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.
Listen to our podcast on the secrets of shaving: