How to Create a Barbershop Hot Towel at Home

by Brett on March 12, 2013 · 50 comments

in Dress & Grooming, Shaving

vintagehottowel

One of the best parts of a barbershop straight razor shave are the copious amounts of hot towels the barber presses on your face. It’s so stinking relaxing. There’s also a practical reason for this classic ritual: the heat from the towel softens up your beard so the barber can give you a nice, close, comfortable shave.

Unfortunately, it will be awhile before I experience the pleasure of a hot towel shave at a barbershop again. My old barber retired and took with him his amazing antique, gas-powered hot towel warmer! While I’m looking for a new barber who offers hot towel shaves here in Tulsa, I’ve decided to re-create the experience in the comforts of my own home. It’s a great addition to my pre-shave routine on mornings when I have a little extra time. Below I show you how it’s done.

Step 1: Get a Towel/Washcloth

towel

You don’t need anything fancy. Any old bathroom hand towel or washcloth will do. I prefer washcloths because they’re just the right size for your face.

Step 2: Pick Your Essential Oil

essentials

Many barbers add essential oils to their towels before steaming them in order to make the towels even more relaxing. Three traditional and relaxing barbershop scents are lavender, eucalyptus, and sandalwood. You can buy vials of essential oil at many health foods stores; prices vary depending on the scent (sandalwood is crazy expensive).

For a eucalyptus-scented hot towel that also packs the punch of invigorating menthol, you can improvise (and save money) by using some Vicks VapoRub. A Vicks hot towel not only softens up your beard and makes your skin feel great, but it acts as an nasal decongestant when you’ve got a cold. My sinuses cleared right up after applying my Vicks-imbued hot towel to my face.

Step 3: Apply Essential Oil to Dry Towel

applyingvicks

Whatever essential oil you go with, apply it to your towel while it’s dry. If you’re going with the cool, refreshing menthol experience from the Vicks VapoRub, just spread a small, thin layer of the goop around the center of your towel. You don’t need too much. This stuff packs a powerful punch when heated up!

lavendar

If you’re using an essential oil like lavender or sandalwood, just apply a few drops on your washcloth, like so.

Step 4: Heat Up Towel

Now it’s time to turn our hot towel into a hot towel. There are three methods you can use to get your towel steaming.

Hot Water from Faucet

faucet

The most obvious way to heat up your towel is to simply run it under the hot water from the faucet of your bathroom sink. While I was able to get a piping hot towel by doing this, this method does come with some drawbacks. First, if your wife used up all the hot water in the shower so she could shave her legs, you’re going to have to wait a bit while your water heater does some more work. Second, depending on what temperature you have your water heater set at, you might not be able to get hot enough water for the full hot towel effect. Finally, even if you have plenty of hot water in your water heater, it may take a bit for the hot water to arrive. I had to wait a good minute for the water to start running really hot.

Nuke a Damp Towel

microwave1

A faster and more sure way to heat up your towel is to simply nuke it in the microwave. Run your towel under the kitchen faucet, then wring it out so that it’s just slightly damp. Throw it in a Pyrex dish or on a plate and microwave for 30 seconds. Presto. A super hot towel, super fast. Sure, you’ll have to apply your hot towel in the kitchen and then walk back to the bathroom to shave, but if you consider that an inconvenience, you need to be kicked in the head by a Brontomerus.

Pour Hot Water from Teapot

teapot

Two for one: a hot towel and a cup of tea or coffee to start off your day.

Kill two birds with one stone with this method. Boil up some water in your teapot for your morning tea or French press coffee. While your tea or coffee is steeping, place your prepped dry towel in a dish or bowl and pour hot water on it. Make sure the entire towel gets wet. Wring out the towel. Be careful! The water and towel are going to be really hot using this method. You might wait a few minutes for the water to cool off before you handle it.

superhot

The teapot method creates a super hot towel. Be careful when wringing it out.

Apply to Face. Enjoy.

face

Ahhhh….homemade barbershop hot towel.

Apply your hot towel to your face and just hold it there for a few seconds. Bask in the soothing heat while your whiskers soften up. When I start to feel my towel cool down, I’ll rub my whiskers in the opposite direction  of their growth, lifting the hair from my skin so I can get a closer shave. When your hot towel is no longer hot, remove and follow your regular shaving routine.

Start your day off on a relaxed foot and enjoy.

{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Gabe March 12, 2013 at 5:46 pm

I have been doing the nuking thing for a while and it workd great, but I have never added the oil. This is a very good idea that I will definitely try.

2 LG March 12, 2013 at 6:13 pm

ACK!!

NEVER heat up Vicks and put it on your skin! If you want that burst of menthol, put the Vicks on the side of the towel facing AWAY from your face. Take it from someone who, immediately after applying Vicks for a chest cold, jumped into the shower — it felt like someone dumping boiling water on my chest, and my skin was painful and red and inflamed for the rest of the day. You definitely DO NOT want that on your face.

3 Will March 12, 2013 at 7:04 pm

Back in the mid-80s to early 90s, I worked at 2 Park Ave in Manhattan. In the lobby of the building was Johnny’s Park Avenue Barber Shop. It was one of the best barber shops I’ve ever frequented. But probably the pinnacle of each visit was when the barber would scrape the back of your neck with a straight razor (hot lather first, of course) and then take a hot towel out of one of those old-fashioned spherical hot-towel machines. What a treat.

4 Brett McKay March 12, 2013 at 7:31 pm

@LG/Cathy-

Sorry to hear of your VapoRub gone wrong incident. However, there is a big difference between applying the amount of VapoRub one would rub on their chest and then immediately dousing it with hot water, and rubbing just a small amount of it on a washcloth, soaking the cloth with water, and applying it to one’s face. I assure you I have done the latter several times without ill effects. But as I said in the post, yes, just a dab will do ya!

5 David March 12, 2013 at 7:50 pm

Would pre-shave oil work for this purpose?

6 Mike March 12, 2013 at 7:58 pm

Man, I’m just running out of time to enjoy these rituals. I love my DE safety razor shave every day…but this may be a special “day off” routine before I go run my errands for the day. Thanks for the post!

7 David W. March 12, 2013 at 8:24 pm

Great post. The first time I had a barbershop straight razor shave, the hot towel was almost my favorite part. One really cool thing the barber did was after he removed the hot towel and shaved my face he took the towel and shook it two or three hard times as if he were a bull fighter. Then he threw it into the air two or three times and spun it almost like it was a pizza crust. Then he wiped the remaining shaving cream off and applied the towel to my face again. The shaking and spinning of the towel in the air caused all of the heat to dissipate and the hot towel that softened my beard a few moments before was now almost ice cold. It was very refreshing and it is supposed to tighten the pores back up after the shave to help prevent ingrown hairs and irritation.

8 Steve March 12, 2013 at 8:48 pm

Would Proraso pre/post shave cream do the trick? Pretty sure they put a shit-ton of Menthol and such in it.
My gut tells me it’d do a sterling job.

Didn’t know about adding stuff to the towel. Thanks for the tip.

9 James March 12, 2013 at 9:15 pm

I use the tea pot method for a couple of things. I pour the water into an oversized coffee cup that my shaving soap bowl fits into. That keeps the soap hot. Then I use the water to heat my towel. I’ll have to try the Vicks thing. I got in a hurry yesterday and didnt use a hot towel or hot soap. That sucked. Then I went to fast and ended up looking like a rookie with a saftey razor

10 Robb March 12, 2013 at 9:21 pm

I switched to cold shaving based on advise from this site a year ago. I have tough whiskers and sensitive skin. I was afraid I would be a bloody mess the first time I tried it. Boy was I wrong! I don’t think I will ever go back to hot shaving. The cold tightens the skin and hardens the whiskers. There is no stretch or pull. They just slice right off. I highly recommend it!

11 Chris March 12, 2013 at 10:39 pm

My grandpa used Noxzema to wash his face and as a shaving cream to shave with. It also has a nice menthol feel and great moisturizer. I bet it would also be a great pretreatment before adding a hot towel.

12 JBu92 March 12, 2013 at 10:47 pm

Another tip I picked up I-recall-not-where on this topic that I didn’t see listed here-
WRING OUT THE TOWEL!
Water will scald you (especially if you nuke it or get it out of a kettle), but if you wring it out, most of the liquid (piping-hot) water will be trapped in the fibers of the towel, and the steam will hit your face.

13 Damian March 13, 2013 at 12:01 am

@Brett

“@LG/Cathy”

Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed harder at an indication of comment direction before. Kudos, Brett.

14 David March 13, 2013 at 2:31 am

Any downsides to using hot towels for head shaving? Trying to figure out some way of avoiding irritation while shaving my head, I normally do it in the shower which helps some.

15 Cody D. March 13, 2013 at 7:57 am

I start out most of my wet shaves with a hot towel that I bring up to temperature with my trusty clothes steamer. For anyone that doesn’t have a steamer, I highly recommend it. For around $50 you can get a machine to assist in a lifetime of well-pressed clothes and great shaves!

16 Matt March 13, 2013 at 7:58 am

David,

As a fellow head-shaver I think I can help;

If you are getting irritation then you aren’t using either the right shaving lubricant or you aren’t using enough.

While AoM frequently recommends using the soap/brush method, for shaving the head this is entirely inadequate. Most of your modern gel-style shave creams are not all that much better.

I STRONGLY recommend a really good creamy shaving cream such as good old Barbasol brand. (This is what I use) I actually get the Aloe version as it helps soften my skin and lessens irritation. there is also a “Sensitive Skin” version with even more lubricant in the foam making it super-thick and creamy. Great for shaving the head! (Note; I am not a Barbasol employee nor am I affiliated with them in any way. I just like thier products.)

Additionally, use a good sharp razor. A straight razor is probably not a good idea unless you are highly experienced and skilled. Scalp skin is much thinner than face skin and much more likely to get cut. Not to mention you are shaving in a rather awkward position, and are more likely to slip. I really do recommend a modern multi-blade razor. Just be sure to get one with an OPEN back. (You should be able to see the backs of the blades when you look at the rear of the shave head.) This will allow the copious amounts of head stubble to push out the back of the shave head where they can more easily be rinsed away. Closed-back razors clog easily and then are useless.

The hot towel should also help, particularly if you have just some stubble up there as I do when I shave my head. I would recommend avoiding the vicks option though. Even in tiny amounts, a mentholated scalp is not comfortable.

Hope that helps!

17 Terry March 13, 2013 at 9:57 am

I also went to cold shaving based on an article on this site, waaaay better than using this method. Sure this feels amazing, but cold shaving is way better for sensitive skin and helps wake you up in the morning! Cold shave with Art of Shaving Sandlewood shaving cream is the way to go! Have not had any bumps, rashes or ingrowns since I started with this method using cold water.

18 Jeff March 13, 2013 at 10:35 am

Thanks for a nice guide! I’m using a pre-shave towel that helps to open up the pores and clean the face. I couldn’t find the exact one as I bought it directly from a small barber shop in London. However, this one http://unioncy.com/products/19628 comes close

19 Fredo March 13, 2013 at 1:22 pm

I just had a straight razor shave at Raw Elements in Tulsa, OK. All I can say is, I don’t know why I am not doing this weekly! Everything was perfect and relaxing.

20 BBS March 13, 2013 at 1:31 pm

Would it be best to apply the hot towel before or after washing one’s face with soap and water? Thanks.

21 Bradley Turner March 13, 2013 at 1:47 pm

Great write up! I used to have terrible shaves when I started wet shaving and then I discovered the hot towel shave and it solved all my problems. I have found that washcloths are too small to wrap round my face properly so I bought two brand new bar towels (with the names of my favourite ales on them) and now use those to soak my face. They are the same width as a wash cloth but twice the length.

22 Waykno March 13, 2013 at 2:07 pm

I live in the Tulsa area also and 2 of my good friends are barbers. Both have given up shaves (save for one customer) and one has quit shampoos. I’ve told them they are giving up revenue but they are in their 60s and to them, I suppose, it isn’t worth it. One of them has a customer who flies from Dallas to get a haircut and shave. He is the only shave customer for him. They did an article in the World (paper) on them with pics, too. Great article.

23 Steven P March 13, 2013 at 4:08 pm

I can honestly say I would never microwave a towel. Hot tea kettle water will do just fine! Or even stick it in the shower, I did that just a week ago after my shower.

24 Jason B March 13, 2013 at 10:56 pm

I’ve actually tried warming a bunch of towels in a small crock pot. Just get them sopping wet, roll up, and place in a crock pot on warm or low and keep in the bathroom. After a while you have a small (maybe 6) supply of hot towels. Just wring out excess water and you can have multiple hot towels like some barbers use for shaves. As a word of advice, don’t use the wife’s good crock pot. She gets a little upset about that, just trust me…

25 Nick P. March 14, 2013 at 1:21 am

I have always nuked the towel and found that to work well. I have also sprayed a little cologne on after the hot water but before putting it in the microwave. It gives a nice soothing experience.

26 John March 14, 2013 at 2:47 am

I get haircuts in Tulsa on the southwest corner of admiral and memorial, in that half empty strip mall. I’ve never had a shave there, but when he cuts my hair, he always gets right above my ears with a straight razor and warm lather and towel. I would assume from that he’ll also do shaves.

27 Rks1157 March 14, 2013 at 11:30 am

I shave my head almost daily and I’ve used the hot tap method for some time now. I apply the towel and let it set while I prepare the lather. The trouble is that it cools too quickly.

28 Robert March 14, 2013 at 2:56 pm

This is something that I LOVE too! My Barber in Michigan would shave me and when I moved to Nashville I found one to shave also. Now I live too far from him to go. I bought a straight razor to continue this myself, but my wife balked at the straight razor. She’s an Esthetician and she does the hot towels, but uses a Gillette Mach 2 on me and goes back over it wet. Just about as close as straigh razor, but safer for me :) It’s just as relaxing, more so with my wife doing it. (Especially if she’s in the buff)

29 Greg March 14, 2013 at 7:43 pm

Hello every one.
Does anyone knows if it would work using tiger balm? I’ve purchased a few jars of it during my trip to thailand last year and was just wondering if I could use it the same way as the Vicks on a towel.

Greg

30 L. Tomlin March 14, 2013 at 8:49 pm

I’ve been doing this for the past couple of months each morning at five a.m. and have found it to be a great way to start the day off. I went to a local discount clothing store and found the bar mop towels. They ran me about a dollar a piece and are just right for hot towel shaving. Very economical way to give this a shot.
I take the towel, wet it, wring it, and put it in a large Ziplock freezer bag. I then toss that into the microwave for 45 seconds without zipping the bag closed. By the time I carry that back to the bathroom it is good and steamy. I have to wave it about a little while to release some of the steam. Once that is done, I pop it on my face, tilt my head back, and soak up that luxury for a couple of minutes.
Then it is on to my shave routine of pre oil, lather of the day, 59 Fatboy with a Feather blade, and a nice aftershave.
Then I grind a few coffee beans and brew up some strong Italian roast coffee. No better way to start a day off. Wish I had started this routine 25 years ago.

31 James March 15, 2013 at 7:04 pm

I live just outside Monroe Louisiana. There aren’t any real barbers and the barbers that are here wont shave faces. Just your head. Makes no sense to me

32 Chris March 16, 2013 at 9:05 pm

I have always just run hot water from my faucet, but my towel always seems to cool down too fast. I may just be enjoying it so much that I loose track of time, but I’m going to try nuking it. I can’t wait to unpack all of my shaving supplies!

33 James March 17, 2013 at 6:54 pm

@Brett McKay, thanks for the tip about putting Vicks on a hot towel. My face feels refreshed and clean. I did it tonight just to try it but I feel so good after doing it that ill shave in the morning too. I usually shower and shave at night because we have 1 bath and 3 people. I guess I’ll have to start getting up earlier because I want to start the day with that fresh face feel. Thanks alot Brett. Keep up the good work

34 Hersh March 18, 2013 at 11:42 am

After the hot towel, a great and inexpensive shaving cream is Noxema or the local drug chain version. It contains all the essential oils mentioned in your great article and can either be washed off afterward or not… in which case it acts as an after shave cream. A $3 jar lasts 7 or 8 months… don’t let the low per shave cost fool you… it’s great.

35 tony March 18, 2013 at 3:57 pm

a tulsa guy here who is SUPER BUMMED to hear that your awesome barber retired! i’d been meaning to go get a shave & haircut over there for a while but never made it.

please update if/when you find someone new! i’ve never had a real barbershop experience.

36 myklclark March 19, 2013 at 3:38 pm

I’ve used the nuke option on the past two straight razor shaves and I love it so far. I’ll put a drop or two of eucalyptus oil on it, nuke it for 15 seconds and then apply to head prior to my head shave, then repeat for my face (doesn’t need new oil) before the face shave. One thing I do differently is after I’ve treated my face I throw it in the fridge while I’m shaving. When I’m done shaving I then apply the cold towel for a few seconds before using aftershave.

37 James March 20, 2013 at 12:38 pm

I love this site. I’ve been trying to think of a good way to recreate the hot towel experience as I’ve recently started straight razor shaving. Perfect post. Thanks!

38 gordon eight April 13, 2013 at 4:56 am

tried this technique today – feels great, and makes a big improvement in how my skin felt afterwards… the addition of the essential oils made all the difference – i went for eucalyptus and cedarwood, both from my local healthfood shop.

39 Wacky jackie June 25, 2013 at 9:51 am

I got my bf a luxury shave voucher at pall mall barbers for fathers day and he thoroughly enjoyed. Great present idea :)

40 Dean Vaccaro June 25, 2013 at 9:43 pm

Best Steam Towel — I use a metal “vegetable steamer” in a covered pot with a little water. I first put the hand towel (a good, thick, high-quality cotton towel holds more heat!) under a little hot water (not much) and wring it out. I fold it and roll it up and put it on the steamer and cover the pot of boiling water on the stove and put it on low, covered for 10-15 minutes while I do other things. PERFECT STEAMED TOWEL!!!!!!!!

41 Harry Solomon June 26, 2013 at 6:24 pm

That sounds so nice! Since I save so much time shaving in the morning usual traditional razors, I can use my spare for a hot towel. Hello, tomorrow morning!

42 Rolando August 6, 2013 at 1:56 am

You can also just buy a Towel Warmer. They’re not that expensive: http://j.mp/1907dUI

43 Kyle August 14, 2013 at 8:21 pm

One can also use a steam iron to heat up the towel. You can even steam an entire bath towel and place it in one of those hot/cold insulated tote bags prior to a shower.

44 Jason August 21, 2013 at 12:49 am

Good old school barber shop in Tulsa. I go for Razors Edge on rt 66.

45 Ryan October 14, 2013 at 10:22 am

Wouldn’t it make a bit more sense to use a food steamer set instead of a hot water kettle?

46 Byron Norris January 6, 2014 at 4:43 pm

I used the wash cloth wet in a zip lock bag for @ 40 sec. The towel is so hot that it allows me time to return to the bathroom wash up and prepare to shave and then the towel is just the correct temperature. I love this for the shaving ritual.

47 Bannef January 10, 2014 at 9:49 pm

This is excellent for gentlemen with acne and/or dry skin as well, as a lady in your life might tell you (a lot of spas use this method). If you have acne you might want to add a drop of tea tree oil to your towel, along with some other oil you think smells nice (tea tree oil isn’t the most relaxing smell, in my mind).

48 Michael Parker January 16, 2014 at 5:56 am

I’ve always wanted to get the full experience of a traditional shave, but the hot towel part was always missing for me, I never quite knew how to dampen the towel and get it warm enough.
I always just ended up repeatedly splashing hot water on my face. There are some great suggestions in the comments, I especially like Dean Varacco’s vegetable steamer suggestions.

To make my own contribution, instead of VapoRub or the lavender essential oils, I know of a Billy Jealousy product which appears to be designed specifically to treat hot towels – http://www.traditionalshaving.co.uk/pre-shave-treatments/5325533-billy-jealousy-hot-towel-pre-shave-treatment.html – I imagine you can pick it up from any stockists of Billy Jealousy stuff.

49 Jason Matthews January 19, 2014 at 6:06 pm

Wow im new to traditional wet shaving and when i tried this i was amazed. So very relaxing but not as relaxing as the towels at the barbershop.

50 Alex March 19, 2014 at 5:23 pm

I use a small rice cooker. Add the moist towel and turn it on before I shower. After shower it’s ready. Remove with tongs and poly before shave. Sensational. And as close to “barbershop” hot as I have been able to get.

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