen water. But I would never choose to shave with cold-water if hot-water is readily available.

One reason for enforcing daily shaving in the military is that a beard (or even just too much stubble) will interfere with getting a gas mask to seal against your face. So it could be a life-or-death issue, I suppose.

121 Aaron Murray March 24, 2013 at 10:21 am

2 years ago I switched to shaving with a 1936 DE safety razor, with shaving soap and a badger fur brush. I read several documents, blogs and such about DE razor shaving and came accross an article saying that shaving with cold water is better for the skin than using hot water. So after adjusting to life with a DE razor I started experimenting with using cold water to shave, after 3-4 days it began to get easier and not cut my face up as much! but once your skin adjusts to using cold water it is a better shave than warm water. Although on cold winter days it is a chore. But its personal preference at the end of the day.

Aaron, 23, Coventry, UK

122 Stephen March 24, 2013 at 10:34 am

I must try this cold water shave, again. But I have to say that a good deal of this advice about shaving from the early 19th century is suspect. These guys did many untoward things we would not think of doing, today. I admit that in many ways we have degenerated since that time. But shaving is not one of those ways.

123 Bill March 24, 2013 at 10:37 am

Was in the service for 8 years and had to periodically shave with cold water or dry shave out in the field. Now that I don’t have to do that I don’t. Another reason we were told that we had to shave was to get a proper seal on your gas mask.

124 Kelly March 24, 2013 at 12:53 pm

In the Army Engineers it was explained that not only was to instill discipline, but practical as well. After all try getting a good tight seal on a gas mask with a beard. SCUBA divers know this as well. I shave both ways (yes I’m a bi shaver) but after reading this I think I might go cold a bit more.

125 Gilbert Henry March 24, 2013 at 1:48 pm

In the movie “Miller’s Crossing”, the character Johnny Caspar tells his driver that he should rinse his razor with cold water instead of hot water. He says that since metal contracts when it’s cold, you’ll get a closer shave. Maybe there’s something to it…

126 Jody March 24, 2013 at 1:59 pm

the summers here in Australia are pretty brutal, often the last thing you want on your face is a hot towel so I tend to go for a nice refreshing cool shave then, I guess I found I get less rash (I don’t get it in winter with a hot shave) but I put that down to like a heat rash more than anything, I never found it made a lot of difference to the quality of the shave.
The preparation of the razor, the quality of the soap, the technique, these all most assuredly make a difference, I guess a cool shave in summer (I keep a bottle of 4711 blood orange and basil in the fridge) and a hot shave in winter is the way to go for mine.
I’ve never been in the military, but I think if I were trudging through icy snow I’d think seriously about growing a beard for no other reason than as a windbreak.

127 Eli March 27, 2013 at 3:53 pm

I was having a big problem with razor burn on my neck. Switching to a safety razor and using no pressure, using a badger brush with cold water, and paying close attention to the direction of hair growth were the things that cleared up my skin. I have absolutely no issues with razor burn anymore. I actually enjoy a daily shave now!

128 bracet.r.c April 5, 2013 at 4:56 am

yes its me again,still cold shaving and showering.but i have found 2 sites that are worth your readers looking at http://www.theenglishshavingcompany.com and http://www.executive-shaving.co.uk i replaced almond oil from chemist for some edwin jagger balms and creams with some stylish razors and shaving brush……excellent items.hope this may be of some help to those who fancy a bit of luxury !!

129 Ken May 15, 2013 at 11:40 am

I tried cold water shave (with shaving soap/brush and Weishi safety razor) and I like it; have been using cold since this Jan. Occasionally on a saturday when I have time, I use the hot water-shave-rinse with cold water technique, but for daily routine, cold water works best for me.

My skin is sensitive to the sun and I have had several sun spots removed on my arms (I work outdoors; electrician) and so I also use the ‘James Bond’ shower technique in that I try just use warm water in shower (not hot), and to rinse with cool or cold water. So far this year it is working good; also helps keep hair manageable. Regarding the water heater, all this saves energy too – thanks!

130 Dr Rahul May 17, 2013 at 12:01 am

I neither use hot nor cold water. But after reading this article, I might give cold water a shot.

I actually have a theory – icy cold water acts as a vasoconstrictor and cuts off blood supply to the face. When the blood supply is cut off, the face is less likely to bleed from minor cuts, hence, get infected.

Furthermore, cold water also ablates conduction by depolarized axons, hence, has a numbing effect. So you are less likely to feel pain from razor burns, etc.

131 DrDick May 26, 2013 at 1:33 am

Gave up shaving before I retired Army MD due to medical reasons. Tried various ways to shave, but got a rash each time. Now I use clippers for head and face about once a month. Miss being clean shaved, but not the rash it gives me so.

132 Harry Solomon June 28, 2013 at 11:59 am

So, would it be beneficial to use hot water to open up pores and soften face hairs THEN use cold so it reduces rash afterward?

133 Tyler September 16, 2013 at 1:24 pm

I live in a dorm with a community bathroom, and the sinks in the bathroom I use rarely get hot water. I switched from an electric shaver to a wet DE razor only a couple months ago, so I’ve always just shaved with cold water. I haven’t noticed much difference during the few times when hot water was available, but maybe I’ll pay a bit more attention the next time I get the chance.

134 Samuel C Patterson October 24, 2013 at 3:23 pm

I always shave w/ cold water and its always a good shave

135 dw December 19, 2013 at 8:02 pm

I use hot water before I put the cream on. Then rinse the razor in cold as I shave. Cold rinse. Works great and keeps the skin nicer.

136 Dan February 7, 2014 at 12:28 am

I always use cold water to make my lather and cold water to shave with.

It reduces irritation for sure, and it lets me use less aftershave to sooth irritation which means I don’t end up “over-scented”, plus, and this might just be me, but I think it helps make a better lather.

If warm water softens your beard too much to shave well, it does the same to a brush, after all

137 Elliott February 12, 2014 at 8:42 pm

I’ve been shaving for a while with cold water, the other day I used hot water, because it was way too cold in my house. I am reporting that I had two unsightly razor bumps pop up, no matter how cold, i will keep my cold water shaving

138 Jared February 14, 2014 at 7:38 pm

I’ve been living in the South Pacific for the last year, and the house doesn’t have hot water: much like the article, it would take quite some time to warm water for a hot shave. As a consequence, cold shaving has been standard for me. I find, like others, there tends to be a bit more “pull” on the hairs, but the result is no less acceptable than a hot shave. I must admit a significant reduction in ingrown hairs now…Perhaps it’s the cold water.

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