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Shaving Cream, Gel, Oil, Soap: What’s the Difference?

Condition and protect the skin from that sharp razor, while keeping hairs soft and cooperative during the entire process.

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From start to finish, an effective shave regimen, asks you to customize each step as necessary: You have to pick the kind of razor that is best for your skin, as well as the aftershave that suits your sensitivities or the season itself.

You also need to pick the best shaving agent for your whiskers and skin. That is to say, will you choose shaving cream, gel, oil or soap?

But before you answer that, you need to know the difference between each option, and for whom they’re best suited. Some have overlapping characteristics, while others are much more unique and prescriptive. In the end, each of them sets out to do the same thing: To condition and protect the skin from that sharp razor, while keeping hairs soft and cooperative during the entire process, thereby minimizing friction and burn.

Here are the different types of shaving agents, along with a recommendation for each one — and followed by a prescriptive list for different skin types. It’s important to remember, however, that much of this nomenclature has blurred over the years. For example, it was long known that shave foams can be drying to skin, but now many foams are specifically targeted at dry or sensitive skin. So, it’s always best to read product descriptions and ingredients before picking the best shaving agent for you.

Brushless shaving cream

Any cream in a non-aerosol (non-foaming) container and that is not designed for use with a shaving brush. Light and creamy in texture (hence the name), and a similar texture to lotion, or even guacamole. It should build a thin white lather over the skin. Of late, brushless cream is the most common shaving agent for anyone shopping above an entry-level product. (Like those chemical-packed $3 shave creams at the drugstore.)

Shave Cream by Shiseido Men $26

Lather shaving cream

A term reserved for the creamy product that can be loaded into shave brushes, and then lathered on the face. This is done in circular motions so as to lift the hairs and coat the skin in a fluffy lather. It’s often thicker on first contact than brushless cream, making it easy to load into the brush. This is a favorite of shaving traditionalists, and guys who like to give their whiskers a little extra lift before takeoff.

Unscented Shaving Cream by The Art of Shaving $24

Foam shaving cream

Shave cream that comes in an aerosol can, and builds into a foam as it is released. The lightweight foam lathers easily and plentifully in palms. We recommend shopping above the dimestore price point on foams, or you might end up with an overly drying product. Use it sparingly — a little goes a long way, and you don’t want to drown your face past the point of being able to safely track the blade as it shaves.

Shave Foam by American Crew $10

Shaving gel

A shave gel should lather more easily than brushless creams. And gels typically protect the skin more than cream, in that they are extra lubricating and create a fuller lather. (Many gel users will skip the pre-shave oil application.) That doesn’t make gel superior for everyone, as the lightness of cream is often preferred when navigating with a sharp razor over the skin. Some gels are clear, however, which makes navigation simple.

Clear Shave Gel by Recipe for Men $19

Shaving oil

The lightest layer you can give your skin, this lubricant also doubles as a pre-shave primer for guys who prefer shave creams. (Used together, it’s the best way to prevent razor glide and burn.) It’s great for guys who prefer to see the hair as they shave, and who aren’t prone to breakouts. Unless your skin is ultra-resilient, we’d suggest using a cream in tandem with this shave oil or using a gel (with or without oil). Regardless, pick an oil with nourishing ingredients like jojoba, argan and aloe.

Shave Oil by Brickell $27

Shaving soap

A DIY lather of sorts, shave soap is basically a soap-like brick upon which you rub your shave brush. By then swirling the brush around a slightly damp bowl, you build a lather fit for your face. The soap should last longer than most bottles of cream — plus it’s spill-proof in transit. This one is great for traditionalists and is popular in barbershops more than homes. But it makes for a fun regimen in your own bathroom and promises to give one of the healthiest, most nourishing shaves.

Musgo Real Shave Soap by Claus Porto $22

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